We recently learned that El Quijote, the beloved Spanish restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel since 1930, will be changing hands. It was bought out by Ed Scheetz, the new owner of the Chelsea, who closed the legendary bohemian hotel to guests in 2011 for extensive upscale renovations. Those of us who love El Quijote worry that the restaurant, virtually unchanged for 84 years, will also be upscaled for a fashionable new clientele. It’s one of the few places left in hyper-gentrified Manhattan where you can have an old New York experience.
Lunchtime at El Quijote is a quiet affair. Classical music plays overhead, a series of waltzes, giving you space to hear yourself think. Patrons are gray-haired, hushed, some of them in singles, sitting with white napkins on their laps, not reading, just sitting. No one, not even once, takes out a cell phone. They sit without anxiety, self-contained.
The waiter, dressed in his admiral’s jacket, glides silently among the tables, bearing platters of meat and fish, cocktails, and salads. Bread arrives in a wire basket adorned with a paper doily.
At the far end of the dining room, mounted on a wall painted with sky, a group of windmills slowly turn. The dreary ceiling, scalloped in stucco, brazenly shows its age, untroubled by the dark spots and cracks. Dim chandeliers hang by threads. The oxblood booths wear their frayed shoulders with a shrug of acceptance.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you,” a man says to his lunch companions, “Cry and you cry alone. Understand? Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry all by yourself,” as if the word “alone” is too difficult to grasp.
No one is talking about real estate or technology. No one is screeching with performative delight.
“The Nazis were very, very strict,” says a wild-haired woman as she explains her trip to the Degenerate Art show at the Neue Galerie.
“I had a library of 5,000 books,” says another man at another table. “But I had to give them up when I moved. I didn’t have the space.”
The salad is simple and unpretentious–lettuce, tomato, slices of radish. The pork chops are simple, accompanied by a stark smattering of plain peas. Your mother might have served this to you, back in the dark ages of the 20th century. The simplicity and plainness of the food acts as the opposite of a stimulant. Like the quiet, it calms the nervous system. It is just: pork chop, peas, lettuce, bread. It isn’t trying to impress anyone. It has been this way for a hundred years and sees no point in changing. Take me or leave me, it says. I am what I am.
“In some countries, people will eat leftovers for breakfast.”
“They’re all in Bushwick now, the artists. No more in Manhattan.”
Lunchtime at El Quijote is a protective bubble. The urban cymbal crash is kept far away, outside. Time slows down here. You are among the New Yorkers, the old guard, the ones who are awake, not locked to a screen’s hypnotizing gaze. They know who they are, like the pork chops on the plate, and have no interest in putting on a show.
Jeremiah Moss is the award-winning author of the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). His writing on the city has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Daily News, and online at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He has been interviewed in major newspapers around the globe.