You may feel puzzled at first when you enter the Eldorado Hotel in search of the Cava Santa Fe Lounge, a drinking and dining spot that the hotel’s website bills as “Santa Fe’s community living room and meeting space.” On first glance, it’s not quite clear where it is.
When I tell people about Cava, they often confuse it with the Agave Lounge, which sits inside a well-marked set of rooms to the left of the hotel’s main entrance. Cava inhabits the vast lobby beyond that, a carpeted, columned, highceilinged space that, on its outer margins, has the scattered feel of a convention-center showroom — between shows. The furniture is an eclectic mix: extreme high-back chairs, lowslung modern lounge seats, big couches, small couches, and tables low and high. After you select your roost, black-clad servers will glide over from the area by the bar, which runs along the room’s northeast wall. Both times I visited, they showed up quickly, and soon enough they were delivering some very tasty things.
The drinks and small plates served in hotel lobbies can be an afterthought, but at Cava almost everything we sampled was quite good. The menu is brief, a tall, two-sided, heavy-stock sheet with mixed drinks and wines on one side, Spanish-style small plates and platters on the other. (Bottled beer is available, too; ask your server about available brands.) There are only a dozen food offerings listed, and that includes two desserts, so you can run the table on savory items in just two or three trips. Don’t be surprised if you go back more often than that, though, because this is a fun, quiet place to meet friends and have a drink and a snack.
We tried three cocktails over the course of our first meal, and each was excellent. I started with the Viejo Bastardo (“the old bastard”), a variation on that barroom classic, the old fashioned. Cava’s version uses good bourbon and isn’t loaded down with sweetener or fruit, either of which can ruin this drink. We were also impressed with El Conquistador — an aged-tequila margarita with the subtle taste of rosemary coming through — and the pisco sour — a blend of pisco (a South American brandy), a lemony mixer, beaten egg whites, and bitters. The bartender applied the bitters in an elegant design on the surface of the egg-white foam.
When you order food, you have the option, in most cases, of selecting a “plate” (with prices ranging from $5 to $12) or a “platter” ($13 to $30). (There are also a few small sandwiches, a cod-fritter slider or a choice between an open-face pork shoulder sandwich or a mushroom and spinach combo, both called pinchos.) The plate portions were generous. We ordered the empanadas — small flaky-pastry packets containing sherried mushrooms and accompanied by truffle arugula and salsa verde. The plate contained four of them, which for $7 seemed like a great deal. I tried the Basque-style mussels, delicious specimens swimming in a broth of tomato, sherry, and saffron. The $9 plate was actually a bowl, and it contained two dozen mussels and several pieces of toasted French bread.
Everything else was also good: a “Spanish Sampling” plate that featured toasts, cheese slices, olives, tiny link sausages, a thin slice of cured meat, and a blob of date purée; yucca fries with a delicious chipotle herb dip; and the cod slider — a mini fried-fish sandwich on brioche, with lettuce and a lemon-caper mayo that was sort of like a nice tartar sauce. We topped that off with a novel dessert: vanilla ice cream, mango sauce, and two rolled crepes with banana purée filling. This is called, confusingly, a caramel banana crisp martini. But whatever they label it, it was good.
The only shortcoming we encountered was a drink that didn’t quite fly: the Blood & Sand, a cocktail with scotch, vermouth, blood-orange juice, and cherry liqueur. It was an interesting list, but this concoction came out tasting like spiked apple cider.
No gripes about anything else, though. The bar makes a great Manhattan, and all the plates we ordered were good. Along with the mussels, we tried the albondigas — spicy meatballs with some blue cheese mixed in — and one of the best desserts I’ve had in a while: churros with chocolate dip. Overall, Cava was a very pleasant surprise. It’s not exactly cheap, but when you factor in the portions and happy hour discounts — with reduced prices on well and signature drinks, and 20 percent off on food — it’s a pleasant and affordable surprise.