How does a restaurant look like its been around since the Kennedy administration and be in operation only five years? I don't know, but La Mancha on Atlantic Avenue has managed the trick. Before I visited the place last week, I would have sworn on a pack of bibles that it was the oldest restaurant on the block. Turned out, it's only the name that's a half-century old.
Who Goes There? La Mancha
I admit up front, La Mancha doesn't really belong in this series. Under its new ownership, it is all of five years old—hardly a bedrock institution. My confusion on the joint's longevity derives from the fact that, prior to La Mancha's arrival on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, is was another, almost identical Spanish restaurant called Meson Flamenco, where you could catch some actual Flamenco dancing action on the weekends. What's more, Meson Flamenco's owner, Pepe Canto, snatched its chef from another Atlantic Avenue Spanish place, ALSO called La Mancha, which held down the block for a full 50 years, before closing in 1994.
Given this tangled history, one could arguably award La Mancha a WWII-era pedigree. Moreover, while some restaurants become old over the years, others are born old. La Mancha was born old. It looks and acts like it's been around forever, with the owner and the eccentric patrons showing plenty of sass and personality. Certainly the trappings—standard white tablecloths, drawings of Don Quixote—don't speak of the latest trends in 21st-century dining decor. And the bathrooms are veterans, no mistake.
Owner Jose presides happily over a scattering of regulars, who seem to prefer the long bar near the door over the quieted tables in back. Big, energetic and talkative, he functions as waiter, bartender, chef and raconteur, expounding in a loud, husky voice on how you've got to put saffron in your gazpacho, and how nothing grown in America (tomatoes, eggs) tastes like anything. For one man, who was celebrating his birthday, he poured way too many vodka and tonics, and a chilled shot of Red Stagg ("bourbon for girls"), even though the birthday boy was already nearly sleeping on the bar. And he whipped up a pitcher a sangria for the two happy, old couples in back faster than you can say Pancho Villa.
Dominating the Atlantic Avenue side of the bar was a large, gray old lady of so crusty and unguarded a manner she effortlessly reminded one of the avenue's bygone, sailor-strewn, maritime character. "A man needs a pick," she observed, as one patron enviously eyed her well-used toothpick. She lent a pen to another with the comment "It's clean." "What time of year is it in Australia," she inquired of a regular from Down Under who had been already asked that question a few too many times. "September," was his tart replied.
The food at La Mancha is what you'd expect (Paella, seafood, steak, flan). It's fairly expensive. But the dishes are ample and actually very good, better than I've received at many other better-known Spanish restaurants. True, I didn't get the chicken dish I asked for, but I liked the one that came anyway.
—Brooks of Sheffield