With El Quijote’s Closure, One Less Colorful Character in Chelsea

Even surrounded by scaffolding, El Quijote’s signature yellow signage was easy to spot. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

BY WINNIE McCROY | Chelsea’s old guard lines up to say their fond farewells this week to El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant located on the ground floor of the Chelsea Hotel (226 W. 23rd St., btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.). The wild — and wildly uneven — eatery has been serving up lobsters and liquor since the 1930s, and although the new owners say they plan to reopen by next year, longtime fans say no scrubbed-up boutique restaurant could compete with the decades of memories the outpost provided.

“El Quijote always had a sanctuary quality. It was the place residents went to when it was difficult to go anywhere else,” said Gerald Busby, a 40-year resident of the Chelsea Hotel (and arts contributor to this publication). “I used to go there with my friend Virgil Thomson, the composer, whenever the weather was bad. There was a back entrance from the hotel lobby to the restaurant, and I would go in and open it from the other side for Virgil. It was never a first-rate restaurant, and it only got worse and worse with time.”

But that hardly kept Busby and his cohorts from patronizing the place. He outlined a romantic and slightly scandalous history Thomson once told him of the Spanish fishermen who controlled the area in the 1950s, when seafood restaurants were abundant up and down 23rd St. Back then, lobsters and oysters were considered peasant food; Busby remembers that even as recently as 1977, an El Quijote dinner special offered two lobsters for $10.

“So that’s the heritage, where they all came from,” Busby noted. “It was always kind of crude; the waiters were nice, but also kind of thugs. But that was part of its charm. If you complained about something, they’d yell back at you, ‘Nothing’s wrong with this paella!’ ”

“Great memories are flying around El Quijote in its very crowded last few days (at least for now),” said longtime Chelsea resident Judith Sokoloff, who took this photo on the evening of Mon., March 26. “I had the same meal that I had my first time in the late ’70s — lobster, soggy broccoli, potato, salad. No menus. Customers were stealing them… I heard the servers are getting only two weeks’ severance, no matter how long they’ve been working.” | Photo by Judith Sokoloff

Busby remembers Thomson’s habit of caterwauling to the waiters with some “horrible sound” that made them come running. During one of the composer’s last visits before his death in 1989, Busby said the waiters gathered round their table to make the noise back at Thomson. Busby called it “part of my rich history with El Quijote.”

And he’s not alone. His friend Gavin Henderson, principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, called Busby to say that he was traveling to New York City this month, for one last meal at El Quijote.

“He and his son are coming over from London just to eat there one more time, even though it’s ghastly food,” Busby said. “There is all this sentimentality attached to it. And part of the appeal is the portions are huge. Even though it’s awful food, they give you a lot of it. The doggie bag is somehow important.”

Busby said despite the rubbery lobsters, El Quijote still managed to hold a spot in everyone’s heart, perhaps because of its easygoing staff and “lustrous provenance” of serving literati and bon vivants from Dylan Thomas to William S. Burroughs, who would get besotted at El Quijote, then stumble out the side door, back to their hotel rooms.

His neighbor, Judith Childs — probably the hotel’s longest resident — shared some of these memories as well, recalling the time when someone’s jilted girlfriend started a fire on the second floor, forcing residents to flee in their nightclothes into the lobby.

“The fireman eventually came down and said we could go back to our rooms, but we looked at each other and didn’t want to go home,” Childs recalled. “So we went through the door to the El Quijote, and there we were, sitting in our nightclothes, talking things over. And the folks at El Quijote didn’t even bat an eye. At the time, it was seen as perfectly normal — not only to us, but to the people running El Quijote.”

At El Quijote in the mid-1990s: Chelsea Hotel resident Judith Childs with Gene Fackler (a Texan and frequent visitor to the hotel) and, in the foreground, the late Dr. Helen Armstead Johnson (who lived at the Chelsea for many years and was a regular at the restaurant). “Regulars from around the neighborhood and the city throng the restaurant every evening to say a sad goodbye,” Childs said. “It is like an extended family gathering, with perfect strangers talking from table to table and taking pictures with their favorite waiters, who will miss us, too, and, of course, their jobs.” | Photo by Mike Fackler

Despite its storied history, change has been on the horizon for the Chelsea Hotel for almost a dozen years, ever since real estate developer Joseph Chetrit and his brothers bought the hotel in 2011 and tried to harass longtime residents into leaving. Busby and other tenants teamed up and “sued them with a fancy, pro bono lawyer and won our case in court. We can all stay until we die or leave of our own accord.”

After that, the hotel changed hands three or four times, with owners attempting to renovate while being sued for a litany of infractions. A nasty landlord was followed by a nice one, which somehow only made those suing even angrier. Throughout the years, tenants got help from elected officials, including then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the current Speaker, Corey Johnson.

The Chelsea Hotel — and the El Quijote restaurant inside it — were purchased in 2016 by Richard Born and Ira Drukier of BD Hotels, along with Sean MacPherson of the Jane Hotel. They took the place over after acquiring a managing interest from minority owner Ed Scheetz.

“We definitely plan to reopen it in about six to eight months,” Drukier told The New York Times. Drukier’s BD Hotels did not respond to our multiple requests for additional comment by press time.

But a recent update on Eater New York reports that longtime restaurant staffers from the busboy to the executive chef were given two weeks’ severance pay, which some employees have called “disrespectful” but which Drukier characterized as “appropriate… for the time we’ve owned the restaurant.” Workers have reportedly been told they can re-interview for their jobs after the renovations, with no guarantees of being rehired. But an insider told Chelsea Now that it was doubtful whether El Quijote staffers would bother.

An “Open for Business” sign, good only through March 29. After that, loyal locals are unsure what sort of taste the new El Quijote will leave in their mouths. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

Busby said that at some point in the Chelsea Hotel’s history, the famed owner Stanley Bard allegedly gave El Quijote a 99-year lease. But Chelsea Hotel CEO Scheetz bought the restaurant back in 2014 with promises similar to Drukier’s to maintain “the spirit of El Quijote” rather than scrap the place entirely in favor of bringing in an established restaurateur.

“I think they’d like to have a restaurant in there by the time the new hotel opens up in late 2019, which would work to their advantage because the clientele will likely be rich businessmen from Europe and Saudi Arabia, who want a first-class restaurant in their hotel,” Busby said.

“They’ll put in what they think is a ‘proper’ restaurant,” speculated Childs of the new owners, saying that even if the place is called El Quijote, it will not be the same. “It’s like how they restored the Minetta Tavern, but introduced an artificial climate. El Quijote is an accretion of many years of events, and I hope they would keep the funky murals [depicting scenes from “Don Quixote”]. But it can’t possibly be the same. If this is going to be a five-star hotel, it isn’t going to be the same.”

Untroubled, Childs said, “Change is part of life for those in the arts and humanities. We just want to be able to go on with our lives and not be unduly disturbed.”

The exact nature of the change is at this point unknown. Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4) District Manager Jesse Bodine told Chelsea Now that they are still waiting to hear from the new owners regarding how they want to move forward.

“We are still working off the original application… in which El Quijote was not included,” Bodine said. “In their original application for the hotel, they had carved out a portion [of the restaurant] for a private events space, and were going to come back later for either a separate license, or to amend the current license.” Bodine noted that once the new owners submit this updated application, CB4 would have additional information about the incoming restaurant.

“I think all of our lives are tied up with El Quijote,” Childs said, noting that an attractive older woman in the building recently bemoaned the loss of her go-to spot for a quiet evening drink. It will eventually reopen, but patrons say that’s too little, too late.

A sign posted outside the restaurant last weekend announced its closing date. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

“The folks at El Quijote always took care of us, and although the management will open up again, it won’t be the nice, funky place we always loved,” said Childs. “We never thought it was shabby. Of course it is, but we don’t think so. It’s like walking into your living room; it’s just home. I think there’s a general feeling that we’ll all miss it, but we’re grateful for the times we had there.”

In Busby’s eyes, the storied reputation of the Chelsea Hotel was created by Bard, and, “when he died, it was all over. It’s unrealistic to make a fuss about some ‘lost nostalgia’ number, of all the things we’ve lost and how horrible it is. That’s just life, particularly in New York City. When it’s over, it’s over. I don’t use up my energy thinking about that.”

Still, it’s the history of the Chelsea Hotel that’s its biggest draw — the place where Mark Twain, Sam Shepard and Jack Kerouac wrote their stories, where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre visited and Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe created art, and where Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin had the affair outlined in Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel.”

“The mythology of the Chelsea Hotel is what the new owners are going to be drawing on, and it’s a hell of a place,” Childs said, adding a bit of hope in a March 28 email sent just before we went to press. “I spoke with Ira Drukier today,” Childs wrote, “and he said they were going to change [the restaurant] as little as possible. I am willing to believe they might try.”

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