08 October 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to El Quijote"?

Twenty-four years in New York and I finally made it into El Quijote. What took me so long? I don't know. Something about the joint always seemed a bit cheesy to me. Maybe I associated it too much with the too-bohemian-by-half residents of the Chelsea Hotel. Also, the prices didn't help. If the dining experience was going to be a miss, I would be out $50 in the experiment. Now, of course, I wish I hadn't been so standoffish. El Quijote has a lovely, frozen-in-time interior and not bad food at all. Here's my Eater write-up:

Who Goes There? El Quijote
El Quijote is one of those restaurants you pass by a hundred times, occasionally peering into a darkened window as if into a mysterious cave, but rarely go inside. Because, you know, that cave's always gonna be there. One can go spelunking another day.
But El Quijote, which was founded in 1930, may not be as permanently affixed to 23rd Street as we'd all like to hope. It is, after all, taking up ground floor space in the historic Chelsea Hotel, which is now owned by real estate developer Joseph Chetrit. The plans for the old hotel are not clear, but most expect the spaces inside will be converted to condos. Either way, there are few people living inside the landmark anymore, according to my bartender.
The fact that there are empty rooms above has not hurt El Quijote's business. Its base of regulars runs wide and deep throughout lower Manhattan. "We've been here for 80 years," said the maitre d' simply, indicating with a shrug that my question required no answer. On a recent Wednesday, the lane of tables and booths on the front room's western end was quickly filled up with twosomes and foursome: old, young, friends, married, work colleagues. Those who arrived late or without reserved tables were exiled to the Siberias of the Cervantes Room and Dulcinea Room. The restaurant, as you can tell from those names, goes in for the Don Quixote schtick in a big way; the west wall mural is all windmills and dozens of Man of La Mancha statuettes clutter the shelf above the bar. Back in 1967,New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne was already commenting on the joint's "certain tawdry appeal."
Not willing to accept a table in the back rooms, I decided to eat at the bar. I felt like I was in a scene from a Douglas Sirk film. El Quijote is a calming place. The ceiling are high and the lights are low. The waiters wear black jackets, and the muzak soundtrack never ventures past the hit parade of 1960.
My bartender was ignorant of many of the mainly meat and seafood choices on the menu. He only knew what he liked, and he liked "to eat heavy." He recommended the sirloin tips for an appetizer. They came on a sizzling pan, with plenty of hot peppers and were not bad at all. Also quite decent was the crab cake, "from a recipe by owner Manny Ramirez" (the director of my "dining fantasy," the menu told me). It was moist and tender almost to the edge of soppiness.
Less impressive was the Margarita, which the eatery boasts is the best in town. It is, in fact, only average. They do, however, let you choose your tequila. (Once upon a time, the restaurant used to send up Margaritas to the residents of the hotel.) Also to avoid is the "Secret Sangria," which derives from a "coveted recipe." I saw the coveted recipe in action. It involves the bartender upending any stray red wine dregs into a plastic pitcher. I did not see anyone order the "Daily Double," in which $33 buys a person two one-and-a-quarter-pound lobsters; or the 56 oz. porterhouse steak. The bartender said he once saw a man eat the latter all by himself.
—Brooks of Sheffield


Duncan D. Horne - the Kuantan blogger said...

Seems like you're glad you finally got there! Very nice blog..
Duncan In Kuantan

Carol Gardens said...

I do not pass by. I have gone here dozens of times over the past three decades and I am in fear for the place...although apparently they have the lease for a while. Not really all that expensive. I usually have broiled lobster. That and sharing a pitcher of sangria and I'm happy. Not as perfect as El Faro in the village but always a helluva lot of fun with groups and on dates. And that bar is great looking.

Brendan said...

According to the NYT, it looks like El Faro has officially joined the sad closed places of the Lost City

Adair said...

El Quijote has one of the nicest bars in the city. I always go to the bar, which is old and atmospheric, suffused with an aqua-blue light from an art deco lamp. It is perfect around 4pm, but by 6:00pm it starts getting too crowded. Not many bars still have uniformed, jacketed, bow-tied bartenders! The bar for a time (in the 1950's and 60s) was the meeting place of the city's Spanish and Latin-American intelligentsia---writers, musicians, and the like. The parallel restaurant is another matter: I've given it several chances and have found the food way below par. Still, I hope that El Quijote lasts for several decades more!