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Letting the architecture do its thing

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

When it comes to what Jay Carroll hopes people think of when they visit Santa Fe’s classic El Rey Court motor inn and its new bar, the writing is – literally – on the wall.

And it says: “Where the fast lives slow down.”

That phrase has been painted into a nicho above a small kiva fireplace in what used to be the hotel’s breakfast room. The space has recently been transformed into La Reina bar, the hotel’s latest addition in an ongoing project to turn it into, as Carroll described, a “love letter” to the region.

“We want everyone to feel at home,” said Carroll, who along with his wife, Alison, have become the creative directors of the 82-year-old El Rey following a 2016 ownership change.

“It’s a very come-as-you-are type of place, where everyone is a friend,” he said. “Where locals and tourists can interact and have a good time. It’s that simple.”

Carroll, a former global brand leader at Levi’s, and freelance writer for outlets like Bon Appetit and GQ, is overseeing the branding and renovations of the five-acre hotel site, while Alison specializes in the food and beverages. The couple was brought on by their old friend Jeff Burns of the Texas-based Bullwhip Capital Partners, the company that now owns El Rey.

For more than a year, the couple has been splitting time between their home in Joshua Tree, Calif., where they operate Wonder Valley Olive Oil, and Santa Fe. When in town, they stay at the Cerrillos Road, 86-room hotel built in the 1930s along the original northern leg of Route 66.

Alison and Jay Carroll have built a new bar, called La Reina, at the Santa Fe’s El Rey Court on Cerrillos Road. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Carrolls opened La Reina on March 31. The room, with white adobe walls, a skylight and two fireplaces, is now a regionally inspired bar with a tequila and mezcal focus. According to Jay Carroll, the internal concept for the bar, from the color of the staff uniforms to its menu, was developed through a fictional story about a traveler.

“It was about someone who had European roots, where you have this indigo and workwear you have in the uniforms and this richness to that color that means so much,” he said.

“And then that person moved to Oaxaca and gets obsessed with mezcal and tequila, and that whole process, and then they drove up the dusty roads to Santa Fe and came to La Reina.”

The breakfast room at the El Rey Court has been converted into a new bar. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

According to Alison Carroll, the intention was always to create a space for locals that just happened to be in a hotel. Bar manager Laurel Hunziker said that since the opening, her staff has catered to out-of-towners, as well as a large volume of thirtysomething Santa Feans who need a mid-town hangout. A Santa Fe native herself, Hunziker said she has already seen the space “bridging the gap” between the two groups.

On Thursdays, La Reina panders to locals – anyone with a New Mexico ID receives 10 percent off their tab and, after 9 p.m. any night, anyone who works in the hospitality industry is also offered a 10 percent discount.

“What is really nice to hear from locals is that this was some mythical place that everyone had driven past a thousand times and never stepped in,” said Alison Carroll. “It’s the same reaction, ‘I had no idea it was so big, I had no idea it was so beautiful, that the garden was so lovely, that this space existed.’ ”

The Piña Picante, with Chimayó chile and salt on the rim, is one of the cocktails being served up by Laurel Hunziker, left, manager of the new bar at the El Rey Court. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The most popular cocktails so far, according to Alison and Hunziker, include the Piña Picante, a jalapeno-infused tequila drink with mezcal, pineapple and a Chimayó chile salt rim – a drink inspired by one that the Carrolls had at their wedding – as well as the bar’s namesake drink invented by Hunziker. The “La Reina” includes a hibiscus water mixed with tequila, mezcal and a chile liqueur, and is finished off with an orange slice dipped in cinnamon.

Alison, who collaborated on the menu with Hunziker, said she spent time observing what locals liked to drink and from that tried to create an “approachable” and varied drink list. Besides the speciality drinks and margaritas, La Reina also has local beers from Marble, Rowley and Santa Fe Brewing, bottles of Miller and Coors, imported and domestic wines – including a Gruet Blanc de Noir, another New Mexico product – and sake.

Initially, the managers imagined La Reina would be somewhere people would come for a drink before heading down to the Plaza for dinner.

“And instead, we’re realizing there’s not a lot of places open past 10 p.m., and we can be that place,” said. The bar, open Thursday-Sunday, is open until 11 p.m. and will stay open later if it’s busy.

Now, the Carrolls are working with food trucks that will park at the hotel on the weekends. They have an official partnership with Backroads Pizza, which will have a truck close to the bar on Friday nights. Alison said they are also working on a deal with Enrique Guerrero of Bang Bite for his new Southern Mexico food truck, Xochitl.

The inside of the bar can seat about 30, Jay estimated, but patrons can also take their drinks or snacks into outdoor areas that can fit about 10, including a renovated, enclosed courtyard the Carrolls cleaned up and lined with black-and-white cushioned seating. That matches La Reina’s white walls, bar and tables contrasted with black seating and wall art. Jay Carroll created the look with LA artist John Zabawa to emit a “simple, calm ambience.”

In the courtyard, Alison Carroll says the couple removed some overgrown plants and replaced old tables to simplify and modernize spaces while also paying homage to its old-school, Southwestern roots.

The Carrolls did not want to divulge much about future changes, but Jay mentioned plans to open a pool club this summer that locals can join. There will be a pool bar. He hopes to have movies and music events on the property going forward.

Other upgrades include ongoing room renovations and a redesigned lobby that includes furniture and art from local artists. The property has also reverted to the hotel’s original name of El Rey Court – it had previously been known as the El Rey Inn. A new sign put up last week includes a new logo that Jay Carroll pointed out was based on the original used eight decades ago when the site was a stop on a two-lane dirt road.

“Really, the name of the game is stripping the stuff away,” said Jay Carroll. “Like you see in La Reina, all we did is take away, pretty much. There’s this calm, beautiful thing that happens when you let the bones of the architecture do its thing.”