Shockwaves rattled Santa Fe last spring when David Salazar, longtime owner of El Farol, announced he was putting the Canyon Road establishment on the market. He’d been the proprietor of City Different’s oldest bar for three and a half decades; who could do the Canyon Road landmark justice? And God forbid—what if a Texan bought it? (Tongue firmly in cheek there, folks.)
It took about six months, but El Farol found the new owners in Rich Freedman and Freda Scott. Both are in their second decades as Santa Feans. Freedman owns another Canyon Road favorite, The Teahouse, conveniently located right across the street, and Scott served as El Farol's general manager for nine years leading up to the sale. They met through a friend last November, and, within a year, they've managed to renovate, reinvigorate and reopen this Santa Fe staple.
"Our big focus was to protect the legacy of El Farol," Scott says, "but give her the necessary little face lift so that the community can enjoy her for many, many more years."
Gone are the vivid orange and turquoise walls, replaced with a tasteful cream, which brightens up the space and highlights the iconic murals, painted by a variety of former patrons. In the renovation process, a previously forgotten Alfred Morang mural was even rediscovered behind the bar shelves. The Northern New Mexican landscape is now the focal point of the bar, which regulars will be relieved to know hasn't changed much. The original base still stands, bullet holes and all, but it's been reinforced with steel so it can stand for even more years to come. New, lighter floors and historic photos of Santa Fe worthy of its Canyon Road address complete the new look.
The facelift extends beyond the physical space—the menu received a complete overhaul. "Over the years, the food at El Farol has not lived up to its reputation," Freedman tells SFR. "I'm all about the food, so I wanted it to be outstanding."
They found just the man for the job in Head Chef Shane Alexander. Originally from South Africa, Alexander has made a name for himself in some of Northern New Mexico's most esteemed kitchens, most recently as the executive sous chef at Club at Las Campanas. He continues the focus on tapas, although Freedman hopes to sneak a few pasta dishes in as well. Rounding out the team is mixologist Andrew Roy, a staple of the Santa Fe bar scene and 2016 winner of Arizona Cocktail Week's elite Last Slinger Standing bartending competition.
A week after the reopening, I settled into a table in the main dining room, tempted by the whole menu, but opting for three tapas: the boquerones (anchovies, $8), aceitunas (marinated olives, $6) and manchego y chorizo, a charcuterie plate accompanied by hazelnuts and a balsamic reduction ($14).
The anchovies had a delicate, tart flavor accentuated by the acidity of tomatoes. It was a generous portion, easily enough to be shared, while the wide variety of olives each reflected the marinade differently, making each bite unique. Some picked up on the rosemary while others almost had the sweet, nutty flavor of a wheat beer. The manchego was creamy but a little sharp, contrasting with the sweeter balsamic and complementing the dense, savory chorizo. The hazelnuts added some much-needed crunch.
I was still peckish, and on that high only truly delicious food gives, so I ordered the tapa-sized bronzino bajo fuego (a white fish, cooked under fire, $14). My server recommended it when I first ordered, and Freedman and Scott seemed to agree that it's one of the stars of the menu. All three were right—it was the best thing I had. The overhead heat made the skin crisp, almost bacon-like, and the fish was both flaky and firm. It's served over heirloom tomatoes and more of the chorizo.
And what's dinner without dessert? The aptly named chocolate walnut indulgence ($12), a dark chocolate-covered frozen mousse served with red wine-poached pears, candied walnuts and chocolate biscotti, is worth the trip itself. Rich but not heavy, each flavor blends together like a dream, and it pairs beautifully with the Warres Optima 10-year tawny port ($10). The dessert menu also features a selection of teas, bringing some of The Teahouse's charm across the street with its new owner.
Everything was plated beautifully, and the service was impeccable. Night owls will be relieved to know El Farol serves until 10 pm, and a bar menu with lighter fare, such as chips, salsa and guacamole and artisanal cheeses, is available until the bar closes. The National Institute of Flamenco continues its decades-long partnership with performances year-round, but if that's not your fancy, the restaurant's online event calendar (not to mention SFR's) is chock-full of live music from a wide range of genres.
808 Canyon Road,
May-October: Noon-10 pm daily;
November-April: 4-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday; noon-10 pm Friday-Sunday