SANTA FE, N.M. — For decades, if you ever wanted to get the feeling of being in Paris or New Orleans without leaving town, all you had to do was close your eyes and step into the bar of El Farol up on Canyon Road. By the Proustian trick of time-memory travel via the nose, one whiff and you were there – either place, take your pick. That sewery scent was just one of the many charms of the old El Farol – absorbing the exquisite, touching Alfred Morang murals, slaloming through strategically placed champagne buckets whenever it rained. And so we were concerned when the establishment was sold, and then closed for months of renovations.
Having lived in New Mexico long enough to know what that could mean – one need only note the recent, grievous “renovation” of Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter’s masterpiece of interior architecture and design, the venerable lobby of the historic La Fonda, into a generic hotel lounge straight out of an episode of “Miami Vice” (really, talk about passé, with Gloria Estevan or Latin Kings on the speakers) – it was with a touch of apprehension that we stepped onto the venerable portal one recent late afternoon, and into the rehabbed restaurant and bar.
(And again, apropos Paris and New Orleans, there is no better place in Santa Fe than the portal of El Farol to imbibe and dine al fresco.)
Some facelifts are better than others, as we all know, and it is with great relief that we report that El Farol’s is a wildly successful one. Crisp, clean, well lit, yet still the same old El Farol. It was also reassuring to immediately spot a well-known resident artist at a table with friends. We exchanged looks of amused wonderment at the changes. “Sort of disorienting,” we remarked. “I know,” she replied, “it’s so, so … . I mean, you wouldn’t think of being indecent here.”
Indeed not, and not only are the Morang murals just fine, but thanks to the new, creamy, hard plaster walls they look as if they have had a Sistine Chapel-like cleaning (thankfully, they did not try to repair the cracks in several of the great murals). AND, in the course of renovations, two more stunning Morang murals were uncovered – a gorgeous, sweeping landscape smack dab in the middle of the wall behind the old bar and a vivid, heavily impastoed landscape formerly hidden by a post immediately to the right of the front door.
The middle room has been doubled by taking out a wall and opening into what was formerly office space, with a small stage for the great flamenco performances presented, and large black-and-white shots of local interest by noted photographers Lisa Law, Ray Belcher and Douglas Magnus give a subdued, but still dramatic, effect.
New owners Rich Freedman, who owns The Teahouse across the street, and Freda Scott, who was El Farol’s general manager for nine years, have not only restored, replaced and repaired everything from floors to leaky roof (not to mention bathrooms and plumbing!), but with Freedman’s focus and new Head Chef Shane Alexander, formerly of Lambert’s in Taos, and recently executive sous chef at Club at Las Campanas, the menu has a new look and feel, as well.
Tapas continue to be in the spotlight at El Farol and, this late afternoon, we enjoyed a bit of happy hour from both the bar and main menus. Some of the old favorites remain, such as the aguacate (flash fried avocado) with spicy pico de gallo and a lime crema ($8/$6 happy hour); the calamari frito with pickled chile, lemon thyme aioli and romesco verde ($10); and the gambas al ajillo (they don’t mince with the garlic on these shrimp, sorry, $12), and each seemed fresher, lighter than we remembered.
A glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc (La Playa, $6 happy hour) provided a perfect accompaniment to several notable dishes with exclamatory marks. A new take on ceviche, plated with golden tomato gazpacho, boquerones (featuring a half dozen or so white anchovies) with olive oil tomato and avocado ($8), and a must-have, alcachofas (grilled artichoke) with goat cheese and a drizzle of balsamic ($12).
Everything beautifully plated, served and immensely enjoyed. A big, deep sigh of relief and big step up for one of the great old new spots in Santa Fe, and still as fun and authentic as the bullet hole still in the bar. (Who knew?)
El Farol is still the spot for nightlife, with music of immense variety, usually at no cover, the famous Tuesday Night open mic Blues Night, and year-round performances by The National Institute of Flamenco.
El Farol serves until 10 p.m., and a bar menu offers chips, salsa and guacamole, and artisanal cheeses until closing.
El Farol is back, and better than ever.