Name: Don Quijote, the character created by Miguel de Cervantes, is one that is known very well around Spain and throughout the world. Don Quijote and his complex personality as well as for his contributions to the Spanish language has been an inspiration for Spain with. The Spanish name Don Quixote means the idealist, the do-gooder, the dreamer, or the well-meaning busybody.
Decor/Ambiance: The storefront has a red neon sign with the name El Quijote written in a cursive type. There is a big red and yellow awning below the neon sign, that protrudes into the sidewalk and is also branded with the restaurant’s logo. The dining room is an intoxicating time warp, warmed by cozy burgundy leather booths, elaborate chandeliers, a checkerboard floor, and various Cervantes-inspired murals. There are two additional dining chambers in the stuccoed and labyrinthine expanse of the restaurant, including the Cervantes Room, strung with tiny lights and nearly full, and an empty banquet room with some very strange oil paintings, including a girl cuddling what appears to be the baby from Eraserhead.
Red banquettes line the walls, which are covered with the original black and white and burnt sienna murals that depict Quijote’s adventures. Windmills turn slowly along the back wall – the only sluggish element in a bustling locale. The Dulcinea Room and the Cervantes Room are attractive but the main dining room, with its terra-cotta walls painted with duotone Quijote Murals, is the most memorable place to take in the underlit, defunct elegance of the place. The tables are covered with white tablecloths, and the room towards the front of the restaurant has walls covered with wood and panels of mirrors. The back room has a ceramic tiles trim, and various paintings on the walls. The bar is old-fashioned, with retro stained glass light fixtures hanging above them. There is a dusty collection of Don Quijote figurines that form an odd parade along the bar, occupying every inch of the bar not filled by bottles. From the bar, you also have a perfect view of the dining room.
History: El Quijote is the oldest Hispanic restaurant in NYC. The famous Spanish eatery El Quijote opened in 1930 and has since benefitted from a sweetheart lease that is locked in below-market-rate rent ($9,000 per month according to lease documents on file with the city) for a vast space that includes three dining rooms, a bar, kitchen, and basement. The sweetheart lease contains a provision that restricted the property’s owner from renting additional ground floor space to a competing restaurant. The deal with El Quijote, initially signed in 1988 and twice modified in 1989 and 2001, specifically states: “The Landlord agrees not to rent space in the building to a third party for operation of a restaurant in competition with the Tenant; however, the Landlord may operate a coffee shop.” The long time owner is Manny Ramirez says that he is a direct descendant of Don Quijote.
The 23rd Street block used to be dominated by the Chelsea Hotel, which was famous for its habitués — Mark Twain, O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin crossed the threshold at one time or another. The restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman refers to the restaurant as a time capsule, because “the stretch of 23rd Street kind of fell off the radar and got seedy”, but El Quijote always remained untouched as new restaurants opened on surrounding blocks to the north and south.
The Chelsea Hotel, with new owners, started undergoing a series of renovations in early 2018, which has also led to the erection of scaffolding and netting outside of El Quijote. The restaurant’s owner expressed that the restaurant is going to maintain its original look and feel, and that “we’re not going to dramatically change it in any crazy way” because “it’s a Spanish restaurant that people have fallen in love with over the years, and we’d like to maintain that feeling after we open. It won’t be spic and span and cleaned up to be pristine. It will try to maintain its character as much as we can.” The goal is to complete the renovations and reopen in about six months, though the project might take longer. Locals admire El Quijote for having remained constant in their rapidly changing neighborhood — and in their lives and are greatly looking forward to the reopening.
Staff: The bartenders wear uniforms with undersized bow ties and engraved nameplates on their vests. They are polite and formal, and it is clear that they consider restaurant service to be an honorable profession, such one of the many subtleties that places the restaurants in another era. Prepare yourself for authenticity, greeted by energetic and lively employees who’ll make you feel right at home—or, like you’re right in Madrid.
Menu & Pricing: The menu is a red leather-bound catalog with an embossed illustration of Don Quixote on a donkey. What most people come to El Quijote for are its main courses. Though some find the prices a little steep, the food and robust portions make it well worth the cost. Though the menu has been extended over the years with an upper end that comprises expensive steaks, veal chops, and surf-and-turf combos for high rollers, the bedrock of the menu remains Spanish commonplaces.
Seafood and paella are the most popular choices amongst guests, but the massive menu includes a medley of steaks, chicken, and of course tapas (appetizer-like foods) for those seeking smaller portions. Regardless of your choice (chicken, shrimp or pork), the specialty Quijote sauce is not something you would regret trying on your entrée. With just the right amount of garlic and herbs, it adds a unique and delicious flavor that you can’t find anywhere else in the city.
Of course, without drinks and dessert, the exquisite dining would not be complete. One cannot go to a Spanish restaurant and not try its Sangria, which manages to be impeccably sweet and bitter, giving your taste buds a one-of-a-kind experience. Concluding your meal with the flan would be the perfect end to the evening. An authentic Spanish dessert, the flan has the perfect amount of caramel sauce covering light and fluffy vanilla custard.