New York City, NY

Opinion: Chelsea's Spanish Restaurant, El Quijote, Isn't What it Used to Be

Remington Write

Only the name is the same
It's no longer The Old CoyotePhoto byTammy Remington

Without my knowledge or permission I’ve turned into That Person. Sad to say but true. I’m the one who now has to slap her mouth shut before launching into all the ways that New York isn't New York anymore. And more often than I care to admit, that slapping doesn’t happen quickly enough.

Like right now.

The absolute Emperor of New York isn’t New York Anymore passed away in 2012. His name was Peter and he was my friend. He was also one seriously aggravating individual. I say this with love in my heart.

Peter, another friend, Neil, and I were inseparable back in the aughts. We were always either at Neil’s “Breadbox” (no bigger than…), Peter’s six-story walk up on Mott Street — in the land of the $600 clutch purse — or my “vast, palatial estate” up in Harlem for movie night. Every Saturday was brunch at the Village Den and every Saturday night was dinner at The Dish. And, yes, both are long gone now.

We even had a week in London together back in '04.

But in New York for special, we’d go to El Quijote on West 23rd Street next to the Chelsea Hotel.

Neil is the master of nicknames and so it became The Old Coyote. If you’ve read Patti Smith’s “Only Kids”, you’ve heard about her Old Coyote. By the time we staked our claim, the place was a gloriously shabby old mess. I’ve never seen a place with so many people to seat, take orders, serve, and bus tables. There was even one gentleman whose only task seemed to be to clear the crumbs from the table before dessert was served.

Peter loved The Old Coyote.

For several years after he died, Neil and I would go for a Peter Nicholls memorial dinner. We’d have the garlic soup, the baked clams, and The Daily Double: two two pound lobsters, steamed and cracked so they were easier to dismantle at the table. Peter would always wear that stupid plastic bib but Neil and I didn’t go that far at our memorial dinners. We loved the guy but come on.

On one of our last memorial dinners Neil pointed out the major structural crack snaking down the wall of the main dining room.

Soon after that, The Old Coyote was shuttered.

2018 seems like another dimension of existence from where we sit today. Sure, we missed The Old Coyote, but there were still plenty of our favorite places to go for fairly inexpensive dinners. Little did we know what was coming.

As we emerged from our respective Covid lairs into 2021, we were happy to still have Italian Village and the remaining Hi-Life on Amsterdam with their generous outdoor seating. But no street in the city is without numerous taped up, papered up, and closed up businesses. After all this time, we seldom thought about The Old Coyote or any of the other hundreds of places we used to frequent that didn’t survive our friend, The Virus.

No more Sammy's Noodles which was far more affordable than the Old Coyote if not nearly as much fun.

Then word had it that El Quijote had reopened. Reservations were impossible to get online so on the day I took the above photo, I knocked on the door and asked to make a reservation. It took some talking to get a 6:30 reservation two weeks out, but I talked. And two weeks later, the new threesome of Neil, my partner in life and art, AleXander, and I arrived for the Final Peter Nicholls’ Memorial Dinner.

Silly me.

I was ready for that garlic soup with the floating hard-boiled egg and the obligatory baked clams. I was really ready for the lobster. But it proved to be a night of disappointments.

The first disappointment was finding ourselves seated right inside the door at a raised table on high chairs that may look elegant but are a bitch to get up onto and get comfortable. Being right by the door, every time it opened a frigid December wind blew over us which dampened the celebration considerably.

Then there was the disappointment of discovering that the Dulcinea and Cervantes rooms were gone.

Walking from the main dining area and bar back to try and find the restrooms was surreal because nothing was where it was supposed to be. There was now a large private party room and another smaller dining area, but the dark little hallway to the bathrooms was no more. I’ll never know what happened to the antique wooden telephone switchboard that sat in that hallway.

The big disappointment was that the menu had gone the way of the Dulcinea and Cervantes room.

Worse, the food we did order wasn’t very flavorful. And such tiny portions!

We’re sorry, Peter, but that really was the last memorial dinner at the Old Coyote in your honor because there is no longer an Old Coyote. It’s joined innumerable other beloved gathering places that New York doesn’t have time for anymore. It’s the nature of the beast.

It was heartening to read the comments to this review of the new El Quijote, however.

I may have morphed into That Person, but it turns out there are a lot of us. Feel free to ignore us as I ignored the killjoys when I arrived in the city. People like Peter who grimly told me that I’d missed The Real New York. That wasn’t true for me and it isn’t true for anyone who has finally made it to this churning, ever-changing city.

Welcome and pay attention. Your New York is changing every day, too.

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Covert dilettante with an omnivorous capacity for wonder. Writing because I can't not write. Always watching for the hidden patterns and connections. I don't know I cannot fly..........and so I do.

New York City, NY

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