After over two years of renovations, Chelsea’s historic Spanish restaurant La Nacional springs back to life today with a modernized look and menu developed by four chefs in residence from Valencia.
A part of the 150-year-old Spanish Benevolent Society (SBS), La Nacional takes the meaning of a “neighborhood restaurant” to a whole new level. The society’s brownstone has always had a restaurant that’s been deeply embedded in the Spanish community and neighborhood’s history as part of the nonprofit. In 2002, it became a tapas bar run by chef Lolo Manso that quickly became a beloved and critically acclaimed institution. But after a decline in society membership, the restaurant closed for a revamp in 2016.
The menu is still based around tapas like patatas bravas, wild mushroom or jamón ibérico croquettes, and gazpacho, all just $7. Pricier share plates include fried baby squid served in a squid ink bun, tuna belly with grilled vegetables and avocado, and daily-changing paella made with Valencian rice. The most expensive dish at $23 is a rice with prized Iberico ham. Because the first batch of chefs in residence are from the coastal city of Valencia, seafood is featured prominently on the summer menu, which is in full below.
SBS executive director Robert Sanfiz says a big priority was making sure that the restaurant was accessible to people who have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. An affordable lunch hasn’t rolled out yet but is expected to after the summer, and the restaurant will have a regular happy hour running from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. with glasses of Spanish wine for $6.
A lighter, brighter, modernized space shows off bright red banquettes, intricate tile work, and an open kitchen. Some touches of the original structure — which has been around for 180 years — remain too, though, like an exposed brick wall above the banquettes. “We have this really gorgeous timeline as you enter the restaurant, this beautiful, museum-quality timeline that celebrates the 150 years of the society,” Sanfiz adds.
SBS was a vital resource for supporting and connecting Spanish immigrants in NYC, but its relevance declined over the years. Determined to save the restaurant and restore its role in the community, Sanfiz, Manso, and volunteers from the community helped restore La Nacional.
“None of us are really restaurateurs,” Sanfiz, who is an attorney, says. “I’ve never opened a restaurant before. It’s a classic example of a passion project that we hoped would work.”
Sanfiz says that the society serves much more than just Spaniards now, providing support for the Spanish-speaking community at large but also just the neighborhood in general. That sense of community is embodied in the restaurant: “We wanted to be able to provide jobs in our community,” Sanfiz says. The society also provided housing for chefs in residence Jordi Morera, Francisco Javier Parreño, Salvador Burguera, and Gracia Sales.
La Nacional reopened at 1 p.m. today — just in time for the Spain versus Portugal World Cup match, as Sanfiz points out. The restaurant will show the game, and there will be drink specials.