Feature

Blast From the Past: Revisiting New York's Iconic Spanish Restaurants

By Jenny Miller  |  August 27, 2014

New York loses landmark restaurants and bars on the regular (see: the current fight for midtown's Subway Inn), but the news this spring that the fate of El Quijote  — the Chelsea Hotel's longtime kitschy Spanish watering hole — is in danger felt particularly poignant.

Back in May, rumors swirled that somebody new was taking over the restaurant, and in June came news that the Chelsea's new owner, Ed Scheetz, had in fact purchased the place in the process of revamping the hotel. On our end, we've heard from industry sources that there may indeed be a new, well-known New York operator soon — so it only seems like a matter of time before we wake up one morning and hear that 84 years of El Quijote's history is done.

While we wait for its fate to be revealed, we wanted to look back not just at El Quijote — which is gaudy and over-the-top and wonderful and has charmed with its sangria and steaks and lobster and kooky windmill wallpaper all the fabulous and famous past denizens of the Chelsea, from Patti Smith to the Grateful Dead to Ethan Hawke — but also those other, similar restaurants that pepper Manhattan, Spanish places that seem shrink-wrapped in bygone decades, that time-warp us back to an age when Iberian cuisine tasted exotic, when waiters always wore jackets and ties, when artists and writers and bohemian types used to regularly convene around inexpensive pitchers of sangria and generous portions of paella.

Though long-timer El Faro closed in late 2012 after 85 years, a handful of these old-school Spanish restaurants remain, "still open in spite of the logic," as Eater critic and former Village Voice writer Robert Sietsema puts it. Sietsema, a longtime Village resident, used to frequent Spain and a few of the other classic Iberian joints when he first moved to New York in the 1980s, and says even then "that much garlic was absolutely shocking." He recalls that "the paella in particular used to be what everybody got. It was really spectacular: a mountain of rice, enough for 2 to 3 people to share. It cost 10 or 11 dollars for giant plate of seafood."

The prices partly help explain why these places were popular with writers and artists, and indeed, they had a notable clientele. In her famous leaving-New York essay, "Goodbye to All That," Joan Didion reminisces about nursing a hangover sometime during the 1960s over Bloody Marys and gazpacho in an unnamed West Village Spanish restaurant. El Faro's devotees included James Baldwin and Pete Seeger.

Over the past few weeks, we spent some time lounging around Sevilla, a wood-paneled relic that opened in 1941 at the corner of Charles and West 4th Streets, where the staff's burgundy bowties match the tablecloths, and most of the customers who fold themselves into the quaint wooden booths are there either because they've been coming for years (and maybe their parents or grandparents were customers before them) or because they're tourists who've read about the spot's history and wanted to see it themselves.

On a recent evening we ran into Veronica Mitchell, 66, who told us she used to live on Charles Street, and though she'd since moved to the suburbs, she was back in the neighborhood visiting. "They are so generous in spirit," she said, explaining why she'd made a pilgrimage. "There's a man from Galicia, and he makes the best sangria."

Roberto Rodriguez may have been that man. The waiter, a Galicia native who was so thrilled we chatted him up that he later sent out a free plate of tortilla Española, told us that the restaurant had remained pretty much unchanged in his four decades working there, though "years ago there was a big line every day, and now it's not crazy." Among the boldface clientele that's popped in over the years, he recalled Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick; Lucille Ball "one time, a long time ago"; John Belushi; John Travolta; and Mike Meyers, "a very simple man."

We also slunk several times into the low-ceilinged circa-1967 basement lair that is Spain on West 13th Street, getting overly boozy on the sugary red sangria that goes for $18 a pitcher and warrants two drinkers several plates of free tapas. These prices, coupled with the rundown look of the place, (including a large papered-over skylight in the otherwise windowless back dining room) transport a person to a time when downtown wasn't the playground of the wealthy it is today.

Cheapness may be a good longevity strategy, too: Unlike Sevilla, which can feel worryingly unpopulated much of the time, Spain gets a good crowd of younger folks in the bar area up front. "They give you little appetizers; not a lot of places do that," reflected Jeffry Gitter, 57, a neighborhood resident who's been coming in off and on for the past 25 or 30 years. "I think it only recently got popular with young people," he said. "It was always an old-farty kind of place."

El Quijote, for its part, was jumping on a recent Saturday night, even if the crowd did skew toward retirement age. Though the back rooms were sparsely occupied, the whole front of the place, including the dated-yet-still-glamorous side dining room, with its checkerboard floor, burgundy booths, and fabulous Don Quijote murals, had a louche and lively feel. At the bar, the Colombian bartender flirted hard as he served us margaritas while a dusty collection of Don Quijote figurines looked on. So did the guys next to us, a 40-something actor and lawyer who said they lived in the same building in Murray Hill and generously shared their pitcher of sangria.

When we spoke to the manager, Jose Perez, who started as a dishwasher 25 years ago and worked his way up the ranks, he told me, "The people who show up want to see the same waiters. They want to see nothing's changed at the restaurant." When we asked him if anything had changed since the Chelsea, next door, shut down in 2011 for renovations, he admitted the construction wasn't ideal. "Right now, with the scaffolding outside, it's a little tough. But even yesterday, we had 200-and-something diners," he said. "I don't know what's gonna happen."