On its menu and website, El Farol bills itself as “Santa Fe’s Oldest Restaurant & Cantina.” This isn’t accurate — The Pantry and The Shed are both older, to give just two examples — but that’s OK, since El Farol is the kind of place that inspires tall tales and legends, some of which actually turn out to be true. Ever heard the story about El Farol being part of an important academic paper on game theory? It was published in 1994 by W. Brian Arthur, a professor affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute, and it’s called “Inductive Reasoning and Bounded Rationality (The El Farol Problem).”
El Farol was launched in 1963 by partners Vint Blackburn and Bob Young, and the restaurant’s name (which translates as “the lantern”) was suggested by a friend from Barcelona named Andre Ripol. Blackburn, who lived in Santa Fe until a few years ago, said El Farol was originally housed at 802 Canyon Road, at the corner of Camino del Monte Sol. It wasn’t known for tapas back then, and it didn’t have a liquor license — all that came later, as did a migration to the current location at 808. For years prior to El Farol’s opening, that address was home to a rowdy place called the Canyon Road Bar.
Through the years, El Farol has endured, and there aren’t many restaurants that feel so distinctively like Santa Fe. The vibe starts out front, on a long, narrow dining patio that features high tables and a shade-giving roof made from hefty vigas and planks. Go inside, and you’ll see El Farol’s famous bar along with a scattering of tables. Walk to the right, and you’ll start meandering through cozy, close-quarters dining rooms that feature murals, glowing lights, colorful curtains, vines, and even a small performance stage. Out back is a big open-air patio that’s a fine place to be on a summer evening.
It all looks casual, but the prices here are pretty high: $28 for an entrée of scallops, $36 for rib eye, and $12 for a jalapeño margarita. El Farol isn’t quite as expensive as neighbors like The Compound and Geronimo, but it’s close. Is the food on the same level? Judging by two recent visits, it isn’t, making El Farol something of a gamble for times when you’re looking to focus more on eating than on drinking and small-plate snacking.
For dinner one night, we started with three tapas plates, only one of which stood out: aguacate, an avocado half that’s been crumb-coated and quick-fried and is served with pico de gallo and lime yogurt. This was very good: In fact, my only complaint was that I had to share it. Less successful was the sliced chorizo sausage with figs in a red wine sauce. The sausage was fine, but the figs didn’t gain much from soaking in a “sauce” that had the consistency of un-reduced red wine. The third plate we tried, jamón serrano and manchego cheese, didn’t rise above the sum of its parts. The thinly sliced Spanish ham was good, but the manchego was bland and sweating from sitting out.
Both entrées were about the same: not bad, but not memorable enough for the price. My friend went for a single portion of paella and found the rice monotonous. I tried the lomo de cerdo caprichosa, which was described on the menu as pork tenderloin “Milanese style.” That meant it was beaten thin and fried in another crumb coating. The meat was tough, and the main flavor that came through was cooking oil.
Lunch on a second visit was a more pleasant experience, thanks partly to the weather. We ate out front on a perfect afternoon. My friend tried the warm kale salad, which suffered because the kale hadn’t been tenderized, wasn’t warm, and was missing two ingredients listed on the menu: cranberries and tomato. My “salad of the day” consisted of green and red leaf lettuces, pine nuts, pear slices, cheese, and a sweet, sticky dressing. Two of the salad’s defining elements — the pear and the cheese — were nearly flavorless.
After that, we both went with Southwestern orders: beef tacos and a chicken enchilada. The tacos I had were too simple: floppy single tortillas containing dollops of ground beef and melted cheese, with none of the standard garnishes — like cilantro — that you would get at a typical taco truck. The bright spot was dessert: churros, fried dough cylinders crusted with sugar and cinnamon and served with a warm chocolate sauce. If everything at El Farol was this good, there would be no problem.