In 2008, the Spanish Benevolent Society was in shambles. The nearly 150-year-old organization only had about nine members, and according to Chef Lolo Manso, they seemed dead-set on closing the critically-acclaimed restaurant La Nacional. Manso, eager to keep the society and his restaurant afloat in New York, sought help. And for the last eight years, a new legion of New York’s younger Spaniard set — dedicated to seeing the historic society survive — have been working to save the nonprofit. So while recent news that La Nacional's closure for a revamp into a new, chef-driven restaurant may have seemed like just another sign of a vanishing New York, to Manso and society executive director Robert Sanfiz, it was the best way for it to survive.
'We are the last vestige of what was once Little Spain.'
La Nacional's restaurant was a beloved institution, frequented by in-the-know people like chef Alex Raij. But the Spanish Benevolent Society which supported it did not maintain the same relevance. Spanish immigrants, who once relied on the society for access to housing and jobs, were more likely to be well-connected young people and professionals with doctorate degrees. Back when Chelsea and the West Village were a hub for New York’s Spaniards, many visited the society every day, but they had been moving out of the increasingly expensive neighborhood for years. The society wasn't adapting to a changing demographic, and its members didn't seem interested in preserving the nearly 150-year-old organization, Manso says. "It was run by some people that didn't care very much about the society," he says. "They cared about themselves."
Manso didn't want to lose the restaurant or the society. So, he reached out to people until he met Sanfiz, an attorney who worked down the street. Sanfiz knew the society was a fixer-upper. "Nobody under a certain age wanted to walk into [the society]," he says. "It was dead. It was known only for the restaurant." But Sanfiz, who lived in the area and is of Spanish descent, wanted to see it survive as a cultural institution. "We are the last vestige of what was once Little Spain," he says.
Sanfiz, Manso, and other volunteers in the neighborhood revived La Nacional. They took over management of the society, which Sanfiz now leads part-time as an executive director. They renovated the brownstone at 239 West 14th St. They fixed up the event space, which is now used regularly for arts, theater, and other cultural events. They still offer free or heavily discounted rooms to stranded Spaniards and job advice for immigrants, but they try to do it for a new generation, with things like networking events. The modernization plan always included the revamped restaurant. "We always knew the idea was to kind of compound on what we do as a nonprofit. We wanted to run the restaurant and create a community restaurant," Sanfiz says. "We knew that at some point in the future, that would be the goal."
It was not an easy decision. La Nacional's restaurant was beloved for its old-school charm and warm atmosphere. To many, it felt like entering a slice of Spanish history. But the physical space was old and needed an update, and if the society was going to take over, it needed to be more than just a restaurant. It needed to serve a cultural purpose.
For the society, that meant helping Spanish chefs with the tough NYC restaurant business and bringing the latest and greatest from Spain to the U.S. The new La Nacional will be run by chefs from Spain, people who have applied and have been deemed rising stars. The society will sponsor their visas, pay them, and provide them with free housing. The chefs, who can stay for up to a year, will have control over the kitchen, though many veterans of La Nacional kitchen will be returning to help manage. Besides ten or so classic dishes from the old La Nacional, the menu will be designed by the chefs, including a weekend tasting menu, Sanfiz says.
If the society was going to take it over, it needed to be more than just a restaurant.
Sanfiz knows that many people are disappointed to lose the old-school charm of the previous incarnation. The pressure is on for the new version to satisfy the original regulars and to attract a new audience. The space is being gutted, with the help of donations from the community, and will come out looking more "stylish" and modern when it reopens in May or June, even with images and items from the archives decorating the dining room.
But it's a necessary change, he says. The restaurant hadn't been updated since the '30s, and ultimately, the restaurant can now more directly benefit the society, with the profits from the eatery going back into the nonprofit. It needs to reflect modern culture, just like the society, he says. "Spain has changed a lot," Sanfiz says. "Spanish style is cutting edge now. So is Spanish cuisine. We are trying to capture that delicate balance between the fact that we are a venerable institution that’s been around for so long — and people like it because there is authenticity — and the fact that we need to change with the neighborhood. This neighborhood is not what it used to be."
Despite the emphasis up-and-coming chefs and a location near Meatpacking, Sanfiz says the society doesn't want the new restaurant at La Nacional to be too "trendy" or "fashiony." They'll be pushing happy hours and an affordable brunch. There will be specials during soccer games. It will have culinary events based around culture and the Spanish-speaking community, and it will still aim to be a warm and welcoming place filled with boisterous clientele. "I can promise you what made the restaurant was the people," Sanfiz says. "La Nacional has always been a fun place. It kind of reflects life in Spain."
Meanwhile, Manso's happy to give up La Nacional. The restaurant's the reason he received enough acclaim to open his Socarrat paella bars in the first place, he says, and it feels good to have helped put the nonprofit on the culinary map. Plus, he'll still be around to help advise, anyway. "That society was there for over 100 years, a good place to help a lot of people," Manso says. "And now, it’s doing what they’re supposed to do — helping people do many things." The old school restaurant is already gone, but as far as Sanfiz and Manso are concerned, it will still be a Spanish institution for years to come.