Monteleone's feature

A Spirited Family Dinner in a Haunted Restaurant

Featured Travel
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A walk to the bathrooms at Monteleone’s Ristorante in El Paso may take you past a few shady characters, or perhaps a ghost or two. All images: Rick Tate

Last week, our family enjoyed a happily haunted experience at a local restaurant to help kick off a spirited October.

Our original plans were to hit a new carnival-themed burger place, called Wrap and Roll Cafe, that feels like walking through a retro amusement area with vintage ride vehicles, movie props, and dining booths made from roller coaster cars.

One reason we wanted to see it was because it was the second establishment from a popular El Paso restaurateur named Gary Monteleone. A former El Paso banker, Monteleone left El Paso to pursue a dream of designing Hollywood sets. Even without experience in the field, his natural talent and persistence landed him a chance to design a prop for Universal Studios in Hollywood, where he spent six years working on sets for television shows and movies, including the series Coach and Back to the Future II.

After returning to El Paso, he continued building new worlds by incorporating his set and prop building skills into the restaurant business.

However, since the opening of this newest venue was just announced on a local news station, everyone else wanted to see it as much as we did, and they were completely booked up when we got there. They did let us look around and take some photos all we wanted, but also let us know the “speakeasy” was wide open for the night if we wanted to eat there.

This “speakeasy,” Monteleone’s first restaurant, is just around the corner and has been around for about 18 years. Built in a former home, the entrance resembles the grill of a giant circa 1920s car, with a large, raised mural of an old school gangster on the side. The dining areas are set up to look like a city alleyway in “Little Italy,” with clothes drying overhead, flickering street lights, and a “night sky” ceiling. I told the girls the other dining spaces resembled some streetwise films including as Scarface and The Godfather, neither of which they have seen, but they liked the idea of sitting in an area that feels like being in another world.

Frankie, Sammy, and Dean from the Rat Pack watch over guests in Monteleone’s “Little Italy” dining area.

Facebook followers can even find a “secret word of the day” posted for free appetizers, desserts, or other bonuses for knowing what to say to whom.

We were just as happy eating there, as we hadn’t been to the restaurant since our oldest was barely two. We wanted to show the girls it was as cool on the inside as it is on the outside.

It had grown quite a bit since we were last there. The Little Italy area was still pretty much the same, as well as the Scarface Miami space, but the Godfather room we remember had been modified to more of a James Bond casino. The biggest change for us was it was much bigger. Instead of one small bathroom in the back, there was a long, cavernous dimly lit walkway to get to two larger bathrooms. On the way to them, guests can peek in a window to witness what looks like an illicit roulette game taking place. It reminded me of the cool Old West or Roaring ’20s displays I would see at Knott’s Berry Farm in California as a kid.

If you turn the corner the other way, there is another dark section of the restaurant and saloon. No one was in there, but something about it felt, well, unsettling. A large dragon head, which turned out to be an actual prop from an early James Bond movie, stares you down, and hidden in the darkness is a large skeletal display that was near impossible to get a good picture of with my husband’s smartphone.

Then I remembered something I read in a review; this restaurant is haunted.

It wasn’t until we left that we noticed the painting on the outside wall that read: “As seen on Syfy.” I’m glad we didn’t notice it beforehand, as it made the experience all the more unexpected.

The waitress shared her knowledge; there are around five ghosts haunting the restaurant now, but only one really causes problems.

His name is “Thomas” and he’s the troublemaker. We kept a sharp eye out for Thomas to try and pull something while we were there, but he never did, of course.

When she mentioned the Syfy network visit, we broke a “no phones at the dinner table rule” for my husband to look up this history. The establishment was featured in a 2015 episode of Paranormal Witness, and we found a recap describing the show. Some of the occurrences were worthy of a movie. When the restaurant owners purchased the home next door to expand their business, they uncovered some eerie items and documents in a “hidden room.”

That’s when all the weirdness really increased for them. A pan of lasagna was tossed at an employee’s head, one assistant was got trapped in a bathroom with a ghostly figure, shadows roamed the halls, candles kept relighting, eerie arms reached from doors. There were a few occurrences when the original section of the restaurant was opened, including one construction worker witnessing a terrifying eyeless figure. He refused to go back into the building.

The source? The items uncovered were part of an old Spiritualist Church that occupied the house where the restaurant was expanding. The items were put there to “close the portal” that séances the church was holding had opened. Long story short, a local psychic cleansed the entire place, and the items were re-buried by the owner. There are just a few minor instances still occurring now.

“That means these things may be buried somewhere near us,” my husband said, causing all of us to look around as we would somehow see the evidence of where this re-burial site could be.

Whether or not you’re a believer in ghosts or just a lover of great storytelling, visiting “haunted places” always gives a personal, immersive feel to just telling ghost stories around the campfire.

Even if you know in your heart nothing is going to happen, when you hear about something “that happened in this very room,” you get that weird little involuntary chill up your spine. That cold, eerie presence that makes you a bit apprehensive to turn around, even if there is nothing there.

This is why we love ghost stories, and getting to be inside of one when All Hallow’s Eve approaches is especially exciting.

The fear of any ghostly presence was soon forgotten, as we were enjoying our cozy Italian meal, surrounded by families conversing and laughing and the smells of homemade bread and garlic, but on the way home we felt the aftershocks of seeing a scary movie or hearing an eerie story.

Some of Monteleone’s clever design features include a dragon prop from an early James Bond movie and a front entrance resembling an antique car.

I call this the Blair Witch Project effect. When that movie hit theatres, my husband and I lived an hour outside Santa Fe and drove one hour into the nearest town to see what the fuss was about. We saw it in the afternoon and didn’t really find it scary at all. Yet, on the drive home when the remote highway was dark all around, our imaginations kicked in and every shadow was a jump-scare.

After our visit to Monteleone’s, our family drive was filled with fun and eerie conversations, and my youngest daughter said she hoped the ghosts, especially Thomas, weren’t following us. She said they were angry with us for not taking them seriously. I told her I’m no paranormal expert, but I think “ghosts like to stay around the places they haunt.” They have no desire to follow us anywhere.

Then our car “hit something.” It felt like driving over a large piece of cardboard or sheet metal, but none of us saw it coming and we couldn’t find what it was afterward. The vehicle behaved sluggishly on the way home, and since we obviously “didn’t hit anything,” it must be a costly gear or transmission problem.

We took it to the repair shop, expecting the worst. A couple of days later the mechanic said it was just some wires and other parts of the vehicle’s underside ripped free from “whatever it was we hit.” He was able to put everything back together with a very minor cost. Logically, there were plenty of construction materials we could have gone over that weren’t noticeable, but for the life of us, not one of us could remember seeing anything in the road.

My husband said, maybe it was the ghosts, after all.

“Dang it, Thomas!” I said, and this cracked up our teenager.

I hope Thomas also has a sense of humor, as we are certainly planning on going back again.

Our original destination, Monteleone’s new Wrap and Roll Cafe, has its own share of props and photo ops in with a retro carnival theme.
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