By David Morrill
Looking around the Manhattan bar and grill where he worked in 1989, Freddy Vasquez told himself it was the kind of place he wanted to own one day. “It had three floors, which meant you could have different activities going on with their own private spaces,” he says. “It had a comfortable, classy feeling that I really liked.”
Vasquez, who grew up in Cuenca’s El Vado neighborhood, followed his parents to the U.S. as a teenager, working first in New York City restaurants and bars before moving to Dallas, where his parents and several cousins had settled.
“My cousins had gotten involved the jewelry-making business and I more or less followed them into the trade,” says Vasquez. He took to it so well that it turned into a 25-year career, in which he became a master designer and stone-setter.
Although he loved the jewelry craft, the idea of having his own bar and grill was always in the back of his mind. “My problem was that I wasn’t sure where it would be,” he said. “Dallas was the obvious choice since I had lived there for so long and my family was there. On the other hand, my heart never really left Cuenca. I love the setting here — the mountains, the rivers, and the weather — it’s part of my heritage that I can’t get out of my system.”
During his career as a jeweler, Freddy returned once a year to Cuenca. “It was always like coming home, something I had to do,” he says. He grew up in a Cuenca vastly different than the one expats, tourists, and young Ecuadorians see today. Otorongo Plaza, close to his home, was a dusty, gritty field where merchants sold charcoal for cooking. The adjacent, poorly channeled Tomebamba River was known as the Julian Matadero because of the large number of grazing cattle that were swept away and drowned when the river overflowed its banks during rainy weather.
In 2013, Freddy decided to come home for good. “I was ready to turn the page from the jewelry business and Dallas. I realized that I wanted to live in Cuenca and have my business here. I liked the changes I was seeing, including the growing number of tourists and foreign residents.”
He was on the verge of buying a building on the corner of Jaramillo and Malo in the historic district — the old Café Austria location — when he discovered, by chance, a large property on Calle Larga, at the corner of Vargas Machuca. “I liked it the first time I saw it and even more the second time when I took a closer look. It was big and had the different spaces I was looking for, including an enclosed area for parking and outdoor parities.”
There was one catch however. The property needed work — and lots of it.
“Part of the building was historic so I had to go through the process of getting permissions from the city to fix it and make changes, and let me tell you, that’s not easy,” says Vasquez. “The rest of the building was in bad condition and we had to remove an old structure that was falling down where the parking is now. Of course, all the electric and plumbing had to be replaced.” From start to finish, the project took two-and-a-half years.
During the renovation, Vasquez summoned his design skills to produce custom-made chandeliers, wrought iron railings, and other accent elements that helped maintain the property’s historic integrity.
Now that the project is complete, Vasquez feels better than ever about his choice of property and the location. “This is a developing area that will continue to get more popular,” he said, pointing out the Cuban Galeria Condé on the block to the west and Miguel Illescas’s gallery two blocks to the west.” In addition, he says, there are plans for new restaurants nearby.
The finished Santa Canela is even more multi-faceted than the Manhattan bar of Vasquez’s dreams. In addition to a restaurant and bar, it includes a seven-room hostal and basement room, complete with bar, that can be used for private events, such as art showings and sales, parties, and literary readings.
On the Calle Larga street-front, Vasquez has rented out commercial spaces to a Panama hat exporter and an art gallery but decided to keep one space for himself. “We needed a liquor store in the neighborhood so I opened one,” he said. He adds: “It’s also convenient for keeping the bar stocked.”
The upstairs barroom is easily the largest, most impressive in Cuenca. Big south-facing windows provide stunning city and mountain views, and there’s even a small outside balcony overhanging Calle Larga, just wide enough for a table for two. In addition to the expansive custom-made bar, there are a dozen tables and five booths where customers can order meals as well as drinks. The barroom floor can be cleared for musical performances and dances, which Vasquez plans to add.
Freddy spared no expense stocking the bar, which includes high-end imported brands as well as local labels. There’s even bottles of Dom Perignon for big-spenders with a need to celebrate.
The downstairs grill serves a $5 almuerzo and dinners, emphasizing seafood, that run $8 to $9. Vazquez says the menu, which includes standards such as hamburgers and enchaladas, is still being finessed. “We’re learning from our clientele, their preferences for such things as seasonings and sauces, and adjusting our dishes as we go,” he says.
In addition to the seven hostal rooms, there’s a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment for visitors who need longer-stay accommodations.
“My overall goal is create an environment that is causal but sophisticated,” says Vasquez. “I want couples to feel comfortable dressing up to come here but I also want to keep things laid back.” He adds: “I’m interested in developing a clientele with international tastes, whether they’re Cuencanos, tourists or expats.”
For those interested in an introduction to Santa Canela, Vasquez is throwing a traditional Cuenca New Year’s Eve party on Saturday. The action begins in the parking lot at three and moves street-side after dark. There will be music, games, dancing, a best-costume contest, special gifts and, of course, the obligatory burning of the monigote dummy at midnight. There will be plenty of fast food, beer, wine and cocktails available.
Santa Canela, Calle Larga 3-82 at Vargas Machuca; Phone 099 726 9237; Bar phone 282 5922; the grill is open daily from 10 a.m. to p.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the bar is open Wednesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. till midnight, Friday and Saturday, noon till 2 a.m.