Before Foodies Reigned Supreme

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Spain Restaurant
113 W. 13th St.
(betw. 6th & 7th Aves.)

My friend Tony sounded like he was calling from somewhere far away, his voice muted, the line rough. But it wasn’t just the weak connection that suggested distance. It was the tone of his voice, a hint of uncertainty that suggested he himself didn’t know exactly where he was.

“You’re outside?” he said. “I’m in the back. Go through the bar, follow the hall and keep going. But brace yourself,” he continued. “It’s like a time warp.”

An understatement, as it turned out. Entering Spain Restaurant, situated on an idyllic stretch of West 13th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled through a wormhole into the Village’s past. Waiters in faded red tuxedo jackets tend bar and wander about, and a long corridor behind the bar empties into a vaulted dining room, the details of which suggest that it hasn’t been updated in decades: simple wooden tables with white tablecloths and formal place settings; dimpled white plastered walls, dulled by time; Old Master–style paintings, peeling and chipped, as if retrieved from someone’s attic; Greek statuary mounted in the back corner.

This is where I found Tony, sitting on an ancient beige banquette; and though he was the first in our group to arrive, the table was already covered with food: chilled mussels, chorizo, house salads, a stack of lamb ribs. “I didn’t order them,” Tony said. “They just kind of arrived.”

“Compliments of the kitchen,” said our waiter, who gave us a bit of the restaurant’s back story. Spain Restaurant has been serving Village residents for more than 40 years, and many of the staff have been working there for nearly that long. As the neighborhood has acquired a new money polish and a veneer of chic, Spain Restaurant has remained frozen in time, serving traditional Spanish fare (and complimentary appetizers) to its loyal clientele.

The portions are generous and the prices are cheap. If you have room after the free appetizers (after seconds of the chorizo, I wondered what would happen if we left a tip and walked out), try the gambas al ajillo ($5.50), a heap of shrimp, piping hot, slathered in a rich garlic sauce, and the chicken bordelaise ($10.50). Or treat the whole table to one of the paella dishes, big enough to satisfy a party of four. We tried the Paella Valenciana ($14.50), a no-nonsense jumble of chicken, sausage, mussels and shrimp. Wash it down with a pitcher of sangria. The house blend is murky, the color of rusty faucet water, but the taste is bracing and sweet.

Stepping back onto 13th Street, my stomach was full, but my gut felt empty. Spain Restaurant is one of a handful of restaurants I’ve encountered downtown over the past several months that hearkens back to a different era, a period on which the door is swinging closed. For the moment, the owner (who appeared to be in his late sixties) will carry on, but it’s hard to imagine this place (and others like it) surviving more than another five or 10 years.

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