Before El Nido closed its doors in 2010, Anthony and Wendi Odai were regulars. And like countless other couples across the decades, they celebrated their wedding anniversary there every year with the famous oysters, steak, lobster and beer. Now, they own the landmark Tesuque restaurant—along with friends Rob and Michelle Bowdon—and they couldn’t be happier.
“Back then, El Nido was a run-down restaurant, but we loved it,” Anthony recalls, sitting with Wendi in a booth on a bustling Tuesday night. “So when it closed, we were sad. It sat empty forever.” El Nido had been a special place to both couples, and not just because they lived in the neighborhood—they loved its community ambience, rich history and fine food. So when the opportunity arose for them to bring back the landmark restaurant, they quickly embraced it, devoting themselves to making it better than ever.
“There are such iconic restaurants here—Maria’s, The Shed—and El Nido is one of them,” Anthony says. “When we were building this place, we’d leave the doors open and people would wander in who remembered the days when it was a roadhouse with chairs lined up against the wall so there was room for dancing and a jukebox in the corner. We have brought back so many of the El Nido regulars. People who live up the street and are in their 80’s. It’s fun to hear the stories and to see these regulars come in and say they’re happy to be back.”
Rob and Michelle began to frequent the restaurant around 2005. “We believed El Nido to be a community restaurant where not only did they service Santa Fe foodies but also locals with fixed incomes and retirees,” Rob says. “ I would eat my fried oysters and steaks and drink my martini while our daughter Skye enjoyed her butter pasta. The food was good, but the building was amazing…I would think, ‘If only these walls could talk.’”
What began as a roadhouse in the 1920s went on to have various lives as a dance hall and even a “house of ill-repute.” Wendi shares a black-and-white photograph taken between 1935 and 1950 of burro riders in front of El Nido, with a neon sign above and a group of onlookers beneath the portal. The couple loved the image so much they turned it into a postcard. “We’ve been told two of the burro riders still live here,” Wendi says. “We’re trying to locate them.” She also mentions El Nido’s role in World War II, “when secrets from the Manhattan Project were shared on the dance floor.”
In 1970, flamenco dancer Maria Benitez began performing at El Nido, and that tradition continues, with flamenco dinners featuring performances by Antonio Granjero + Entreflamenco. Antonio was a choreographer and principal male soloist with the Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco for more than 12 years and Entreflamenco’s co-director Estefania Ramirez worked with Maria as well and was Michelle’s roommate at the University of New Mexico. (The next flamenco dinner at El Nido takes place Oct.15.)
The new El Nido also continues the longtime oyster tradition, serving grilled oysters on the half shell with butter, garlic, parsley and a fruity white balsamic vinegar glaze. And because the old El Nido was known for steaks and salmon, the new menu includes Atlantic salmon of the day as well as wood-fired steaks served with signature house-made sauces—Dijon mustard, whiskey, green peppercorn, black truffle demi-glace or chianti sugo. “Our steaks are wonderful,” Anthony says. “We do a wet-age steak, where big slabs are vacuum-sealed and sit at a certain temperature for 28 days so that the muscles break down and the meat is really tender.”
While things look very much the same from the outside, the new El Nido’s undergone an interior renovation that brings it squarely into the 21st century, with an exhibition kitchen, a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven, and a rotisserie and grill. The Odais, who own a construction company, combined their skills in building and designing home interiors to achieve the handsome transformation.
“In the front room, we wanted to create a little more of a big-city feel,” says Wendi, who designed the new look with an appreciation for the restaurant’s past. Sleek black chairs, upholstered bancos and walnut tables blend well with the wood floor, art from Glenn Green Galleries + Sculpture Garden and the elegant rotisserie/grill station, which replaces the old bar area. A walnut chef’s counter fronts the station with stools made of black Italian water buffalo leather. The old kiva fireplace still stands in an intimate dining alcove at one end of the room. At the other end, the original fireplace remains. The effect is a cozy, welcoming atmosphere that alludes to the restaurant’s name, which translates from Spanish as “The Nest.”
The bar now occupies the second room, where original tin chandeliers hang from the ceiling and colorful murals painted by Fern Rae remain, a testament to the restaurant’s lively past. Wendi updated the original bancos with leather upholstery in a burnt-orange color. “I was inspired by the vibrant colors in the murals and wanted to extend that warmth,” she says. Fern had been a regular at the old El Nido and she came into the new restaurant often, until she passed away a few months ago.
“This barroom is our homage to the old El Nido,” Anthony says, looking around the roomful of regulars and newcomers. “People still make reservations for Booth No. 3 all the time. And some people come in three or four times a week for to-go food. They wait for the food and chat with the staff at the bar.” Meanwhile, outside, on the new covered patio—an oasis of greenery and fairy lights—a local family celebrates a birthday, an old pastime at El Nido.
Executive Chef Cristian Pontiggia—who was formerly chef at Osteria D’Assisi—is a perfect fit for the new nest. He’s worked at two Michelin star-awarded restaurants in Europe, received awards for his cooking and wine expertise from the prestigious Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, been recognized by the Italian government as a master chef and is a certified doctor of oenogastronomy, focusing on the connection of food and wine to the land where they are produced. He also volunteers as a Cooking with Kids’ super chef.
Cristian’s house-made pasta is sublime—Anthony’s favorite dish is the Garganelli al Trapanese. This penne-like pasta tossed with arugula-almond pesto, cherry tomatoes, cream sauce and Parmesan cheese could make you a regular, too. The pesto and cream sauce melt into the perfectly cooked pasta with the ideal balance of flavors. The tomatoes‚ plump and bursting with juicy sweetness, bring all the components together.
Wendi’s favorite dish is the whole branzino grilled in the wood-fired oven. The thin-crusted pizzas are primo, too; take, for example, the San Francesco, a zesty blend of prosciutto, mozzarella, Chimayo green chile, San Marzano pomodoro sauce and fresh arugula tossed on top once the pizza is cooked. The rotisserie menu also includes barbecued bison ribs with fig-balsamic sauce, roasted Berkshire tenderloin with crispy prosciutto and organic oyster mushroom sauce and a Surf & Turf combo of speck-wrapped sea scallops and pesto aioli. Daily specials are on tap, and don’t miss the signature dessert—Brulée Cake, a rich and dense vanilla cake caramelized on top and served with banana-pudding gelato.
As you approach El Nido, the aromatic scent of burning wood fills the air. The fragrance changes depending on whether the kitchen is using apple, pecan, piñon or other hardwoods to fuel the oven. It draws you in, and once inside, you’ll feel right at home, with a warm welcome from Jeannine Marckstein, guest services manager. She’ll ask if you’ve visited before and, if so, she’ll want to hear your stories about El Nido, so she can add them to the memory book she’s assembling for the restaurant. By the time you leave, you’ll feel as if you’re a regular here, too. “All four of us put our hearts into this place,” Anthony says. “We’ve got a wonderful staff and they feel the same way about the building and the restaurant. It’s family and it’s home.”
El Nido is located at 1577 Bishop’s Lodge Road in Tesuque, 505.954.1272, elnidosantafe.com.
Story by Lynn Cline