Last June news surfaced that the real estate group that now owns the Chelsea Hotel also acquired El Quijote, the ancient Spanish restaurant situated on the ground floor. And early in December the announcement came that chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr would helm the restaurant — the pair formerly worked at Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller's Liquor Bar, and Minetta Tavern. Even though the new owners claimed the menu and feel of the place would remain intact, cynics had their doubts.
In fact, the appointment of these chefs suggests the restaurant will be transformed the way Minetta Tavern was, by partly keeping the feel of the place and the exterior signage, while turning it into a luxury dining establishment, doubtlessly doubling prices across the board at a place now prized for its cheapness. While the current El Quijote suffers from a certain decrepitude, its interior cluttered with more stray artifacts than current ideas about restaurant design dictate, it is nevertheless a landmark that reflects a place and time long gone from the city, when immigrants from the Spanish Civil War were a major presence and a big plate of paella seemed romantic and exotic. With change in the offing, two friends and I paid a farewell visit to this old-fashioned classic.
Founded in 1930, making it the oldest Spanish restaurant in the city (since the closure of El Faro), El Quijote is presaged outside by a yellow metal awning and a red neon sign that can be seen up and down 23rd Street. Inside, one is greeted from a darkened wooden podium with a coat rack behind it. To the left is a long wooden bar cluttered with gewgaws, including dozens of carved Don Quixote figurines underneath a mirror etched in big loopy letters with the restaurant's name. To the right is a long dining room, nearly full on this occasion, flanked by a floor-to-ceiling mural of scenes from the Miguel de Cervantes novel — an artistic masterpiece in a 30s period style.
There are two additional dining chambers in the stuccoed and labyrinthine expanse of the restaurant, including the Cervantes Room, strung with tiny lights and nearly full, and an empty banquet room with some very strange oil paintings, including a girl cuddling what appears to be the baby from Eraserhead. We were seated in the front dining room next to a dessert trolley and with a view over the demi-partition into the dimly lit bar.
Though the menu has been extended over the years with an upper end that comprises expensive steaks, veal chops, and surf-and-turf combos for high rollers, the bedrock of the menu remains Spanish commonplaces. We started with a trio of tapas, including a platter of baton-size white asparagus heaped with a vinegary dice of onions, peppers, and parsley ($11.95); a flamed chorizo spread out on the plate like a sunflower ($10.95); and a plate of a dozen very fresh baked clams in the El Quijote style — each surmounted by a piece of bacon and looking suspiciously like Italian clams casino ($13.95).
But the diner quickly discovers that appetizers are totally unnecessary, since each entrée comes with a substantial salad with a choice of three dressings, or a broad bowl of caldo gallego, a soup of white beans, kale, and chorizo that is something of a signature for the many immigrants from the Spanish province of Galicia that came to New York beginning in the mid-19th century. Another inevitable discovery is that two diners can also share most of the main courses, so that, with a small sharing charge that provides double soups or salads, two can eat well at El Quijote with a glass of sangria for $25 or so, including tax and tip — and that's cheap for Chelsea.
The size of the main courses is astonishing. Paella Valenciana — a huge cauldron of yellow rice cooked with sausage, chicken, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams — sets you back only $25.95. Until a recent price hike, it was $22.95. A vegan member of our party ordered the vegetarian paella with white beans and kale ($18.95), and it was equally voluminous, though not very good. Perhaps the best deal of all was costilla cerdo Bilbaina ($20.95) — three massive pork chops cooked in the style of the Basque city of Bilbao, in a garlicky orange-ish goo shot with tons of garlic. Good, though the sauce was a little too much like Chinese carryout.
But the best part of the meal may have been the fried potatoes that came with the pork chops — something like potato chips, only thicker. We loved them so much, we ordered another plateful ($2.25).
Yes, the food shows room for improvement. But sometimes you don't want food totally up-to-date in its outlook, or as perfect as it could be — you want an antique meal that reflects another time and attitude. El Quijote provides that experience at a very cheap price, but it probably won't do so for much longer.