Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.
When Bienvenido Alvarez and his wife left the city of Ourense in 1973, they did not know when they would see their children again. Looking for a better life in Manhattan, where Bienvenido’s brother worked at Sevilla, the couple arrived to the sight of the Twin Towers being built. Bienvenido’s American life grew in tandem with the skyscrapers: He worked as a waiter in the mornings and learned English in the afternoons. After months of this hard work he and his brother, Jose, bought Sevilla, which remains open seven days a week, just as it did years ago. It was not until 1976 that Bienvenido and his wife were able to bring their children to New York. During the summer of 2017, Bienvenido sat with the Manhattan Sideways team at Sevilla, the light illuminating the left side of his face through the massive window that faces West 4th Street. His granddaughter Andrea joined us, kindly translating our interview between Spanish and English. The relatives do not look alike, yet both emanate the same brand of warmth. We arrived at the restaurant while Bienvenido was in the middle of paperwork, but he still took the time to do an interview on the spot - it is befitting that his name translates to “Welcome. ” Before it was established as a Spanish restaurant in 1941, the corner of West 4th and Charles Street was an Irish tavern that sold burgers and beer. The remnants of that earlier establishment can still be seen in Sevilla's decor. Although Bienvenido and his brother are the second set of owners of Sevilla, Bienvenido pointed out that there are no noticeable differences between the restaurant today and the original that opened so many decades ago. Insuring a seamless change of ownership, the brothers chose to leave the restaurant as they inherited it, except for the menu and the alarm system. “We did better, everything, ” said Bienvenido about the menu. It is identical to the 1940s menu, except for a few new dishes and revamped editions of the original items. The alarm system at Sevilla is an homage to the character of the West Village in the 1970s. An eclectic prequel to the upper-class neighborhood it is today, the Village was once home to many thieves, artists, “Bohemians, ” and a significant Spanish community. The restaurant “used to get robbed a lot, ” but is now protected by alarms and its proximity to well to do neighbors. This safety came at the cost of the area’s gentrification, which pushed most of the Spanish population out of the neighborhood. The West Village’s blocks were once so packed with Spanish restaurants it used to be known as “Little Spain. ” Andrea proudly stated that Sevilla is a “pillar for the Spanish community” that remains today. One unwavering Spanish value that the business upholds is the importance of family. Sevilla is not just a restaurant, but the venue where Bienvenido's large Spanish family gathers to celebrate Easter, Mother’s Day, baptisms, and communions. Andrea estimates that three to four generations attend these gatherings and then added that their immediate family tries to have a meal together once a day. Bienvenido bought the building in which Sevilla resides in 1982 so that his family would have a place to live. In general, the family is very close: Bienvenido said that his relationship with his brother is “muy bueno” and that on the rare occasion the pair does argue, Bienvenido can never stay mad at his partner for long. Andrea has been living in New York for the past three years while she finishes culinary school, but before that, she visited the restaurant at least once every year from her home in Spain. When asked what she has learned from her time spent here, Andrea began her response with a one-word statement: "sacrifice". While the restaurant’s enduring success can be credited to its authentic food, it is also fueled by something less concrete: Bienvenido’s genuine, enviable love for what he does. He describes his customers as “marvelous, ” and, at the age of eighty-five, continues to come in every other day to do paperwork and mingle with guests. “He’s a very loving person, ” Andrea gushed, “And he doesn’t understand retirement. ” Bienvenido started working when he was fourteen in Spain, but still keeps a sense of humor about his life’s obstacles. “The worst part was the idioms, ” Bienvenido reminisced about learning English forty-five years ago (His grasp of English has sadly since slipped away). Laughing, he imparted a truism: “A day without work is a day without money. ” Towards the end of our interview, Andrea distilled her grandfather’s character into two words - “proud” and “fun” - and revealed that he wakes up singing every morning. While the brothers used to work hard out of necessity, they do it now for joy. “They work not because they need it, but because they love it. ”
Pil Pil, named for a specific kind of sauce originating in the Basque region of Spain, fills an important role on the Upper East Side. It is a neighborhood watering hole, upscale and with enough ambience for a perfect date or friendly hangout, but still casual enough to lure locals back multiple times each week. I spoke with Nikola Romic, the owner and general manager, who explained that this is exactly the environment he wanted to create when he opened Pil Pil in 2010: a “homey atmosphere” where locals could have good food and wine. Nikola, originally from Serbia, spent a lot of time in Spain. He gained a true appreciation for the cuisine there and now owns vineyards in the Spanish countryside. Most of the wines at Pil Pil come from either his own grapes or family-owned vineyards. Nik told me that he personally travels to each of the vineyards to speak with the vintners and try the wine. Despite being so selective, Pil Pil features wine from over eighty different kinds of grapes. Considering the breadth of his experience, the property he owns, and his education, I was even more impressed with Nik when he revealed his age - when we met in early 2016, he was only twenty-seven! Pil Pil's home on 78th Street had previously been occupied by a sake bar where Nik actually worked. When it became obvious that the space would have to shutter, Nik turned it into a Spanish restaurant, decorating the interior with wine bottles and twining tree branches to make the intimate ambience for which Pil Pil is known. His initial plan was to serve traditional Spanish food, but he has added many American classics with key Spanish ingredients to the menu to appeal to his New York audience. For instance, there is a mac and cheese with chorizo and sliders made with manchego cheese. On the day we visited, Nik was offering a special mulled wine. He handed each member of the Manhattan Sideways team a glass, seasoned with citrus and cloves, which warmed us from the inside out. He showed us to the recently redesigned wine cellar before beckoning us into the kitchen where he casually added shrimp to a pan filled with butter and spices with one hand and stirred the pot of mulling wine with the other. Everything Nik and his sous chef Pedji did seemed effortless, like a well-timed culinary dance. He brought out a few dishes for us to try on the hightop tables, including the shrimp, called gambas al ajillo, which had just the right amount of spice and left enough sauce for the perfect buttery bread dip. We also tried the freshly baked flaky mushroom flatbread, seasoned with truffle oil. The last to arrive were the macaroni and cheese croquettes. These light balls of noodles and cheese, with a dash of paprika, were sensational. Nik is proud of what Pil Pil has become, both in terms of the food and the staff, many of whom speak both Spanish and English. There is no hierarchy of waiters and food runners. Casually dressed, they all work seamlessly together, emphasizing the relaxed atmosphere that Pil Pil has fostered. On Wednesdays, Nik occasionally brings in a Spanish acoustic guitar player from Barcelona…and sometimes Nik himself even plays.
Il Buco is like stepping into another universe tucked away from the already tranquil Bond Street. The copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, antique plates on the shelves, and wooden tables and chairs complement this rustic Italian restaurant. On the day that we were here, artist Chuck Close was as well... supposedly this is his "favorite haunt, " as he lives just a few doors away. Always a fan of his artwork, it was great fun to see him sitting at a table nearby. The hostess was kind enough to suggest that we take a peak downstairs at their impressive wine cellar. We descended the stone stairway where we encountered bottles upon bottles of wines lining the walls.
Although the entrance to this Latin bistro is on Avenue A, on nice evenings, it is the sidewalk café on 7th that gets all the attention. Lively music can be heard from the street, and the mood here is as festive and fun as you might expect from a restaurant inspired by Latin America and Spain.
Courtney Barroll, the owner of Buceo 95, seems like a character out of a storybook. She greeted me wearing a long 1970s patterned dress, one from a collection of vintage pieces that she has been accumulating over the years. She lived in Spain for quite a while and attended the University of Salamanca. She worked as a personal trainer and recognized that the Spanish lifestyle was healthier than that of Americans. She would often ask her Spanish clients what they wanted for dinner, and they responded, “small plates. ” Rather than eating a large meal late in the day, they would dine on a selection of tapas. When she returned to the States, she decided to open a restaurant with her boyfriend, Jim Petersen, that focused on this concept. Jim - the owner of Dive Bar, a neighborhood bar around the corner - agreed to join Courtney in her venture. Together, they decided to continue with the diving theme naming their restaurant “Buceo, ” the Spanish word for scuba diving. The restaurant opened its doors in 2008. The décor of the restaurant represents a labor of love. Jim had a vision and tracked down the company that could build custom shelves with a sliding ladder rail for the walls of the restaurant. Other decorations refer to earlier periods in Courtney’s life. She was the first female waitress on Christopher Street, where she met Philip Ward, who composed the line drawings that hang below the bookshelf. Courtney explained that each piece was a self-portrait based on an Eastern philosophy of lines. The lines have to go in a certain direction in order to enhance the atmosphere of the restaurant. As we stood chatting with Courtney, I was observing Veronica, the chef, who was churning out plates at breakneck speed from the small open kitchen. She prepared some of the favorites of the restaurant, including roasted brussels sprouts, goat cheese croquettes, and “datilas” – bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo goat cheese – all of which are meant to be shared. The “national dishes, ” including the tortillas española and the gambos al ajillo, are frequently requested and Veronica announced that they would never come off the menu. Veronica began work as the sous-chef and was then promoted to head chef. She has left the original menu mostly intact, saying, “Don’t touch what’s not broken. ” She did, however, enhance the tortillas española to make them more flavorful. “I make it to be how I like my food. ” Veronica’s son, Nicholas, who was eight years old at the time of my visit, is a big part of the Buceo family. “He loves helping me, ” his mom proudly told us, adding that he especially enjoys “working” the front of the house. The staff of Buceo 95 are a tight knit family. The two women told me that they close the restaurant every year for ten days at Christmas time - a holiday that begins with a meal for the staff and the exchanging of gifts. Courtney insisted that everyone who works in the restaurant is extremely important to her. “There is no difference between an owner and a bartender, ” she stated. “I’m replaceable, but if we lost the dishwasher, we would close down. ” She then introduced me to the bartender, Christine, who comes from Malaga, and lauded her as the wine and beverage director. “These people are our ambassadors. ”The friendly, family atmosphere does not end with the staff. “People come back because of the environment, ” Courtney went on to say. She estimated that about seventy percent of her customers are referrals or regulars. Buceo is conducive to just about any outing, be it a first date or a night with friends. Courtney became totally animated when she began sharing stories of neighborhood events that she has hosted. Her favorite is election night, when she live streams the results, complete with games and decorations poking fun at the candidates. In the spring of 2016, she had already begun brainstorming what she would do come November for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Many of Buceo’s customers are the clients that Courtney spends time with during the day. “I fatten them up here at night, ” but during the morning and afternoon hours she helps them lose the pounds as their personal trainer. Not a bad combination. Courtney has worked hard to create a restaurant that “encompasses all lifestyles and ways of living. ” Overall, she recognizes that her restaurant’s success boils down to three main ingredients: “Food, staff, and atmosphere. ”
Venturing into El Quijote, we were informed by the bar tender that this is “the oldest Hispanic restaurant in NYC. ” It is difficult to ascertain if this statement is completely accurate, but regardless, El Quijote has rested on 23rd, next door to the infamous Hotel Chelsea since 1930. The many colors and textures of the space – black and white checkered floors, muraled walls, leather banquettes, and golden lighting – provide a fitting backdrop for the authentic Spanish food that is served. We have stopped by on several different occasions, always finding a jovial crowd of people gathered at the bar, sangria being poured and people dining on, what looks to be, huge portions of paella, steak and an ocean full of seafood.
Surrounded by so many raucous Irish pubs, it was somewhat of a shock to walk into Toledo where the music was playing softly and old world servers were there to greet us. The menu is filled with traditional continental Spanish fare and glasses of sangria are poured to complement their classic, signature paella.
Boqueria has three locations in New York and six total between NYC and Washington D. C, with a seventh in Chicago on the way in 2019. As a social media friendly and chic iteration of Barcelona’s most trafficked and well-known market, El Mercat de la Boqueria - a tourist destination known for its tapas bars and various food stands - Boqueria has staked its place as one of the most recognizable Spanish restaurants on the East Coast. Boqueria’s modern vibe is not only curated by its interior design and culinary aesthetics, but also by its music, a smooth combination of European house and dance music a la Ibiza. Boqueria prides itself on its upbeat, vibrant atmosphere that replicates the communal spirit of Spanish and Catalan tapas restaurants. Boqueria was founded in 2006 by Yann de Rochefort at its flagship location in the Flatiron district. Its success in the competitive industry of Spanish cuisine in Manhattan is remarkable. Marc Vidal, the current head chef, got his start in the Catalan Pyrenees and on the Canary Islands, eventually landing at the Michelin starred Gaig in Barcelona. He has learned from some of high cooking’s finest to create and execute the intricate dishes of Boqueria. The restaurant strives to be a tapas bar with “no compromises” - a consistent restaurant made for anybody who is looking to share tapas in a warm and exciting environment. With a bilingual serving staff, Boqueria’s commitment to authenticity is not feigned. Their menu directly seeks to offer the local flavors of Catalonia. Among the dishes sampled by Manhattan Sideways was the Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp with garlic), Espinacas a la Catalana (catalan spinach), and Paella de Mariscos (seafood paella). Their menu is “market-driven” and characterized by a number of seasonal selections in both food and beverages. Kieran Chavez is the head of the beverage program, which has created a menu that embraces and salutes Spanish alcohol of all persuasions. The Spanish wine list celebrates the country’s internal diversity in both culture and climate, and there is a vermouth-based build-your-own-cocktail option, the classic Barcelona pilsner Estrella Damm, and a rotating selection of seasonal cocktails. Boqueria is rapidly expanding into one of the most stable and dynamic “institutions” of Spanish cuisine in the US. Creating bridges between Barcelona and New York is something that members of the Manhattan Sideways team take dearly to heart, as the two are some of their favorite cities in the world - as distinct, but comparable melting pots that are effortlessly conducive to cultural culinary exchange. Boqueria has not only retained the original authenticity of its original mission and location, but has expanded it even as its popularity has grown.