Muralists Matthew Hurd, Dillion Keene and Francisco working on paintings at Mexicali Rose

A dozen local muralists, including Dillion Keene, Bay Area Mural Program, Natalie Gabriel, and Kiss My Black Arts came together over the weekend to paint murals on the pink exterior of the former Mexicali Rose restaurant in downtown Oakland. Recently taken over by Chris Rachal—owner of Liege, which closed this past year, and the cigar bar M2—the building that housed the storied Mexican restaurant will soon be the home of For The Culture, a restaurant and community meeting space. 

The Saturday mural painting event gave artists a platform to bring the community together while paying tribute to Oakland’s culture, which Rachal says will be central to everything For the Culture will do when it opens early next year.

Contributing muralist Matthew Hurd said this was his first time collaborating with so many artists on an entire building. “This is a traditional landmark and one of the oldest buildings in Oakland,” said Hurd. “Definitely a cool project to be a part of.” 

The vision for the building will be to bridge the legacy of Mexicali Rose with something new. “This is an example of a native of Oakland, not allowing myself or the culture to be pushed out,” said Rachal.

MexiCali Rose was owned by the same family for 91 years and closed June 2018, three years after the neighboring 71-year-old Mexicatessen La Borinqueña also shut down. They were considered the last two Latino businesses in what was once a tight-knit Mexican American community. Mexicali Rose was known for its enchiladas, strong Cadillac Margaritas, and memories created by its customers. On the restaurant’s last day, people stood in line for several hours to say their farewells and share in a last meal of beans and rice or chile rellenos. 

The Gomez family has owned the property at 701 Clay Street for four generations and were selective about who they transferred control to. Rachal said it took three years of negotiations before he was able to take over the building because the family didn’t want it going to developers who would tear it down. Instead, they wanted a buyer who would use it for the benefit of the community. 

Rachal said he plans to keep the building’s pink color and the new exterior murals will be painted in various shades of pink and purple, reflecting how the old blends with the new. Mexicali Rose’s neon sign will be repaired and remain on the building as a recognition of the Mexican restaurant that held memories for many Oaklanders. 

A new mural by Aerosol inside For the Culture, which is taking over the former Mexicali Rose restaurant space in downtown Oakland. Credit: Brandy Collins

“We don’t just abolish history. We’re all a product of some sort of history,” said Rachal. “And I think Oakland needs that.” 

Rachal said that in his 30 years cultivating nightlife, he’s learned that having a firm but unique perspective goes into creating an environment where people want to be. “I travel to a lot of tastemaker cities and see trends that other people don’t see,” said Rachal. 

He opened Liege in 2010. The nightclub was very successful but closed in May 2021. He opened M2 (Mimosas on Grand)—designed aesthetically for “an affluent mindset”— quietly in August 2021. Rachal said he wants each of his businesses to have a different feel to them.  

The Bay Area, according to Rachal, isn’t a leader in innovating nightlife and entertainment, something he wants to change. “Unfortunately, Northern California is one of the lowest-trending markets. I don’t know why we can’t set the trends instead of following them.”

For the former Mexicali Rose building, Rachal said his goal “is for the culture” of Oakland. The culture of Oakland is fleeing, he said, not only because of gentrification, but also because there needs to be more effort to preserve Oakland’s rich history. Purchasing Mexicali Rose is Rachal’s way of putting his money where his mouth is. “We need to be more creative, have more forward thinking, and be diligent,” he said. “I can’t tell someone else to do it, if I’m not doing it.”

A sign from now closed Liege hangs inside the restaurant, a nod to the nightclub’s history. But Rachal said the customer experience at his new spot won’t be the same. For The Culture will be about creating more space for artists. 

Chris Rachal said he plans to keep the interior murals depicting Aztec life that were painted by “Ricardo” in 1977 and 1981. Credit: Brandy Collins

The floor space is brighter and more open than the original. The mustard-colored walls and stained glass rose behind the bar have been removed to make space for more seating. There’s also a large Black Panther mural painted by Aerosoul, with the words “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.”

The large interior murals covering two walls, depicting Aztec life, painted by “Ricardo” in 1977 and 1981 remain intact. 

“You don’t get rid of something like that because it means something. It’s so well done and detailed,” said Rachal. “It’s part of the art community and part of the culture.”

Rachal said he plans to build a bar, stage, and seating in the parking lot, and to host food trucks.  There are still minor odds and ends to complete before the restaurant is ready to receive the public, but the wait won’t be too long. For The Culture is anticipated to open in January 2022.

Correction: the original version of this story stated that Chris Rachal purchased the building that used to house the Mexicali Rose restaurant. That was incorrect. We also mistakenly identified the owners of Mexicali Rose as the Gonzalez family. The family’s last name is Gomez.

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.