Southwestern style cooking is nationally appreciated for being unlike any other style of food native to America. Yet, if we ask the average foodie anywhere in the country to name a Santa Fe restaurant, they would be hard pressed to come up with anything. But the Coyote Café, opened in 1987 chef by Mark Miller to immediate rave reviews—then sold in 2008 to Eric DiStefano, Tori Mendez, and Quinn Stephenson—has always been a benchmark for modern southwestern cuisine. To this day it remains a venerable Santa Fe icon, continuously recognized in national media for its service and cuisine. With that kind of success already behind it, it’s noteworthy that the only remaining member of the new guard owners, Stephenson, alongside manager Schutz, are willing to put themselves out there and make major changes. If it’s not broke, why fix it?
Speaking with Stephenson the first day of Santa Fe Restaurant Week about the new concept, he recognizes that to become more successful in the modern fine dining world, the Coyote Café needed to evolve.
“When I say we wanted to be competitive, I didn’t mean competitive locally, I meant competitive nationally with the best restaurants in the country,
he says. “And when you’re holding the staff to such high levels in terms of service and the quality of food that Chef Eduardo Rodriguez (DiStefano’s sous chef, now the executive chef of the Café) is putting out, the ambiance didn’t really match—the staff can’t fix that, the chef  can’t fix that, so that’s my job to fix it, and make sure it matches the other things we’re doing here.”
It is refreshing to see that kind of ambition in Santa Fe, especially regarding a restaurant that is unequivacably a Santa Fe institution. So what has changed, in terms of tweaking the ambiance?
Stephenson and Schutz emphasized their respect for the importance of Coyote Café in the Santa Fe fine dining community, and their mission to honor its past while bringing the restaurant into the future. In this sense, they wanted to match the “modern southwestern” theme of the menu with the decor. The new color story is a mix of bright colors and cool grays, accentuated by pops of turquoise. The interior of the main dining room has undergone a complete facelift. Stephenson wanted to expose the ceiling windows, and took out the series of bancos and the fireplace that once lined the windowed wall opposite the bar. The countertops have been redone, and are pieces of art in and of themselves, made of hand forged, acid-washed slabs of zinc.  the lighting is all-new, the skylight in the ceiling aglow with 120 feet of LED tape. I hadn’t even realized there had been a skylight in the ceiling up until the remodel. In the center of the dining room is a red glass chandelier, an homage to a chile ristra, lit from beneath to cast delicate red shadows on the ceiling at night. The Cantina has also recently undergone some changes, with newly installed retractable, floor length “windows” and a fireplace extending it’s season beyond the summer to now be open year round.
I came back for dinner that night to check out the menu. While the appetizers had been changed, the signature dishes and entrees were all preserved, albeit with minor tweaks. It’s a fine balance; with so many aesthetic changes to the front of the house, it can be difficult to make too many changes in other areas without compromising what made the restaurant successful in the first place. I had the crab and corn enchiladas with veracruz salsa ($22) to start, followed by the legendary cowboy cut ($80), which involves a loaded potato, borracho beans, red chile onion rings, and horseradish butter. It was fabulously way too much food, and even with two other people at the table we couldn’t finish. Dessert was a key lime tart with pineapple sorbet and tropical meringue ($11), the soft citrus flavors a refreshing palate cleanser after the hearty meal. The food was good, although not a drastic departure from the Coyote’s previous incarnation. The major changes in the restaurant are mostly to do with the decor.
“Modern southwestern” is a term that hearkens back to the days of Mark Miller, and recalls the far reaching influence of the Coyote’s heyday. Certainly, a case can be made that the kind of upscale “Santa Fe style” that the restaurant embodies has had influences that extend far beyond food and well into the design world, not to mention its impact on fashion and art. Why could there not be a kind of harmonious synergy between the two? And Stephenson seems to be taking it a step further, not just reviving a classic eatery or updating his space. He is creating a brand, striving for a kind of  thematic unity that will be immediately recognizable in Santa Fe and beyond.
“I think great restaurants, you should be able to wake up out of a coma after five years and be presented with the menu and know where and when you are in the world,” Stephenson tells SFR. “Everything’s so safe now, you see California style cuisine everywhere, but when you’re reading our menu, there’s no doubt you’re in the southwest, you’re in the modern era. There’s a theme behind it, a culture and an identity.”
I recognize that he’s right, that a good restaurant anywhere, from New Orleans to the south of France, speaks honestly of its point of origin. And in taking a chance on a renovation, the Coyote Cafe is striving to evolve and speak truly of the traditions of Santa Fe. In that respect, I hope it succeeds.
Coyote Cafe
132 W Water St, Santa Fe, NM 87501