An underground revolution of sorts has been taking place at the El Rey Inn, located in Midtown, right on Cerrillos Road. The hotel has been a local institution for over 80 years, but in 2016 it was sold to Behringer, a real estate company from Texas. Now it has changed hands again, with the current design and logistical changes spearheaded by husband and wife Jay and Alison Carroll.
Hailing from Joshua Tree, California, the couple has made the pilgrimage to Santa Fe many times over the years, and their appreciation for the city has majorly impacted their vision for the El Rey. "I've been coming to Santa Fe for almost two decades and it's taken me a long time to navigate," Jay Carroll says. "I want the hotel to be a gathering place for locals and travelers alike, to attract the best the region has to offer."
While the Carrolls are committed to preserving the vintage vibe of the hotel, the most drastic change has been the complete makeover of what was once a breakfast room into a full bar. The space has been dubbed La Reina (the queen), meant to complement the royal implications of the El Rey. As a further complement, the staff is made up entirely of women. Bar manager Laurel Hunziker said that it happened organically, but she appreciates the chance to provide more opportunity to talented women in the restaurant industry. "After all, it is called La Reina," Hunziker says with a grin. "We are excited to be creating a safe and supportive environment for female bartenders." As a female patron, I'm excited to share in that space as well.
The room itself has undergone a complete makeover from its breakfast days. What was once small, cramped and closed is now airy, spacious and minimalist, with softly neutral wood furniture and white walls painted with abstract murals by Los Angeles-based artist John Zabawa.
"I have a fascination with the era of the countercultural art scene in New Mexico," Jay says. "The Abiquiú House, Georgia O'Keeffe's art, Alexander Girard's work on The Compound—we wanted to emulate that in a fresh, unique way."
Zabawa has also scattered small, clever embellishments painted almost randomly in hidden corners. On one wall, the silhouette of a cowboy smokes a cigarette. A large, black X and a small O creep lazily across a wall above a stark white bench. There are plans to hold artist receptions in the bar and showcase work from local craftspeople by supplying all the hotel decorations in the rooms and lobby from local sources. But it was hard for me to spot all the secret artwork when I attended the soft opening party last Saturday, as the bar was packed to the rafters with party-goers. It seems that La Reina has already settled into satisfying a niche.
The selection is simple but complete, offering local beer, wine and a cocktail list focusing on a selection of tequila and mezcal. Beers start at $4, cocktails run $9 to $12, and wines are $7 to $8 by the glass ($25 to $39 a bottle). The selection features sly nods to burgeoning trends sweeping cocktail culture outside the purview of Santa Fe. Highlights include a La Cueille, a Bugey-Cerdon pét-nat ($39/bottle), and a glass of Yuri Masamune Honjozo Sake ($8).
The menu was developed by Alison Carroll, and she aimed for it to be considerably less expensive than the downtown bar scene. "The pricing is really democratic," she maintains. "We want the look and feel of a local bar that just happens to be in a hotel." The signature cocktails are clearly crafted to highlight the smoky earthiness of mezcal and the alluring spectrum of flavors present in tequila, with each selection featuring one or both as the main ingredient. My favorite was the La Reina ($12), which features Illegal brand mezcal and Casamigos reposado tequila mixed with agua de jamaica and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur. As an herbalist by trade, Hunziker says she appreciates the touch. "Jamaica has a similar flavor profile to citrus; it's less expected and more interesting," she explains. "And it has medicinal benefits and implications, as well as the mezcal, which is traditionally and culturally seen as a holistic and sacred beverage—I think that should be emphasized in cocktail culture more."
Further changes are afoot at the El Rey—all of them positive, some of them wildly offbeat and fun. In terms of food, the hotel's restaurant is not yet up and running, but the Carrolls hope to offset this with food trucks on weekends. None have been confirmed yet. The hotel itself will also reportedly revert back to its original name, El Rey Court. Meanwhile, the pool in the back is being remodeled, and by June, the Carrolls plan to revive the Pool Club that was once a featured program for locals to enjoy. This will involve access to music, drinks and pool privileges, naturally.
Regardless, as it stands, La Reina is set to be one of the most enjoyable additions to the various cocktail, art and food cultures of Santa Fe.
El Rey Court, 3370, 1862 Cerrillos Road, 982-1931
5-11 pm Thursday-Sunday