When Lori Selden and Mark Young come to town, you notice. They opened their first Mexican Radio nearly two decades ago, and while it only occupied a cramped 600 square feet in New York City, it was the only Mexican joint to be found in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.
“It was like being in a Martin Scorsese movie with little old Italian ladies yelling out the windows,” said Selden.
They opened their second Mexican Radio restaurant in Hudson, a red building with a vibrant mural on one side amid a sea of antiques shops along Warren Street.
Chances are you’ve already noticed their third restaurant, which hasn’t even opened yet. Schenectady’s old Imperial building at the corner of State Street and Broadway, now a bright yellow and green, draws a lot of stares these days. And if you were wondering, the inside is much more colorful than the outside.
Mexican Radio 3.0 has a lot more room for a lot more zest. At 25,000 square feet, it’s more than four times as big as the Hudson restaurant and 10 times as big as the New York City restaurant, which moved to a 2,500-square-foot space on Cleveland Place long ago. It’s so big
that, according to the maximum seating capacity allowed by code, it can legally fit 575 seats into its three stories. Of course, that’s way more seats than its owners could ever want, Selden said, wide eyed and laughing.
The restaurant — on track to open by late April, just in time for Cinco de Mayo — will probably start off with about 200 seats, she said.
Many of those seats will be on the first floor, where each wall boasts a bright orange or a sky blue or a red coat of paint. The second and third floors have a similar color scheme, with some green walls thrown in here and there.
The entire building is a mix of funky modern and old-world Spanish Colonial. You’re greeted at the front entrance by two heavy wooden doors, imported from Mexico, with detailed bronze push plates. Lacy gold railings line a winding staircase to the second floor, and continue along the second-floor balcony. Hardwood flooring, wood bars, wood cabinets and old wood rafters pair nicely with the bright paint job.
The décor comes from all over “as we find it,” Selden said. Some of it is imported from Mexico. Some of it is made from local recycled materials, like the mango wood fans on the second floor. Some of it even comes from customers, like brass church lights one Hudson customer dug out of his basement one day.
Mexican tiles of all colors appear in random spots — in a horizontal strip along the wooden bars, lining each step of the winding staircase, encasing a thick column or indoor fountain. In addition to plenty of natural light, there is an assortment of colorful globes by the second-floor bar, several styles of wall sconces, track lighting and strips of neon-colored LED lights in the rafters.
Selden and Young, a husband-wife team living in Stuyvesant, got their flair for Mexican cuisine and culture from their past lives in California. Young grew up there, while Selden spent a dozen years living in San Francisco.
“I used to throw these big dinner parties at my place there, and I used to cook Mexican food,” she said. “We were just surrounded by it. Our first Mexican Radio only sat 20 people. I’ve had dinner parties bigger than that, so that’s how it all started.”
The couple bought 325 State St. for $425,000 in 2012. They spent two months removing asbestos from the site before beginning a complete rehab of the place in 2013. The $3 million renovation is the most love the Imperial building has seen since it was first built in 1865. In those days, it housed a newsroom but went on to become an upscale women’s specialty store that older residents remember for its posh, big-city feel.
Most recently, it housed the Capital District Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. Selden recalled the scene she took in on her first tour of the building four years ago.
“Do you ever watch ‘That ’70s Show?’ You know that little basement they always hung out in? That’s what this whole place looked like. It was wood paneling, drop ceilings, these nasty, scary, stinky, smoke-filled rooms.”
That first tour was not love at first sight, not at all. People told them at least part of the building would need to be demolished. But Selden and Young have always liked old buildings and believed in preservation. And they knew they wanted to open a restaurant in Schenectady, a city that appeared to be in the midst of a reawakening on each of their visits here over the years.
“I could see what was happening,” said Selden. “I went around. I talked to Philip Morris at Proctors. I knew they needed more fun stuff here. I look up State Street and it’s amazing what’s been done. But I think it needs to speak to a younger crowd. There are not that many places, aside from Bombers, for people to go out and have fun.”
Selden said she’s already receiving calls from people looking to book rehearsal dinners and private parties. She and Young are in the process of hiring and training employees for Mexican Radio Schenectady. Once their outdoor patio is built, on the side of the building near the train station, they expect they’ll have as many as 50 employees.
The renovation is in its last stages. Kitchen equipment has been brought in, but needs to be installed. Décor still has to go up. A menu still has to be tested.
The renovation, while vast, will be the easy part, said Selden.
“The hard part is about to start,” she said. “We have to see if we can make people happy, cook the right food, hire the right people. This is going to be different because it’s so big. We’re stretching our comfort zone, to be sure. But the good thing is we’ve been doing it for almost 20 years now. We know our food and we know our drinks, so it’s not like it’s a new business, you know?”