Above: Peña Pachamama owners Eddy and Quentin Navia with Robin Williams.
In the Old Latin Quarter of San Francisco rests a magical place: a warehouse turned into a community-loved restaurant and performance venue.
The restaurant in question is Peña Pachamama, a South American eatery owned by Quentin and Eddy Navia that also serves up energizing Latin music performances. In the ancient Andean language, ‘Pachamama’ translates to “Mother Earth,” and ‘Peña’ means “people coming together.” Drawing its inspiration from Bolivian Andean folk music, Peña Pachamama is an intimate space for food, drink, and performance.
From the Beginning
The story starts with Quentin Navia, one of the owners of Pachamama and the founder of Sukay, an Andean folk band. Founded in the late 70s, the band toured all across North America, Canada, and South America. Quentin recalls driving all the way from the Yukon in Canada to San Antonio and Mexicali.
Meanwhile, her to-be husband Eddy toured with Savia Andina, another very popular Bolivian folk band. Quentin and Eddy eventually got married, Eddy became the music director for Sukay, and they continued performing music together.
Quentin says that the musician lifestyle kept them “Very humble. We went from Carnegie Hall to the Sacramento cultural center that had someone sleeping on the floor.”
In 1998, after touring around the world for two decades, Quentin and Eddy came across an empty space for rent in San Francisco that used to be one of the city’s most famous speakeasies in 1918. Wanting to open a place for people to enjoy food while listening to music, the two started Peña Pachamama.
However, the couple had no restaurant experience! Quentin recalled that the beginning of their business was very interesting. For example, no one knew about a grease trap so people were “sliding all across the kitchen in grease one night.” Gradually, the staff and ownership got into a groove, paving the way for more change.
Becoming a Plant-Based Restaurant
When the Navias turned vegan, their own dieting practices trickled into Pachamama, which also began to slowly remove meat off the menu. However, transitioning to an all plant-based menu wasn’t easy.
“One night while Cuarto de Tula was playing, I remember a waitress came to me with tears in her eyes saying ‘we won’t survive,'” says Quentin. “We had a birthday group of 14 walk out because there was no meat…and we lost customers…but people were still coming, new people… vegans came, very kind people”.
To this day, the couple’s delicious vegan food and music bring in meat eaters and plant eaters alike. Customer favorites include Bolivian dishes like salteñas (Bolivian empanadas) and comfort foods such as their vegan lasagna made with almond ricotta.
“Having a place like this…we ended up making this a home….people come to our home for dinner and we get people up dancing”, Quentin exclaims while discussing the love for her customers.
Pachamama was also frequented by the late actor Robin Williams and, more recently, Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin in Disney’s recent live-action version. In fact, Massoud’s cookbook, Evolving Vegan, includes some recipes and stories from Peña Pachamama.
Excited for The Future
When the pandemic hit San Francisco, the Navia’s first concern was their staff.
“Our chef has been here for 19 years, so we were wondering how we can support the staff. We really had to stay inside. We gave them part-time hours so they could pay rent and eat. One would do shopping, a few would work on the raw food and kale chip packing…it’s just amazing”, explains Quentin.
The restaurant is currently doing curbside pickup and takeout, but they are also looking towards the future. “Right now we’re excited…we just got our license to put tables out…we can serve to-go and let people eat outside under the tables with umbrellas in the beautiful San Francisco summer weather.”
Engaging with the community is Pachamama’s specialty and that is what Pachamama continues to do every day, as they send away every takeout order with love. So when it is safe to go to restaurants again, put on your dancing shoes and get ready to jam at Peña Pachamama!