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Remembering La Nacional, A Treasure Lost

An appreciation for an old Chelsea favorite

Robert Sietsema

Since 1868, the Spanish Benevolent Society on West 14th Street has been anchor of the fading neighborhood known as Little Spain. Its barren basement bar was a gathering place, first for Basque mariners, then for immigrants from many regions of Spain, and later for community leaders, diplomats, and visiting artists and writers, some of whom lodged in the transient rooms upstairs. By tradition, Luis Buñuel, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Pablo Picasso all stayed upstairs during visits to New York, and presumably took the occasional nightcap in the downstairs workingman’s bar.

This is the rich history that already underpinned the taberna when it was converted to a tapas bar in 2002. The new proprietor and chef was Jesus "Lolo" Manso, born in Valladolid, Spain, who owned a couple of other Spanish restaurants in town. He lightly decorated the front room with low-key art, but left the rear barroom plain and also did little to the tiny kitchen, so that the whole place felt like it had been pretty much the same for 100 years. It didn’t look all that different from the neighborhood’s traditional tapas bars like Café Riazor.

What he did differently was up the ante, food-wise. Manso’s tapas were more ambitious and more purely Spanish, on a menu that included fresh grilled sardines, pan con tomate, pimentos del padrone, cod brandade deliciously served in a crock, and squid-ink paella. Though the wine list was Spanish and reasonably priced, the focus was more on the food. The place became a word-of-mouth hit, more often whispered of than extolled in print. For many of us, the attraction was at least partly its low-key ambiance and ability to transport you back to a Little Spain that had almost disappeared.

Those who visited found themselves charmed. In a 2004 Times review, Eric Asimov marveled, "The doorway to the street is unmarked, and as you enter a cluttered hallway and stand before an equally unmarked interior door, it is possible to imagine you are stepping into a speakeasy." In light of the closure, we reached out to some of the restaurant's noted fans:

Calvin Trillin, writer and author: "I'm sorry to see it go. I've always associated that stretch of 14th Street (correctly or incorrectly) with the Loyalists who came to New York after Franco's victory. So for me the pleasure of eating at La Nacional was enhanced by imagining that I could hear a chorus of the Garcia Lorca family singing "Los Cuatro Generales" as someone near the kitchen hoisted a ‘No Pasaran’ banner."

Alex Raij, chef and restaurateur: "For my husband it was an essential place for his transition from expat to New Yorker, and we always tried help Lolo stay current without ruining the sense of history and old fashioned charm it retained. It was important to us chronologically, geographically, and socially and we loved going there and bringing others there. I loved meeting my husband them after soccer games, how cool and dark it was in the heat of summer. It felt authentic. Persistent and fading at once. The news was always on in Spanish and the crowd was filled with characters out of an old movie.

Ed Levine, founder of Serious Eats:"La Nacional was a New York City restaurant rarity, an unpretentious and welcoming club-like haven for Spanish food aficionados. In fact it was another terrific Spanish chef, Alex Raij, who turned me on to the place. Chef Lolo Manso's cooking was honest and heartfelt, but really the food was almost a bonus. What made La Nacional so special was the vibe that Manso created. He made it into a club that offered membership to anyone who walked through the doors."

Amanda Kludt, Eater EIC: "I have a soft spot for any restaurant with an authentic old-school vibe (especially one in a popular neighborhood where you can walk right in on a Friday night), but the interesting thing here was the food was actually, sometimes stunningly, good. Incredible paella, the best tortilla in town, and plenty of wonderful stews and tapas. Considering it was technically a sister restaurant to nearby Socarrat, the place felt incredibly unassuming, unhip, and welcoming. It felt too good to be true. And I guess, in the end, it was."

Yes, after a brief hiatus the place will reputedly continue on as a showcase for modern Spanish chefs, who will hopefully continue a long tradition by staying upstairs. But those of us who loved the place will remember when, without fanfare, it was more attuned to the city’s rich Spanish past.