In the late 19th century, Chelsea was a de facto Spanish village, populated with merchant seaman who commuted back and forth between New York and the province of Galicia in Spain’s rugged and impoverished northwest. By the early 1920s refugees began appearing from other parts of Spain, fleeing dictator Primo Rivera’s harsh rule.
Eventually, their discontent became the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) as the right-wing General Francisco Franco seized power and immigration snowballed.Many of the newcomers settled on West 14th Street, which became known as Little Spain, anchored by Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church (1902) and the Spanish Benevolent Society (1868), which provided immigrant services, cultural programs, and temporary residence for the likes of Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Frederico Garcia Lorca.
Refugees from the civil war found political sympathizers in Greenwich Village, long a haven for bohemians and radicals, where Spanish restaurants soon began to appear. One of the earliest was El Faro (1927), only recently shuttered. It became associated with musical and literary figures, including James Baldwin, who was a regular. Other Spanish restaurants from that era include El Quijote in the Chelsea Hotel (1930), reportedly soon to be closed and revamped, and the Iberia Tavern and Restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound District (1926).
But Spanish restaurants achieved their greatest popularity in Greenwich Village, where there were once more than a dozen, and at least seven remain. With the Spanish Civil War as a cultural and political backdrop, Spanish restaurants continued their identification with bohemianism, romance, and radical politics during the ensuing decades. (Listen to Bob Dylan’s "Boots of Spanish Leather" to get some insight.) The real appeal of these places, and the reason many still exist, was by providing cheap and exotic eats in a dark and date-friendly setting.
Today, fading art still lines the walls of these often-subterranean restaurants, aged waiters still bustle around in short red jackets, and the menus still specialize in paella — mountains of yellow rice cooked with seafood, chorizo, and chicken in big lidded pots called calderos, still costing around $20 ($5 extra if lobster is added), and enough to feed two or three hungry diners. So come with me now as we revisit these endangered institutions — our ancient and venerable Spanish restaurants.
The five Best
Founded in 1941 and named after a city in the sunny south of Spain, Sevilla assumed the premises of an older Irish bar on a townhouse-lined West Village corner. As you approach, a garlic wind wafts from a kitchen door that opens onto Charles Street. Inside the main entrance, the dining room proves deep and shadowy, with nautical lamps hanging from the ceiling and smudgy paintings by El Greco and Velazquez plastered on the walls — reproductions calculated to increase the restaurant’s artistic allure.
On weekends Sevilla stays mobbed from early afternoon until late evening, every table occupied by canoodling couples and convivial chattering foursomes, every stool at the long bar taken with patrons who gulp their too-sweet classic cocktails and wait impatiently for their dates. The apps are profuse in size, including some wonderful empanadillas — half-moon pies filled with the seasoned ground beef called picadillo. The octopus, Galician style, is also good, mounted on toothpicks and dusted with paprika in a sea of olive oil, though perhaps a little over-tenderized for some.
The entrée of clams in green sauce is a particular delight, tasting powerfully of garlic, parsley, and the brine of the sea, as bracing as a wave washing over you in summertime. Glowing a shade of yellow so bright you almost need sunglasses, the paella Valenciana, named after a port on Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast, is scattered with bright red pimentos and brighter green peas, and underneath lurk poached chicken parts, coins of chorizo, as well as mussels and clams in their shells and an abundance of shrimp. The rice is pleasantly moist. You’ll be taking some of it home. 62 Charles Street, (212) 929-3189.
Not quite as old as Sevilla but twice as decrepit, Spain (founded 1967) lies on West 13th Street. A glass case outside displays print reviews fantastically caked with dust, some dating to the 80s. Right inside the front door is a semi-subterranean barroom recently discovered by hipsters. Why? Chalk it up to the room’s picturesqueness and the fact that tapas are provided free with any drink. The selection runs to chorizo, fried potatoes served with a bottle of hot sauce, meatballs in gravy, mussels with chopped onions, and tiny pork riblets cooked to the consistency of driftwood. Unexpectedly tasty!
This gastro-largesse extends to regular diners, too. Pass through the bar and the kitchen and find a pair of dining rooms, the one in the rear boasting an overarching skylight, statues in niches, and tables arranged along a wall-hugging horseshoe banquette, the bigger ones occupied by extended families with children. As you contemplate the menu, free tapas arrive in profusion, obviating the need to order starters. A free salad also appears, sluiced with a red dressing that might be mistaken for watery ketchup.
When the paella Valenciana (in this case ordered with lobster) lands on the table, it’s even bigger and more belt-busting than the one at Sevilla, so that the red crustacean seems to be crawling out of the caldero. But the cheapest entrée at this already inexpensive place turns out to be eggs malaguena — three poached in a sauce heavy with paprika that suggests an underlying affinity between Spanish and Mexican fare. Oddly, there’s some pork loin and shrimp also swimming around. And along with the $12.50 paid for this entree, you also get salad, tapas, and rice. That’s about as inexpensively as two can dine anywhere in Greenwich Village in an establishment with white (or almost white) tablecloths. 113 W 13th Street, (212) 929-9580.
The Spanish restaurant that claims to be oldest in town is La Nacional, in the basement of the Spanish Benevolent Society. For most of that century-and-a-half, though, it was a social club where old men sat by the hour and played cards, nursing their glasses of sherry. Sometime in the last 10 years it was taken over by a restaurateur with modern notions and retrofitted as an old-fashioned Spanish restaurant. The art on the walls, though, is newer, and the servings of paella fit only for a single diner. But the place looks ancient and is overall more spacious and comfortable than the other Spanish restaurants in the vicinity, serving food more Spanish than Spanish-American.
The tapas are especially delectable, including a trio of fresh grilled sardines, a lush egg tortilla dabbed with homemade garlic mayo, and a tub of salt-cod puree much like French brandade. Picturesquely served in shallow blackened paelleras, the paellas are predictably short on rice — we live in a carb-hating age — but have a nice toasted-rice crust that most American renditions lack. There are five versions, including one aimed at vegetarians and another made with squid ink that’s as black as a coal mine. Does the ink confer any flavor? You decide. Note that La Nacional has a sophisticated Spanish wine list and decent collection of desserts — two things the other places lack. 239 West 14th Street, (212) 243-9308.
Though Newark’s Ironbound is now known mainly for its Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants, in the early days of the neighborhood many establishments described themselves as Iberian, and served a mixed Spanish and Portuguese menu. The prime remaining example is the Iberia Tavern complex of restaurants (founded 1926) surrounding the corner of Ferry and Prospect streets, an easy ride from the west side of Manhattan on the PATH train. The complex boasts three ginormous buildings, one of which resembles a castle in a storybook. The one called Iberia Peninsula is the best — a security guard in the parking lot told a friend and me — and it was there that we were seated one Saturday in the early afternoon. With décor that seemed to date from the 70s, the L-shaped dining room sprawled nearly empty around us. Three-pound lobsters cavorted in a tank, and a Portuguese waiter wearing a bowtie joked with us tableside, a towel draped over his arm.
We began with a wonderful app of clams Iberia Peninsula, served in their shells in an orange broth dotted with smoked sausage and shrimp. It could have been an entrée. Boasting a whole lobster instead of just a half, the paella was slightly cheaper than New York City versions. It arrived dotted with tiny bay scallops in addition to the usual sausage, chicken, and shellfish; the last provided in particular abundance. The rice was nicely soupy at the bottom of the pot. We also ordered a Portuguese main course: a plate of salt cod boiled, charred, and presented with assorted vegetables. It proved filling, but less exciting than the paella. A postprandial stroll down Ferry Street revealed many bakeries where you can enjoy the little custard pies called pasteis de Belem — named after a Lisbon neighborhood and reflecting Moorish influences in their yolk-heavy fillings. 63-69 Ferry Street, Newark, NJ, (973) 344-5611.
Far from Greenwich Village in a South American and Dominican area of Jackson Heights, Queens, Café Salamanca is named after a city west of Madrid in Spain’s Castilian region, and indeed a sign over the door boasts Castilian cuisine. Nevertheless, a poster of Galicia decorates the dining room, along with carved wooden bas reliefs of toreadors and flamenco dancers. The place looks much older than its 30 years. A Catholic priest in his collar sat at an adjacent table with two adoring parishioners on a recent evening. Later that night, the entire room launched into "Happy Birthday" as the priest sat and beamed.
The prices at Café Salamanca are predictably even lower than those of Village establishments, and the tapas are particularly well-rendered, including a plate of the pickled anchovies called boquerones, which arrived swimming in olive oil, and a giant serving of octopus Galician-style dusted with paprika. The tortilla turned out to be not a wedge, but an entire pie, freshly cooked and studded with bonus tidbits of ham, an amazing deal for $10. The paella could have easily served two, but even better was the zarzuela, a brick-red stew of assorted seafood, including lobster, to be ladled over rice.
The only dud was a yawn-worthy entrée of veal medallions, suggesting a principal that applies to all of our ancient Spanish restaurants: Stay away from the Italian dishes that have infiltrated the menu, they’re there mainly because these restaurants are located in formerly Italian neighborhoods. 79-05 Northern Boulevard, Queens, (718) 458-2446.
HeRE Are Five More
Café Riazor— Founded in 1974, this Galician tapas bar was a sibling of the sainted MePa hang Rio Mar, and Riazor preserves the food quality, if not the ambiance and general liveliness of its late relative. Alas, you won’t see a bar fight at Café Riazor. 245 W 16th St, 212-727-2132.
El Charro Espanol— With an art-bedecked premises comparable to Spain and Sevilla, this Village stalwart began its current incarnation in 1959, apparently converted from an earlier Mexican restaurant — hence the wacky name, which refers to a Mexican cowboy. 4 Charles Street, 212-243-5413.
Toledo— With the lobster paella priced at nearly $50, this Murray Hill restaurant named after a picturesque spired city just south of Madrid is the most expensive and elegant of the old-guard Spaniards (founded 1975), so bring your parents and make them pick up the tab. 6 E 36th Street, 212-696-5036
Café Espanol— Especially popular with the tourists, this 1972 Spanish restaurant offers a nifty lunch special for $12.95. It includes a bowl of caldo gallego (Galician sausage-and-kale soup) and paella or other pork, seafood, or chicken main course. 172 Bleecker Street, 212-505-0657.
El Mio Cid— This Bushwick newcomer is named after an epic poem commemorating the liberation of Spain from the Moors. It demonstrates that even a modern Spanish restaurant can evoke all the old standards in a nostalgia-provoking setting. (Skip the more modern and creative main courses.) 50 Starr Street, Brooklyn, 718-628-8300.
A Roll Call of Now-Closed Spanish Restaurants
R.I.P. Rio Mar on 9th Ave in Meatpacking District, El Cid on West 15th, El Faro on Washington Street, Spanish Taverna on West 38th Street, El Paso on Houston Street, and Rincon de Espana on Thompson Street.