It’s quite appropriate that Las Ramblas is named after the bustling “La Ramba” block in Barcelona, Spain. Because the restaurant takes lengths to immerse their customers in the same busy, lively, festive experience that a local in Spain would enjoy on a night out. What greets them is a traditional green street sign that proudly displays “La Rambla”, to let patrons know that while just a minute ago they were on West 4th street, now they are pedestrians in Barcelona. The logo, a bull, strong, energetic, in motion, with horns high and ready to charge, is a reference to the Torero bullfighting native to Spain. Contemporary spanish pop-rock fills the restaurant, while charismatic bartenders chat up whichever lucky West Villager is sitting at Las Ramblas copper-topped bar. This bartender in particular has all the exaggerated style, flair and even heavy spanish accent that one would expect if they were sitting at a bar in La Rambla street in Spain. And even though the bartender is actually from Queens, and this restaurant is actually in Lower Manhattan, one can’t help but forget, at least for a moment if not for the night, that they’re still at the corner of West 4th and Jones and not on the streets of Spain . The restaurant itself is small, with only about a dozen small tables. An indoor waterfall and carefully restored brick walls pair well with the intoxicating smell of dishes yet to be tasted. The food, decor and ambience all serve as a proselytizing force of sorts. They orient their patrons to the beauty and wonders of Spain and its culture. And when those patrons return, they are sure to bring friends, new converts, all gleefully indulging in a Spanish essence over the course of a few hours.
However, this restaurant is just as American as it is Spanish. Spanish, yes, insofar as its menu, music, decor and ambience, but thoroughly red,white and blue in its creation. The restaurant’s founder, Jimmy Sanz, first came to America from his native Spain nearly 60 years ago in 1959. The twenty year old Sanz was younger than most of the college students who frequent La Ramblas today, but he was ambitious and willing to work hard. He graduated high school, learned English, enrolled in college and supported himself by working in restaurants. Despite all his efforts, times could be hard. Many nights, a subway train served as his bed. And although nowadays he serves hundreds of meals a day between Tio Pepe, The Taco Shop, Burrito Loco, Da Rosina, Casa Pepe and Las Ramblas the six Manhattan restaurants which he owns, when Jimmy Sanz first came to America, he had to subsist on a meal a day. But Sanz maintained the dream of doing something more. ““I used to see those big restaurants, and I thought one day I can have a restaurant like that.” Sanz noticed a gap in the new york dining scene. “In those days people didn’t know the food from Spain,”. When a restaurant space on West 4th Street in the West Village opened up, Sanz found a partner to fund him and leapt into the New York restaurant scene in 1970, after 11 years of working and grinding and surviving. A devotion to authenticity is key for Sanz. To date, his restaurant is still the only Spanish restaurant in New York City that makes their paella with a wooden oven, the way its done in its native Valencia.
It’s no wonder that, with such an emphasis on flavor and authenticity, the dishes at Las Ramblas are so well-made. You can’t really go wrong with what you pick and because it’s a tapas bar, you can pick lots of things at once. The Brochetas de Res covered with a dark purple tempranillo sauce are a hearty choice, that can be balanced out by the lightness of the fried Chopitos, calamari with lemon, garlic and olive oil. Or perhaps the patatas bravas potatoes, doused with garlic aioli paired with the meatiness of the Albondigas meatballs and a sharp manchego cheese. Whatever combination you pick, it must be washed down with a fresh glass of sangria, any of the three varieties which Las Ramblas offers, with waiters there to offer more the moment your glass is empty.
Federico Garcia Lorca once described the La Rambla street in Spain as ““the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” One doesn’t need to go all the way to spain to identify with Lorca. Because after a few plates of food, a few songs and another couple of hours, any customer will be wishing that their experience in Las Ramblas, would never end .