Hilly Spanish landscapes dotted with fairy tale castles dance across a wall wainscoted with beautiful blue tiles. Oil paintings darkened with age portray slender grandees, handsome women, and well-behaved children holding kittens, while bullfighters, swinging red muletas, deftly step out of harm’s way at the last minute. In one glassed-in room, the walls are limned with the story of Don Quixote, painted cream on a dark brown background in a muralist’s style redolent of the garret art studios of the early 20th century. In the narrow, crowded bar, random Spanish objects litter every surface, like the apartment of one’s grandparents.
A friend and I went to pay a final farewell to El Quijote, an ancient and fusty Spanish restaurant, founded in 1930 in the legendary Chelsea Hotel, home to many famous artists and writers. It was the second final farewell for me — I’d gone early in 2015, when the closure was first announced following purchase by the group that had also bought the hotel, with the intention of installing Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr as chefs. Despite reassurances that the place would reopen and be even better, I suspected that it would suffer the same fate as Minetta Tavern, with prices drastically increased and much of the original’s atmosphere banished.
Well, the restaurant never closed, but kept chugging along for three more years, scaffolds nearly eclipsing its front entrance. But the restaurant remained crowded, despite its hulking size. Now a new death date has been set, and the entire, longtime staff laid off with only two weeks’ severance. Tonight will be the final night before the developer closes it for renovations, without confirmation on exactly how much of the restaurant’s idiosyncrasies will remain.
The news of its impending closure must have shaken long-time devotees, who’d enjoyed generations of birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations there, because when I tried to get in this past Sunday, the joint was mobbed. Oddly, many appeared to wear period costume from the ’30s and ’40s, the women in fur stoles and cloche hats, the guys with topcoats and fedoras. I went again on Tuesday evening around 6 p.m., and the place was filled with families, the children coloring or fiddling with their iPhones. Following a wait of 45 minutes, a friend and I were ushered into a rear dining room. The staff, adorned in dark green short jackets that made them look like naval ensigns, was subdued.
The food at El Quijote has always been adequate but not much more. As a remembrance, I decided to order only the best things, and thus skipped the expensive steak menu, which feels tacked on.
Anything attributed on the menu to Galicia — a province in northwestern Spain from which many immigrants came — remains delicious. A case in point is the pulpo a la Gallega ($14.95), octopus tentacles cooked to just the right level of chewiness and dusted with paprika. The Galician soup is good, too, filled with white beans, chorizo, and kale in a creamy broth. The cod croquettes ($10.95) were profuse in number, but the potato-to-salt-cod ratio proved too high. The garlic shrimp were also a total dud, the pink crustaceans not bothering to settle down into their garlic sauce but piled carelessly on top, like tired pink swimmers floating on their backs in a crimson sea.
Much better than the disappointing croquettes are the potatoes served as a side with the entrees, which are something like thick potato chips wobbling between squishy and crunchy. We got them with our single entrée, which was veal, a good deal at El Quijote. Ternera extremena ($32.95), a recipe from the Extremedura province that smothers the tender veal steaks in an onion, pepper, and chorizo sauce, was delicious. It is one of the tastiest things on the menu.
The wine list is filled with decent bottles in the $30 to $40 range, and that is what you should drink rather than the headache-inducing sangria. We departed into the night with a warm feeling toward the place. Whatever quixotic path the restaurant takes in the future, whatever more expensive incarnation reappears in the promised six months, El Quijote is the sort of place one hopes will always exist in New York, a living museum of Spanish immigration from nearly a century ago. The kind of restaurant you love, but choose not to patronize too often.