HAYWARD -- At one time, the line of people waiting to get into La Imperial would stretch down the block. But business has fallen off at the restaurant, which will close in December, ending 40 years as "the home of the super burrito."
The Gilbert family, which runs the Mexican restaurant, had talked about closing for some time, said Martin Gilbert. Like many local eateries, the restaurant has been hit hard by the economic downturn.
"Business isn't what it used to be," he said. But they kept it open for the sake of his mother, Maria Gilbert, who founded La Imperial in 1972. "This was my mother's life blood, and she loved it."
Maria Gilbert's death in June was a big factor in the decision, her son said. "We'd rather close now on our terms rather than be forced to later," he said.
Since the family announced the closing on Facebook, there has been an outpouring of support.
"When I heard the news, I was devastated," said John Lyell of San Leandro, who called the food "awesome. ... My wife went in and had to tell everyone, 'You made a grown man cry.'"
Lyell said his family has been going to La Imperial since the 1970s. "It's my daughters' favorite restaurant, it's my parents' favorite restaurant and it feels like family," he said. "I consider everybody there part of my extended family."
The family decided to let community know of the impending closure in advance so that people could say their goodbyes.
"We don't want to just put a 'closed' sign on the door. We have a very loyal customer base, and we consider them more like family than customers," said Gilbert, who was 11 months old when La Imperial opened.
They didn't want to repeat what happened when Banchero's, another longtime Hayward restaurant, shut its door this past summer, he said. "A lot of Banchero's customers are our customers. They were upset they didn't have a chance to make a final visit," he said.
Fans have been lamenting the end of La Imperial both on Facebook and at the restaurant. "There have been a lot of tears," Gilbert said.
Cpl. Joseph Silveria returned this past weekend from a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan, and headed to La Imperial as soon as he could. "This breaks my heart," he said of learning of the closure when he stopped for lunch Tuesday with his fiancee, Rebecca Ponce, who introduced him to the restaurant about six years ago. "I've made it a mission to get here every time I've had time off from the Marine Corps."
Though La Imperial became an important part of her life, Maria Gilbert did not set out to open a restaurant. La Imperial was originally a grocery store, but that began to change when a man staying at nearby Green Shutter Hotel stopped by. He smelled the food Gilbert was cooking for her husband in a kitchen in the back.
"He said he hadn't had a home-cooked meal in quite awhile and offered to pay for a serving" of what she was cooking, Martin Gilbert said.
The next day, others joined him for one of Gilbert's meals. And the food's popularity began spreading by word-of-mouth.
For awhile, there was a takeout window in the back of the store. As demand for Gilbert's food grew, the store got smaller and the restaurant larger, to its current 134-capacity seating.
In the late 1970s and through the '80s, the restaurant was a local hot spot.
"La is the best place in the world," said Mitch Pritchard of New York, who was a regular customer while he was growing up in Hayward. "I go there every time I'm home.
"It was not just a restaurant; it was a meeting place," he said.
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.