There were serious offers on the table from five potential buyers for El Farol on Canyon Road, a Santa Fe icon and one of America’s hundred most historic restaurants. Four of the bids were from out of state. Lucky for Santa Fe, the winning offer, from lead investor Richard Freedman, was not only local, it was hyperlocal. Rich also owns The Teahouse, right across the street.
“Lately, I’ve been wearing out a path between the two places,” Rich says on Day 12 of the newly refurbished and reopened El Farol, which translates from Spanish as “The Lantern.” “We let the lantern idea guide us as we chose every detail of the design,” part owner and General Manager Freda K. Scott says. “The warmth and light, the sense of welcoming that a lit lantern symbolizes, and which historically signaled the cantina was open for service.”
Rich and Freda eschewed the services of a professional designer, preferring to make their own selections of casual comfortable, dark wood furniture, locally sourced lighting fixtures and sconces, the new modern and elegant logo, the flatware and other décor details, down to the alabaster candleholders on every table, which are meant to convey: “You’re home, you’re invited, you’re welcome here.”
Freda, who had worked as a manager under the previous owner for over 10 years, believed she’d be able to help guide the renovation because she knew the place intimately (in fact, she met her husband Max there), and knew from experience what customers valued. Consequently, the new El Farol bar retains the frescoes made by Taos artists Alfred Gwynne Morang and William Vincent Kirkpatrick, both of whose works are for sale in local galleries. Local lore has it that the frescoes were painted by the artists, both now deceased, to resolve bar debts. The new owners have also preserved an element from the 1800s, the bar base, which is said to contain a bullet hole. “The renovations honored the history,” Freda says. Rich adds, “We did our homework; we were intent on retaining the legacy.” And as for the cost of the renovation, “A tremendous amount of resources went into the skeleton of the place,” Rich says. “The idea was to restore it to its heyday when the New York Times called it ‘one of the best bars on earth’ or when Nancy Sinatra, Joan Baez, U2 and Bon Jovi played here, or at least got up and sang a song or two in here.”
It was a delicate balance to overhaul the plumbing and electrical systems, replace flooring, especially on the dance floor, install a new roof, new machinery, and generally bring things up to code, while not changing things so drastically as to tamper with customers’ memories—the special birthdays and anniversary celebrations lived and held dearly in memory. “We have couples who have been celebrating their wedding anniversaries here at El Farol for over 30 years, “ Freda says. “I feel like by restoring El Farol, we’ve given the community a tremendous gift.”
Tradition is clearly treasured here, but some things are decidedly new: the restaurant is now compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for the first time, there’s a beer set-up in the bar. “Before, you couldn’t get a draft beer at El Farol,” Rich remarks. “But now, we’re serving five local beers, all of which are world class.” Eight varieties of margaritas are also available, some classic, and some for the adventurous, like those made with pomegranates and jalapenos. Plus, Head Bartender Andrew Roy, who is a mixologist, level II sommelier, and the 2016 winner of the Last Slinger Standing competition, created some altogether original cocktails for the new El Farol. For example, the Bulleit-Hole Old Fashioned, featuring Bulleit Rye Whiskey, pays tribute to the bullet hole in the bar, and the Canyon Walker, referencing the Christmas Eve Farolito Walk on Canyon Road, is made with Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch, cherry liqueur, orange juice and sweet vermouth.
The wine list is “Spanish Old World driven,” according to Freda, but has Argentina and California wines represented, too. There are also three sherries and four ports available for after dinner. “We’re offering good value at all of the different price levels,” Rich says. “You can get a delicious glass of wine anywhere along the way from $8 to $13.50.”
Local woodworking artisans installed new floating shelves in the “ladies bar,” so called because you can sit in a regular chair, not up on a stool, and the bar is sunken so the bartender stands at eye level with seated customers. And when taking down the old wire racks, to everyone’s surprise, another fresco, previously obscured, was revealed. There’s new booth seating, too, so diners can eat while enjoying the live music, which starts just after the longstanding Flamenco dinner show—held in another room behind closed doors—ends.
Much of the work over the last three months went into composing a revitalized menu, which like the renovation, retains a few key favorites while simultaneously going where no version of El Farol has gone before. Rich and Chef Shane Alexander, who came to El Farol from Las Campanas, where he served as executive sous chef, have relished the many hours they spent inventing and creating menus that include classic Spanish tapas and entrées, but in their newer, fresher iterations.
Por ejemplo, the Bronzino Baja Fuego, a gluten-free dish, features Mediterranean sea bass over chorizo and cherry heirloom tomatoes. “It’s a delicious white fish,” Rich says, “and chorizo, which is spicy, goes great with seafood.” He says it can be a challenge to buy locally when the menu is seafood centric, or if you’re serving paella, which requires Spanish rice. “But where we can source local items, we like to.”
Rich’s also proud of El Farol’s version of Gambas al Ajillo (also gluten free), which is a staple of traditional tapas dining—a simple dish of wild Gulf shrimp with garlic, chili flakes and olive oil. “My emphasis is on using the best possible ingredients,” Rich says. “All our steaks are prime meat, and the hamburger at lunch is an incredible mix blended exclusively for us—chuck, short rib and brisket, custom ground to which we add bone marrow.” He says the eight-ounce patty is “available as our version of a green chile cheeseburger, or a hamburger with Balsamic onion jam and Manchego cheese.” Both sit atop toasted brioche buns, and are served with field greens.
There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, too. Take for example, a grilled eggplant dinner entree served with tomato and fennel ragout, garbanzo beans, spinach and hazelnut picada. Many of the tapas can be veganized by removing an ingredient, like the goat cheese from the roasted artichoke, or the lime crema from the flash-fried avocado served with pico de gallo. “The Aguacate was one of the tapa dishes customers begged us not to change,” Freda says. She finds it fun to teach tapas newcomers about the small plates. “They are coursed two to three tapas at a time, and they’re meant to be shared,” she says. “The whole essence of the experience is sharing.”
One of the aspects Rich most enjoys about being a restaurateur is sourcing the ingredients Chef Alexander needs for the extensive lunch, dinner, bar and dessert menus. “It’s like being a food curator,” he says, “bringing in flavors our diners might not have ever tried before. It’s fun. I’m always studying foods, looking at what they’re doing in Spain and Italy, and thinking about how can we execute that—how can we do it well?” And Pastry Chef Taylor Burns is creating dessert offerings exactly in that spirit. She’s made a colorful fruit tart with seasonal fruits, honey mousse, sweet dough tart and what she terms an “exotic glaze”—a streak of bright blazing yellow made from apricot, passion fruit and mango. Another of her new creations is the gluten-free Chocolate Walnut Indulgence, a dark chocolate-covered frozen mousse, served with red-wine poached pears, candied walnuts and chocolate biscotti. There’s a delicate scent of clove hovering gently over the pears.
For Rich, who prioritizes collegiality among his staff, the sweetness extends to the 45 employees he and Scott have brought together to continue the legacy of El Farol. “I’m proudest of the people,” Freedman said, “because the food and the service comes from the people. I feel blessed to be in business with Freda Scott; she’s an incredibly competent and warm person. I love the way Chef Alexander talks to people in the kitchen, he sets just the tone we are going for—to enjoy the people you work with, and to be part of something you can be proud of. For myself, I’m thrilled to be part of this. But what I mostly feel is privileged.”
El Farol is located at 808 Canyon Road in Santa Fe, 505.983.9912, elfarolsantafe.com.
Story by Frances Madeson