Traipse downstairs through a maze of red-painted wrought iron to arrive in the semi-dark den of Café Riazor (245 West 16th Street, just east of Eighth Avenue). A bar to the left is separated from a parallel row of tables by a windowed wall in white stucco; indeed, nearly every surface, even the ceiling, is white stucco. In total the tables seat maybe 30, and the walls are decorated with wooden reliefs of knights and flamenco dancers, plates limned with Spanish landscapes, and a bullfighting poster from the days when bullfighting seemed like a romantic endeavor.
Café Riazor is a tapas bar of the kind that the Village and Chelsea were full of in the last century. Only a half dozen Spanish places remain in what was once known as Little Spain, still anchored by Our Lady of Guadeloupe church on 14th Street. Riazor was the sibling of a far more famous tapas bar, Rio Mar, in the Meatpacking District, which closed in 2004, but not before partly inspiring a tapas craze and small dish revolution, changing the restaurant industry here forever.
The vibe: This is a place to go if you want peace and quiet and comfortable furniture. A friend and I arrived on a rainy Thursday evening at 8:30 p.m. to find the bar empty, but seven or so tables filled with people that looked to be neighborhood regulars who can drift in without a reservation and eat plainly and cheaply. The nostalgic ambiance adds to the appeal. This is the kind of restaurant where the five-top next to us held indie rockers from the ’90s, who went misty-eyed as they reminisced about “She Drives Me Crazy,” by Fine Young Cannibals.
What to drink: Bottles of decent Spanish or Chilean wine average about $50, as befits a bar where you are encouraged to linger over a bottle; carafes of the sturdy house red are $32 for 500 ml. The move, as far as I’m concerned, is the white sangria, which may be had for $13 for a tall glass decorated with oranges and apples, or $28 for a pitcher. The beer to get is Estrella de Galicia, from Galicia.
What to eat: A tapas menu maps over 25 choices, which includes all the usual, like patatas bravas, grilled fresh sardines, octopus in olive oil and paprika, and chicken, ham, spinach, or potato croquettes. Three tapas make a meal, but then you could also get a main course – which we did — and split it. Caldo Gallego ($7.75) is a lovely soup of collard greens, potatoes, and white beans in a rich broth bobbing with chorizo, while callos a la Gallega, tripe stew, is served with chick peas. Ternera a la Gallega ($24.75) includes veal cutlets in a lemon-caper sauce, served with french fries or yellow rice.
Take note: The food at Café Riazor is copious, wholesome, and competently prepared, but it isn’t flashy and strongly flavored, the way food in modern restaurants often is. It’s also not plated in a picturesque or ostentatious manner, aspects of restaurant food we’ve come to expect. In fact, it tastes like all the recipes have just arrived from 1974, when the restaurant was founded, and no one tried to alter them for Instagram or TikTok.