Ask 25 locals what their favorite Santa Fe restaurant is and you very well may get 25 different answers. The flavors you find will surprise you — a mix of traditional and local ingredients like blue corn and New Mexico’s world-famous chile create unique flavors that have never crossed your palate before — while Santa Fe’s global recognition as a culinary mecca attracts the brightest chefs looking to show off their talents. This list is designed to get you started and is a combination of the “tried and true” of the Santa Fe culinary scene, but it is far from complete. Explore, follow your nose, and remember that there is no wrong answer to the official state question, “Red or Green?”
I like a combination plate — don’t you? I don’t just mean mixing tacos and tamales on the same plate in Santa Fe’s culinary mecca, but changing dinner out from typical to terrific by mixing music into the meal. A 403-year-old town like Santa Fe has had centuries to nurture musical talent, thus, luckily for us, melodic strains lilt from balconies all over town. If it’s dinnertime, head for a place where music makes the meal magical.
Dinner Theater Is Served
The sugar daddy of dinner music is the Broadway Songbook, and La Casa Sena Cantina has been Santa Fe’s Broadway daddy for years. The cantina is open daily 11 am–9 pm, but if your reservations are at 6 pm, a dose of terrific tunes is included as the Cantina’s energetic performing waitstaff serves up a nightly choral cavalcade. Chef Patrick Gharrity has put together a tasty menu of reliable standards – yes, the green chile cheeseburger makes an appearance – along with weekly specials and even a four-course beer dinner. The Cantina is located in the beautiful Sena Plaza on East Palace Ave.
Tapas with a Tuneful Touch
Spanish flavors include much more than our world-famous green chile. The New World is rooted in the Old World, and a hallmark of Old Spain is the tasty little plates known as tapas. Chef James Campbell Caruso first charmed Santa Fe diners in 2006 with his intimate tapas spot, La Boca. In 2012, he expanded his composition by opening Taberna La Boca, around the corner from the flagship La Boca on West Marcy Street. Taberna’s configuration lends space for enhancing the mood with music, so sounds of Spain can pair with delicious Spanish cuisine.
On Saturday evenings at 7 pm, Santa Fe favorite Nacha Mendez plays traditional and original music from around the Spanish-speaking world. And on Fridays, you might find the lively keys of Pedro Romero’s accordion offering accompaniment. If your Taberna time is early (5-6 pm) or late (10-11 pm), you may forego the music, but you’ll enjoy happy hour prices.
The Lively Heart of a Classic
Rich history means historic hotels, and Santa Fe has more than one. It’s accurate, though, to honor La Fonda on the Plaza as the Grand Dame of the Plaza. Chef Lane Warner has been at the helm since 1993, and his tenure reflects the long-standing love affair that every Santa Fean has with La Fonda. The menu at the naturally-lit La Plazuela was renovated along with the dining room, and nothing could be more essentially Santa Fe than a meal in the welcoming heart of the hotel. But if you have music and a margarita on your mind, head over past the front desk to La Fiesta Lounge, where you’ll find entertainment nightly. The design is Santa Fe, but the music runs the gamut from country swing to sweet soul. Get in before the music starts (7:30 or 8 pm) to find a perfect perch from which to watch locals two-step with visiting pals.
La Fonda is located on the corner of the Old Santa Fe Trail and East San Francisco Street, and for fine dining at La Plazuela, it’s a good idea to make reservations. For La Fiesta Lounge and the Bell Tower Bar, located upstairs for enjoying a magnificent Santa Fe sunset, just park your pony and head on in.
Loud or soft, racy or romantically inclined, tunes you know and tunes you’ll love, that’s what you’ll hear at Vanessie. This classic downtown piano bar attracts locals and visitors four nights every week; check in advance, since start times vary. Vanessie’s menu sings the continental classics, with starts and sides fit for sharing, and I suspect it’s the fine cuts of steak that draw a consistent crowd.
When the Cowgirl Is Rockin’ You Should Come a-Knockin’
You may not be a cowgirl, but Cowgirl Santa Fe knows you’re hankerin’ for some Wild West fun with your food. This palace of BBQ (not to worry, salad-eaters and vegetarians, Chef Patrick Lambert has you covered) serves up mighty portions along with a showcase of local musicians. Enjoy a frosty frozen margarita at a 5 pm happy hour on Fridays, kick back on Saturday afternoon with Dixieland and a mint julep, or rock out at 8 pm with some of Santa Fe’s best talent. There’s even a Tap Room for sampling more than one cool beer.
After a First Friday Artwalk in the Santa Fe Railyard, take a short stroll to the Cowgirl, on South Guadalupe, but make reservations to join this popular party at prime hours.
El Farol: Canyon Road’s Cantina
Perched at the corner of Canyon Road and Camino del Monte Sol, El Farol has been a locals’ hangout for as long as I can remember, with an authentically Santa Fe vibe in a historically accurate setting. It’s a special treat when dancers Joaquin and Marisol Encinias and guitarists Vicente Griego and Ricardo Anglada step in with the fiery footwork and musical flare of flamenco to match the Latin menu. Catch the passion on Saturdays at 8 pm through June; from July through August, performances move to Sundays and Thursdays at the same hour. You’ll need to make reservations for a 6:30-7 pm dinner seating in order to savor this quintessentially Spanish experience. A stroll on Canyon Road is beautiful at all times of the year, and this spicy summer scene will keep the body and soul humming.
Perfect Pitch at Pranzo
Parla Italiano? Powder your face before ordering your vino at Pranzo, and you’ll get an Italian lesson in the ladies room. This Italian grill and pasta palace is sweetly situated in the Santa Fe Railyard. Owner Michael O’Reilly just scored a coup by luring back Pranzo’s original chef, Steven Lemon, after a 25-year absence. A wide-ranging selection of Italian specialties can be enjoyed in the convivial dining room or cozy bar, but Pranzo has stepped onstage upstairs with live music.
Head up one flight to the Geist Cabaret, where the effervescent David Geist hosts a piano party most Fridays and Saturdays. His talent and charm give diners that extra dollop of delight, and you’ll notice a crowd of regulars gathering for a tuneful meal.
Call ahead to see who’s at the keyboard. Dinner reservations will include a song and a smile. Pranzo is located on Montezuma Avenue, just to the west of Guadalupe Street.
Dinner Never Falls Flat in Santa Fe
Sing for your supper? You won’t have to, since these more-than-just-dinner establishments have established a winning recipe for a night out in Santa Fe. You’ll find that the performing arts are alive and well in the City Different, with its many different choices for having your cake and eating it too, served up by a variety of terrific local talents.