El Faro was one of those stubborn remnants of an old New York, the New York of dimly-lit dives, cobblestoned alleyways, and bustling bodegas that predated the Second Avenue Subway and sidewalk charging stations. “El Faro” is Spanish for lighthouse. It’s the way it was christened by its original owners, Manuel Rivas and Eduardo Cabaña. The two had come to the United States from Galicia, Spain. And maybe it was its location in the meatpacking district near many docks, or an intended maritime clientele because many immigrant Spaniards took up jobs as seamen, but the name rang oddly appropriate – a lighthouse, a light, at the end of a journey, or, in this case, a hunt for authentically Spanish food. This, was a Spanish destination. And many years later, it retained that quality of being a light, but the kind of respite it offered evolved. It became the light at the end of new businesses and a younger crowd and a flood of tourist destinations- because through it all, El Faro promised to remain the same, true to its original look and feel, until it couldn’t keep its promise anymore.
El Faro operated for 85 years since its opening date in 1927. In 2012, due to multiple health violations, it closed down. At that time it was operated by Mark Lugris.
Its original owners had opened up El Faro as a bar and grill but by 1959 they had passed on the torch to two buyers, José Pérez and Andrés Lugris, a chef and waiter from a nearby restaurant on Macdougal street, who transformed it into a restaurant. But even in the hands of new owners, the restaurant showed a commitment to simple dining that let the food do the talking.
It’s low-key brand and low-end prices attracted first, the Spanish working class population for which the area was known for briefly in the 20th century but soon it also attracted a slew of artists and writers. Its devotees included James Baldwin, Dawn Powell, Pete Seeger and as one customer recalls, “This was the place where, sometime in the ’70s, I walked in and saw Alice Neel, the painter, dining with Gus Hall, then still head of the CPUSA. Thirties bohemia in concentrated form! Like seeing the last two aurochs at the watering hole.” And we can speculate as to who else may have stopped by for authentic cuisine at an affordable price in Joan Didion’s leaving-New York essay, “Goodbye to All That,” wherein she enjoys Bloody Marys and gazpacho in a West Village Spanish restaurant which she leaves unnamed. But even as its food began to attract non-Spaniards, and the decades passed, El Faro only dropped seven items from their menu from 1959 to 2003. Mark Lugris, the son of Andrés said of the menu, “everything on it is time-tested. I have customers who have eaten the same dish for 42 years.”
The Lugris family had an incentive to keep the menu and location as true to its original model though, Mr. Lugris had said once that “if [he] dared to touch anything the customers would kill [him].” And the benefits of that selling point seemed to outweigh the pressure to redecorate, which certainly existed – the New York Times called it “small, inelegant, and poorly ventilated” as far back as 1962. And yet they received plenty of customers and plenty of praise – the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation honored them in 1996 with a Village Award. Co-owners José Perez and his son Joe Pérez were interviewed and appeared in Artur Balder’s documentary Little Spain, in 2010. But by 2012, their refusal to upgrade and renovate, and their commitment to remain authentically themselves perhaps cost them the business they so loved because as Mark Lugris tells it, they were committed to keeping the kitchen clean, hosing it down at least three times a day, but were “hobbled by operating in an old space full of tiny holes and cracks.” Today, El Faro remains closed indefinitely.
If El Faro was open today, you’d stumble into it while perusing Chelsea. Its simple and modest red and white sign would stick out among the shiny logos – all of its letters are lowercase, there is nothing ostentatious or proclamatory about the place. A framed New York Times clipping from 1965 on the window would tell you that this place was once bestowed with three stars. You’d walk in and the yellowed lighting, cozy seating, and predominant red hue evokes feelings of living in sepia rather than in color – it confirms for you, that this is another time, another neighborhood. The original murals from 1927 still adorn the walls, and you’re surrounded by beautiful flamenco dancers with lace fans and heroic men on horses and toreros with their cropped jackets on all sides. But these are walls and frames with a thick film of patina over them, where Spanish wine collects dust on shelves, and where an older gentleman shuffles through the front door, sits down and is warmly greeted by all the staff. He says little and soon, his plate comes out. You’re a little surprised because you don’t recall hearing him order anything – no, he definitely didn’t. You don’t know that he fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. You don’t know, that while this is your first time, he’s been coming here for 62 years.
Mark Lugris once called his beloved restaurant the “anti-Pastis,” “an extension of their customer’s house,” “a kind of general store for the neighborhood’s remaining longtime residents.” For him, and many of its customers, El Faro was “more than a restaurant.” It conducted house calls to older customers that could no longer leave their homes, bringing them milk and bread or delivering their food. It had packages delivered for its clientele. It attracted committed customers for four generations. Within days of when the restaurant was shut down, Lugris received dozens of emails and calls from places as far away as Germany and Japan. El Faro was a family business on both ends, its owners and its customers had grown with it, and loved it.
El Faro will be missed.