The pan con tomate of El Quijote.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
Over the past few years, we have all become familiar with the dismal obituaries for the hundreds of “beloved” dive bars and restaurants and food establishments that have closed in town. Closures continue, many of which are silent and unmemorialized, but as the city begins its long, slow recovery from the great nightmare of COVID, we have noticed that here and there, as winter turns to spring, some of these old institutions have started to come back to life. A new team of chefs will try their luck this spring at Del Posto’s former grand dining room, and the slimmed-down version of Gotham Bar and Grill, now called Gothamdid a vibrant neighborhood business on 12th Street in the Village with new owners, the same butler at the front of the house and the former pastry chef running the kitchen.
Few of these revivals were more successful or unexpected than that of the 1930s. El Quixotewhich has served jugs of sangria and a list of solid Spanish classics for almost 90 years at the bottom of the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street before closing in 2018. Before its demise, generations of assorted weirdos and doomed geniuses lived above (Dylan Thomas; Hendrix and Joplin; Sid and Nancy, of course) and got the famous blotto in the famous room with its glass etchings of giant lobsters and murals of Don Quijote on the walls, but if you’d walked around during the depths of lockdown, like I did, and peeked Peering out the dark window at the stacks of chairs and the dusty, deserted bar, it would have felt like you were looking back in time in the cabin of a wrecked Spanish galleon.
But luckily, a combination of intrepid hospitality impresarios saved this venerable venue from the sunken depths. Many original touches remain intact and in some cases freshly exposed — the clattering tiled floors, the creaky shaded chandeliers hanging from the distressed, smoke-stained ceiling — but the dining room is smaller and more intimate and the bar emits a polished 21st-century glow. Waiters wear replicas of the waiters’ original red jackets, with rows of pens tucked in their pockets, and they carry wheels of paella around the room along with other Spanish favorites (pan con tomato, Iberian ham, truffled sausages, head over prawns), all of which look way better than ever thanks to chef Byron Hogan, who spent years cooking in Madrid before washing up here in New York.
I don’t remember properly crispy salted cod croquetas with generous splashes of fresh aioli when I passed by the crowded bar in Sid-et-Nancy days, or a decorated cheese platter containing thin triangles of manchego and northern blue La Peral with a pile of marcona almonds. Our chestnut-fed dark Iberian ham platter had that dense, almost cane-like stiffness (you can also order decent Serrano ham for a third of the price), and we enjoyed it with grilled wedges of pan con tomato (which were perhaps a bit too thick on the tomato), plus the aforementioned prawns al ajillo (grilled a la plancha and devoured head first, of course) and Spanish anchovies arranged in minimalist rows on a white plate round and immersed in a pool of olive oil.
None of the recipes on El Quijote’s compact one-page menu are telling, but most everything we tasted was well executed, and some dishes tasted even better than that. I am thinking of blackened grilled chicken, rolled in cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, among many other “Maghreb” spices, and barbecued in the Castilian countryside on long metal skewers. A special cut of Iberian pork seemed to get softer and more tender the more we ate it, and the salvo of paella was speckled in an impressive, Instagram-ready way, with an abundance of shellfish and rabbit. If you order the long-time signature El Quijote lobster a la plancha, you’ll find that it’s a lot less dry and stringy than it used to be (it’s splattered with sherry and garlic butter) and blends perfectly with a bowl of patatas bravas on the side.
El Quijote has made a name for itself as one of downtown’s great bars, and half of the new space is given over to the original bar, which has been outfitted below with dim lighting and hooks a la mode and new stools covered in red velvet. There are the usual sangrias on offer, poured into glass jugs, but for a taste of modern Spain I suggest the goblet-shaped gin and tonic, which on the night I tried it , was garnished with bay leaves, fresh lime slices and green apple shavings. There are plenty of scrumptious Spanish wines to choose from (try the Grenache-based Samuel ’19 from Catalonia) and a good section of sherry to sip after dinner, or even with a creamy slice of Basque cake for dessert topped with a sweet and fragrant marmalade that, if you close your eyes, smells a bit like summer in Seville.