Margarita’s Cantina still rocking after 20 years

07/18/2012 5:00 AM

07/19/2012 1:14 PM

When he opened Margarita’s Cantina on July 22, 1992, Don Overstake was thinking more about music than Mexican food.

At the time, Overstake was a longtime nightclub owner whose real passion was his cover band, Lotus, which he’d been a part of for 21 years.

He’d toured with the group in Texas in the early 1970s, and the guys played in restaurants where people came for the barbecue and stayed for the band. Wichita wasn’t like that, Overstake realized, but he always thought maybe it could be.

“Wichita was the kind of place where they didn’t eat where they partied and they didn’t party where they ate,” he said.

Wichita still seems to embrace the same philosophy today — except where Margarita’s is concerned.

The restaurant now is well known as a place to feast on sour cream enchiladas and queso dip then dance the night away to the sounds of Lotus, still together 41 years later.

In 1975, Overstake was a Vietnam veteran who’d majored in music at Wichita State University. He’d been working as a heating/air-conditioning guy and playing regularly with Lotus at the Fireside Club at Harry and Woodlawn, which — in the late 1960s and early 1970s — was the place to be.

When the Fireside Club owner offered to sell Overstake the nightclub, he couldn’t resist. He bought the Fireside, and 10 years later, moved it to a spot at Rock and Pawnee. He sold it in 1988.

But the nightclub business was in his bones. In 1990, he and a partner bought Harry’s Safari, a nightspot next door to Harry’s Uptown Bar & Grill at 3023 E. Douglas. The two took turns putting their bands on stage. Lotus would play one month, and the partner’s band would play the next.

It worked for a while, but in 1992, Old Town was on the rise, and the crowds stopped coming to Harry’s Safari. Overstake bought out his partner and decided to turn the club into a restaurant. He hired a chef who’d created the menu for a Margarita’s restaurant in Kansas City to build his menu. And he opened the doors, determined to learn as much about the food business as he had about the nightclub business.

People warned him that restaurant ownership was tough, Overstake said.

“They were right,” he said. “It was a learning curve. But it wasn’t above my pay grade.”

The restaurant drew good crowds during its first years of business, benefiting from its location close to Wesley Medical Center and downtown workers. But Overstake couldn’t get the idea that music and food could coexist out of his mind.

In 1995, three years after he opened Margarita’s Cantina, he turned the restaurant into a Friday- and Saturday-night venue for Lotus.

“When I put a band in here, it was not a quick sell,” he said. “I was unsure of whether what I was doing was ever going to work. Some people were here to eat and not to dance. Some people were here to dance and not watch kids throwing corndogs around. It took until 1997 before it really picked up.”

But once it did, it really did. For years, Margarita’s was packed with 25- to 50-year-olds, who’d come for dinner and stay to dance and sip pitchers of margaritas while Lotus played hits from the 1970s and 1980s. Business was so good that in 2000, Overstake was able to remodel the upstairs section of the restaurant into an extra dining room, which he could use for reunions, wedding receptions and other private parties. He also added an upstairs kitchen.

Business remains brisk, said Overstake, and people still come every Friday and Saturday night to dance to Lotus, which now has its own stage complete with a Lotus logo, where the band equipment stays. Margarita’s took a hit after smoking was banned from restaurants in 2010, Overstake said, and a down economy hasn’t helped, either. But the restaurant is doing fine, he said, and in a couple of weeks, Overstake will add an outdoor patio that will put eight to 10 tables in front of the restaurant facing Douglas so that patrons can enjoy nachos al fresco.

Overstake, who employs around 45 people at Margarita’s, says he couldn’t have achieved his success without the help and support of his wife of 39 years, Linda, who keeps the books and works as human resources manager for the restaurant. On a recent European cruise, the pair fantasized about their retirement from the business, but Overstake admits that the music and Mexican food might be too much a part of him to give it up anytime soon.

“The last 20 years have gone by really fast,” he said. “There were some amazingly hard years and some amazingly wonderful years. I don’t have any regrets.”

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