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SANTA FE, N.M. — When a mutual friend of long-time Santa Fe restaurateur Murphy O’Brien and hotel entrepreneur Allan Affeldt introduced them a year ago, little did O’Brien know that he would end up re-opening the Legal Tender, Lamy’s landmark bar and restaurant.
But then things happened quickly.
“In an hour of knowing Allan, I was kind of intrigued and ended up leaving with a set of plans,” O’Brien said last week.
Those who know the enthusiastic Affeldt and his passion for renovating the classic American railroad hotels of Fred Harvey would not be surprised.
Affeldt acquired, renovated and opened La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, several decades ago with his wife Tina Mion and, more recently, the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico – both former Harvey House properties that were moribund.
The Castañeda opened in April and now has its first 13 rooms, bar and restaurant going, with four rooms left to finish. The hotel, built in 1898, was shuttered for 70 years. In the same deal in which he acquired the Castañeda, Affeldt also took over and upgraded the Plaza Hotel on the historic Las Vegas Plaza.
Assuming management of the Legal Tender Saloon and Eating House – like the famous Harvey Houses, it’s located at a railroad stop – is a natural progression of his passion for history, and the hotels and dining rooms that are credited with helping open the West to tourism.
“We are trying to tie together all these historic railroad properties,” Affeldt said, when asked why he’s in the middle of yet another project.
In a transaction last year where no money changed hands, the assets of the Lamy Railroad & History Museum, which owned Legal Tender, were transferred to the nonprofit Winslow Arts Trust that Affeldt founded.
Affeldt calls himself “the responsible party” who put the deal together for a property that has had a history of openings and closings.
“Lamy – and the Legal Tender in particular – is beautiful, but no one has been able to figure out how to make it work,” he said.
“Its operating history is kind of sketchy so, of course, everybody is hoping that we are the ones who will make a go of it.”
O’Brien said Legal Tender’s food will be true to the Harvey legacy, but with modern preparation. “We want to do Fred Harvey (food), which kind of means anything goes,” said O’Brien. “Fred would do a lot of regional American cuisine.”
Under O’Brien’s leadership, the restaurant will serve “classic comfort food things” that are affordable yet upscale, with “small plates so people can try a variety of things,” he said.
A soft opening is scheduled for early September. The menu will include Vichyssoise, “lobster” rolls, but with shrimp for affordability, pan-fried chicken livers with onions, steamed clams, a trout dish, a classic burger and a bar steak with Argentinean chimichurri sauce.
So why would O’Brien, who owns Cafe Fina on Old Las Vegas Highway, want to try and make Legal Tender work? The establishment, which dates from 1884, has been an iffy proposition since it was re-done in the mid-1990s, with various efforts to attract diners, and sometimes dancers, failing to succeed.
O’Brien cites growth southeast of Santa Fe and says that, now, in a nod to the blending of the old and the new, “social media definitely helps make places like this go.”
The latest version of the Legal Tender will seat 120 inside and 50 outside, with 13 seats at the bar, plus tables, said O’Brien.
The oaken bar was reportedly imported from Germany in 1884. “It’s a beautiful historic bar,” said Affeldt.
When Carolyn Yorston, 95, now of La Jolla, California, renovated what was then the general store in Lamy in 1950 to open what she called the Pink Garter Saloon, that bar was in bad shape. She had it restored and people were coming to see it.
We “hired our favorite bartender” and when “people wanted something to eat,” we started serving steak sandwiches, said Yorston. “It had a little stage, and my girlfriend and I would do the cancan on Saturday nights. … It was a lot of fun.”
Yorston has heard about Affeldt’s acquisition. He hopes she can visit for the opening.
Lamy itself, 18 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, “has a wonderful authenticity” and the tiny outpost belies its historic importance, said Affeldt.
The Manhattan Project scientists and “everybody for 100 years who has come to Santa Fe and New Mexico, a great many of them came through Lamy” and its train depot. The village once had a Harvey hotel, the El Ortiz, which was torn down in the 1970s.
Lamy remains the Santa Fe area’s Amtrak stop. Affeldt believes the revival of a regularly scheduled excursion train service by the Santa Fe Southern Railway between Santa Fe and Lamy would “be a really huge asset for Santa Fe” and help the Legal Tender.
Affeldt has had discussions with Karl Ziebarth, one of the railway’s owners and general manager.
Ziebarth, in a telephone interview, emphasized the railway is open for excursion business, with chartered trips to Lamy for groups and functions. Santa Fe Southern ceased its regularly scheduled service in 2012 after about 20 years.
After spending and losing a lot of money operating the regular service, “it simply didn’t work,” said Ziebarth. “The market is too small.”
Ziebarth said the railroad’s other dealings are private, when asked about a report that the railroad was for sale.
Railroad service from Santa Fe or not, Legal Tender will initially open Friday through Sunday from 5:30 until 9 p.m., and “build it up from there,” said O’Brien.
At first, there will be live music on Friday nights, with the intention to offer music more frequently.