“I think I’m becoming a bitter local,” my colleague told me over the phone last month. We were talking about the influx of unmasked visitors to downtown Santa Fe, along with our shared impulse to tell them to go home and stay there.
But if ever there were a time to pretend to be a (masked), oohing and ahhing tourist in your own town, it’s now. There are few better places to do it than at La Fonda, the nearly century-old former Harvey House and grande dame of Santa Fe hotels.
The hotel has responded to indoor dining restrictions by moving its restaurant operations upstairs to La Terraza, the terrace usually reserved for private parties that has not been open to the public for at least two decades. Up on the roof at La Fonda, the airy breezeways, well-tended gardens and planters, exclusive vistas, and creatively updated menu and cocktail list offer a much-needed new perspective on Santa Fe.
Now’s the season – or the off-season – to go, it seems. On recent visits to the Bell Tower bar, the rooftop watering hole on the Shelby Street side of the hotel, as well as La Terraza, the usual throngs of tourists were nowhere in sight. Perhaps they were thinned out by the start of school, the mandated 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors or the hotel’s 50% limited occupancy.
At any rate, we felt like the hotel belonged to us New Mexico folks. If we couldn’t two-step to Bill Hearne’s trio downstairs at La Fiesta Lounge, we could still survey the sunset over the Jemez Mountains on the roof at the sleek Bell Tower. We settled at a reassuringly socially distanced perch overlooking downtown and tried two new additions to the overhauled cocktail menu – the rum-based El Tropical ($13), which nicely balanced pineapple, coconut, lime and bitters, and the Saturn ($16), a bright Hendricks gin, passion fruit and citrus medley. Keeping the spirit of this endless summer alive, the Bell Tower also offers a rotating cast of frozen cocktails, along with chips, salsa, guacamole, queso and a strong selection of wines by the glass and Santa Fe Brewing beers on draft.
On the other side of the building, we took the elevator up to La Terraza. The spacious eatery set up there encompasses the indoor-outdoor space of the ballroom, a lounge area with couches and fire pits behind it, and canopied tables lined up along the roofline with views of the Sangre de Cristos and the adjacent Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
The cathedral bells clanged charmingly as we forked into the glistening Watermelon Heirloom Tomato Caprice ($18), an artful arrangement dreamed up by new chef de cuisine Randy Tapia, who arrived at La Fonda by way of El Nido in Tesuque. The salad juxtaposes housemade mozzarella, juicy melon, glistening tomatoes, a cooling mint-basil vinaigrette, red chile-dusted pistachios and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. The appetizer paired sweetly with a Mont Paral sparkling rosé ($13), and the ripeness of the fruit again seemed to spark a refreshed point of view.
La Terraza has kept La Fonda’s longtime lunch and dinner mainstays – enchiladas, a filet, a green chile cheeseburger and Ethel’s Chicken Salad Croissant, which is named after a former owner (I don’t care about Ethel’s favorite, but I bet it’s popular with chile-averse grandmothers visiting from Wisconsin). But another new addition to the menu had a more intriguingly diverse cast of ingredients. The huitlacoche tamal ($22) was delicious, its fungi-flecked, semifirm masa topped with grilled corn and a pistachio-green chile crema. It was sided with a barley, apple, fig and red onion salad that summoned fall flavors. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so entranced by an entrée at La Fonda, which in the past has hewed more closely to middle-of-the-road, tourist-palate-friendly menu items. The few changes do the hotel good.
The red snapper ($27) is a tasty, hefty piece of fish bathed in tomatoes and green olives, roasted in a banana leaf and sided with a pineapple-orange salsa. Careful attention was paid to the side of grilled asparagus, attractively sheathed in a ribbon of carrot, as well as a lentil and green apple salad.
A set of bison tacos made from pulled short ribs ($26) with pickled cabbage and red onion may have lacked the zip implied by its raspberry chipotle crema. But the flour tortillas encased shreds of tender, big-flavored meat alongside green rice and a bowl of perfectly cooked and seasoned black beans.
Service is kind and prompt, somewhat enhancing the temporary fantasy of a luxury vacation. As is typical of outdoor dining in the COVID-19 age, the staff seems grateful to be at work and doing its best. We al fresco diners, too, are doing our best at this time to support a flailing restaurant industry. In keeping with its long tradition of hospitality, La Fonda makes it easy.