Amuse-bouche La Posada’s bars
THE STAAB HOUSE & JULIA’S SOCIAL CLUB
Since the 1970s, when a janitor at La Posada looked up from mopping the floor and saw a translucent dark-eyed woman in a long black gown standing next to a fireplace, Santa Fe has been swept up by the spirit of Julia Schuster Staab. The ghost possessed “an aura of sadness,” the custodian told the local media, with her formal Victorian dress and severe bun. Over the years, the antics of the depressed German-Jewish bride of Santa Fe Ring member Abraham Staab have been well documented by hotel employees and visitors in tales of slamming doors, swaying chandeliers, snatched covers, scattered belongings, flushed toilets, and pulled hair. Many have postulated that Julia is a control freak, still doing her twisted best from beyond to host guests in her luxurious home. She telegraphs one clear demand: “Pay attention to me.”
The annual thinning of the veil between the spirit world and the living seemed the right time for a few pilgrimages to see Santa Fe’s most dysfunctional hostess. It’s been more than three years since La Posada rebranded their signature restaurant to capitalize on the notoriety of its poltergeist, giving it the rather on-the-nose moniker “Julia: A Spirited Restaurant and Bar.” A newer tapas bar, Julia’s Social Club, has been carved out of the restaurant space, perhaps in reference to Mrs. Staab’s reputation in life as an accomplished doyenne of Gilded Age dinner parties. Meanwhile, the scene around the corner at Staab House, the older watering hole in the original mansion, remains both cozy and eerie, with its crackling fireplaces, polished parquet floors, and warren of mirrored rooms.
It seemed prudent to begin a hunt for Julia in her old house. One blustery evening, the Red Sox fought their way to victory over the Astros on the TV at Staab House while I searched the bar’s mirror for her reflection, requesting “Julia’s Manhattan” from the cocktail menu in the hope that she might consent to tipple with me. A man next to me who ordered a Svedka cranberry told me he was born and raised in Santa Fe and came often to the comfortable bar. I asked him if he’d seen Julia. “No, but I would like to connect with her,” he said reasonably, sounding as if he wanted her business card. “Did you ever watch that ‘Long Island Medium’? She’s so good.”
Julia’s Manhattan was wellbuilt, making for good slow sipping, and almost worth its $16 price tag. (At La Posada, one is constantly reminded of the term “hotel pricing.”) A companion’s Sazerac was stiff, too, if lacking a bit of its absinthe flavor and sugary muddle. Perusing the bar menu’s variety of food offerings, which a bartender explained was designed to appeal to the broadest possible sampling of tourists, we opted for a pair of red chile-pork tamales, served Christmas-style under a blanket of red and green chile. Given the comment about tourists, I was pleasantly surprised by the heat of both chiles, though the masa was wet, the pork rather overprocessed, and in an act of clumsy sorcery, the advertised queso fresco on the menu had been switched out for a waxy blend of pre-grated cheddar
and Jack. The steamed mussels, however, which came with perfectly grilled bread and a garlicky roasted tomato sauce, were plump and abundant. As the rooms filled with visitors and baseball fans and we waited too long to close out our tab, I noticed a line of uncleaned glasses lingering on the crowded bartop. No wonder Julia sees fit to take matters into her own hands every once in a while.
Another evening, eager for the more streamlined tapas experience promised by the online menu at Julia’s Social Club, two hostesses primed us to expect the unexpected. One told a tale of putting dinnerware away in a cabinet whose doors shut when she turned her back; the other described a stack of Post-It notes eerily flipping open. At 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, we were the only customers at the Social Club bar, a room off the wine cellar striped with dark wood vigas and decorated in a more rustic Santa Fe Style than the Staab House. Again, our drinks packed a wallop: A jalapeño margarita was perfectly balanced between tart and spicy, while a Paloma served in a capacious margarita glass was a cauldron of salt-lined bittersweet fizz. Our bartender took issue with the word “haunted” when we mentioned the bar’s namesake; he said he believed in ghosts, but didn’t think they were necessarily haunting things all the time.
Meanwhile, the menu of small plates set before us was significantly limited compared to what I’d scoped out on the web, and seemingly haunted by tortilla chips — they starred in four out of 11 offerings. The kitchen was out of crab for the crab enchiladas, so in combining the Staab House menu with that of the Social Club (both menus are available in both bars, leading us to wonder just why the hotel needs two bars), we forged ahead with the ceviche, a few messily presented piles of cubed lime-cured mahimahi, avocado, pico de gallo, lettuce, and a heap of blue and white corn chips. The separate elements were all reasonably fresh and tasted fine, but again I sensed the specter of Julia’s disappointment. A crisp Caesar salad of fresh Romaine hearts, fried Parmesan crisps, white anchovies, and shaved Parm in a tangy anchovy-scented dressing fared far better, as did a hot cast-iron pan of plump olive-oil poached shrimp with guajillo chiles. Still, the accompanying bread for sopping up the garlicky oil was charred scarily black on both ends.
With the slim tapas pickings, it seemed little wonder that Julia’s Social Club was proving less convivial than its name — though I did see a sign advertising executive chef Tom Kerpon’s Oct. 25 wine dinner at the restaurant, which promised “a preview of exquisite new dishes from his fall menu.”
With La Posada’s overt marketing of Julia’s ghost, the sad-eyed wife’s celebrity has thoroughly eclipsed that of her prosperous husband, which seems a fitting feminist coda to what was purportedly an unhappy marriage rife with emotional and physical abuse. But while the drinks program remains strong in both bars — perhaps helping to blur the boundaries between the living and the dead — an air of neglect permeates its food service. When it comes to presenting plates with style and grace, the kitchen at La Posada may well need a refresher course from the lady of the manor.
One hostess told a tale of putting dinnerware away in a cabinet whose doors shut when she turned her back; the other described a stack of Post-It notes eerily flipping open.