This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
El Quijote is one of those restaurants you pass by a hundred times, occasionally peering into a darkened window as if into a mysterious cave, but rarely go inside. Because, you know, that cave's always gonna be there. One can go spelunking another day.
But El Quijote, which was founded in 1930, may not be as permanently affixed to 23rd Street as we'd all like to hope. It is, after all, taking up ground floor space in the historic Chelsea Hotel, which is now owned by real estate developer Joseph Chetrit. The plans for the old hotel are not clear, but most expect the spaces inside will be converted to condos. Either way, there are few people living inside the landmark anymore, according to my bartender.
The fact that there are empty rooms above has not hurt El Quijote's business. Its base of regulars runs wide and deep throughout lower Manhattan. "We've been here for 80 years," said the maitre d' simply, indicating with a shrug that my question required no answer. On a recent Wednesday, the lane of tables and booths on the front room's western end was quickly filled up with twosomes and foursome: old, young, friends, married, work colleagues. Those who arrived late or without reserved tables were exiled to the Siberias of the Cervantes Room and Dulcinea Room. The restaurant, as you can tell from those names, goes in for the Don Quixote schtick in a big way; the west wall mural is all windmills and dozens of Man of La Mancha statuettes clutter the shelf above the bar. Back in 1967, New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne was already commenting on the joint's "certain tawdry appeal."
Not willing to accept a table in the back rooms, I decided to eat at the bar. I felt like I was in a scene from a Douglas Sirk film. El Quijote is a calming place. The ceiling are high and the lights are low. The waiters wear black jackets, and the muzak soundtrack never ventures past the hit parade of 1960.
My bartender was ignorant of many of the mainly meat and seafood choices on the menu. He only knew what he liked, and he liked "to eat heavy." He recommended the sirloin tips for an appetizer. They came on a sizzling pan, with plenty of hot peppers and were not bad at all. Also quite decent was the crab cake, "from a recipe by owner Manny Ramirez" (the director of my "dining fantasy," the menu told me). It was moist and tender almost to the edge of soppiness.
Less impressive was the Margarita, which the eatery boasts is the best in town. It is, in fact, only average. They do, however, let you choose your tequila. (Once upon a time, the restaurant used to send up Margaritas to the residents of the hotel.) Also to avoid is the "Secret Sangria," which derives from a "coveted recipe." I saw the coveted recipe in action. It involves the bartender upending any stray red wine dregs into a plastic pitcher. I did not see anyone order the "Daily Double," in which $33 buys a person two one-and-a-quarter-pound lobsters; or the 56 oz. porterhouse steak. The bartender said he once saw a man eat the latter all by himself.