After two generations have poured themselves into a family restaurant for 70 years, a question inevitably arises. What’s next? For the Razatoses, of Santa Fe institution Plaza Café, the answer is Café Sonder.
With a zest for contemporary American cuisine, Café Sonder is the latest installment in the Razatos family’s trilogy. Three restaurants and three generations have grown from the original Plaza Café, with its heritage recipes and Mexican oilcloth tablecloths: Plaza Café Southside has a fresh though equally diner feel; and now, Café Sonder represents both legacy and departure, with made-from-scratch food at affordable prices, great service and a third generation of chefs and restaurateurs building something of their own from the kitchen to the table.
When the Zia Diner, another integral part of Santa Fe’s zeitgeist, vacated its prime spot between the Plaza and the Railyard in February 2016, Daniel Razatos, the second generation to steer Plaza Café, seized the space. He set the vision, bringing in stepson Justin Salazar, 30, to make it happen. Son Nick Razatos, 26, has since become executive chef.
“Dad’s focus was on being inclusive,” Justin says. “Ultimately, he decides everything when it comes to the business, the road we’re traveling on. But he ensures everyone has a voice in the process.” Just as family matriarch Beneranda Razatos is where the buck stops at Plaza Café, Daniel is where the buck stops at Café Sonder. Both set a high bar of professionalism—even among family. “It’s strange when you’re here though. It’s not like you’re here with family. We don’t refer to our dad as ‘Dad’ when we’re on the floor; it’s always Daniel. When I talk to my brother, it’s ‘Chef,’” Justin says.
The brothers (along with Jared Salazar, Justin’s brother, who floats between Plaza Café and Café Sonder) grew up in the family business. “It made it difficult to try out other jobs,” Nick says. “After you’ve worked in restaurants, other jobs are boring. Restaurant work is really fast and exciting.” That doesn’t mean he took to it quickly. “When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate that tradition as much. As I got older, I fell in love with it more and more,” he says.
While Nick was studying at Boston University earning a certificate program in the culinary arts, Justin pursued a career in human resources and, for a handful of years, was an HR manager for Santa Fe County. A year-and-a-half ago, when the opportunity arose to take over the former Zia Diner space, Justin joined the family business. “I thought, ‘I’m 30, if I’m going to do something different, now’s the time to do it,’ ” he says. Justin managed Plaza Café for a year as Café Sonder took shape. “It’s one thing to manage a restaurant. It’s another thing to really get your hands dirty with a restaurant. That’s one thing with Daniel, we never ask someone to do a job we wouldn’t do ourselves. When I first came to the Plaza, I was the busser. I was the janitor. I worked in the kitchen, as a runner, as a server. I did everything. That’s a big part of learning the process.”
The building, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties, has served as coal warehouse, cracker factory, produce company and auto-body repair shop. The Razatos family renovated the space, making it feel lighter and brighter, and revamped the menu, bringing both in line with contemporary American tastes. They ran hickory wood floors throughout, decorated with a silver, red, black and white palette, and hung abstract art and light fixtures, giving the space a sleek, brasserie feel.
Behind schedule (thanks to renovations), the restaurant opened in November 2016. Although Justin says they felt a difference in philosophies with then-Chef Jon Helquist who initially opened the restaurant, at some point, “It was time to just get open,” he says.
At the time, Nick was still in Boston, cooking at Menton, helmed by Chef Barbara Lynch, the only female chef in the U.S. to hold the prestigious title of Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux. He felt pulled to return and join the family project. He moved back to his hometown and for the past two months has been gently focusing and reshaping the menu.
While Plaza Café takes a something-for-everyone approach, Café Sonder’s one-page menu emphasizes essentials drawn from Nick’s upbringing and current influences. His dad is the final arbiter of taste—if Daniel likes it, it goes on the menu.
“Growing up had a big effect on me, with Mediterranean and New Mexican flavors. The Plaza Café always had really good food, so I was spoiled in that sense,” Nick says. His Mediterranean heritage—both familial and palate—trickles into the menu through hummus appetizers and a cauliflower “tartar” starter that, with its herbaceous crunch, lends itself to gluten-free tabbouleh.
But Nick says his tastes developed most during his time in Boston, where he “found the stuff I really like eating. A lot of fish, pastas, fresh ingredients.” Café Sonder serves stick-to-your-ribs comfort dishes, like pasta, with fresh takes, as with the oxtail ragu con fettuccine—an early customer favorite. “I like to make people eat things they don’t normally eat,” Nick confesses.
Boston’s coastal vibe plays out in dishes like the Fisherman’s Stew, with saffron broth and rock cod, and the ruby trout, which gets a perfect sear and the simple accompaniments of asparagus and lemon puree. “It’s the little details that make all the difference with that dish,” Nick says.
Sometimes his influences meld. Mussels are served with New Mexican red chile and traditional New Mexican enchiladas, served Christmas, get a local take with ground pork from Kyzer Farm. Although the restaurant doesn’t claim to use only local, Nick sources regionally. “We don’t want to get locked into a format. We just want to focus on farmers farming the right way, shipping the right way,” Nick says. “I just want to focus on getting good ingredients. …It’s not something we broadcast on the menu. I think it’s just something you do because it makes you feel good to do it.”
In the metropolis, Nick was also exposed to global cuisine in a way he hadn’t been in New Mexico, and was drawn to those, like Thai, that blend every flavor on the palate, from spicy to sweet. Take another of his signature dishes: a beet on ricotta salad, where the earthiness of the beets mingles with a peppery ricotta, the crunch of pepitas, and the sweetness of dates. “There’s a lot going on in that dish,” he says.
As Nick finds his voice with the menu, he expects it will shift (though not change completely) with the seasons and will feature more handmade pastas. Look for penne pasta with morels, peas, pea shoots, and pistachio pesto this spring.
Regional craft beer and mostly Old World wines pair with the dishes. “We like wines that have a good story behind them, a single family of makers. We like that because it reminds us of ourselves,” Nick says.
Just as Nick felt the pressure of meeting local expectations for food, Justin felt the weight of good service. “It’s something we take very seriously coming from Plaza Café. When people come in here—particularly locals that have been eating at Plaza Café for a long time—they’ll let you know when you miss. They’re not shy about it!” Justin says.
The service philosophy reflects the café’s name. Plucked from an “emotional” Internet dictionary, Justin’s sister found the word “sonder,” a noun meaning “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”
“It’s one thing that my dad really felt—that everyone has their own lives, ambitions and worries, Justin says. “But we’re connected at the restaurant—us with our patrons.” Who ever said the last in a trilogy couldn’t live up to its predecessors hasn’t tried Café Sonder.
Café Sonder is at 326 S. Guadalupe Street in Santa Fe. 505.982.9170, cafesonder.com
Story by Ashley M. Biggers