On the Corner of Greenwich and Horatio

David Sutton

It was a small, unassuming entrance, hidden away on the corner of Greenwich and Horatio Streets in New York’s notoriously labyrinthine West Village. Inside there was a coatrack and a long bar with just enough space to walk past the stools and enter the dining room, a tiny space of about a dozen tables of different sizes. This is where we would squeeze in, along with the waitstaff, and sometimes musical entertainment, and receive our magical metal pots of seafood at El Faro, a Spanish restaurant with a long and storied history which I first discovered when it was already nearly 60 years old in the early 1980s, and which I would come back to each time I was in New York visiting friends and family for the next 30 years until it closed in 2012, shut down by the New York City Health Department for kitchen violations which would have taken a reputed 80,000 dollars to rectify.

This is not a restaurant that you stumbled upon, it is one that you are introduced to, as I was by my mother’s godson, my “cousin” Evan Marshall (son of the writer, Paule Marshall–he had been introduced, as well, by a good friend of his mother’s). It was a known hangout of New York based African-American artists and writers, including James Baldwin (and indeed, the restaurant was used in two scenes in the film rendition of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)). It was the kind of restaurant where the waiters remembered you, and greeted you by name. And the weekend flamenco music was a real treat. But of course it was the food that made it spectacular, a menu predominated by seafood, served in the gleaming metal pots that the luscious sea creatures were cooked in. Those pots always entered the dining room as the waiters ascended a long stairway coming up from the basement, as if prepared in the bowels of the earth. The meals always came with a simple salad always adorned with a delicious French dressing (something I would eat nowhere else), and we usually accompanied our meals with a pitcher of enticing Sangria, especially during hot New York summers. While on my first dozen visits I ordered many different menu offerings, my cousin Evan always got the Shrimp al Ajilio,[1] and despite delicious options of  “Mariscada in Green Sauce,” “Clams Burgalesa,” or, of course, Paella, I soon did the same. What was it about those shrimp swimming in garlic and olive oil, with a hint of hot paprika, that try as I might at home, I never could reduplicate? The quality of the shrimp? The proportions? Those metal pots? Or the press of bodies moving through the restaurant?

The beloved Shrimp al Ajilio. Photo credit: Evan Marshall

Soon, El Faro became my secret to be shared with family, friends and colleagues every time I thought of dinner in New York. And what a pleasure to introduce others to the El Faro experience, knowing that they would become equally addicted, including my wife and eventually my two young sons, who always looked forward to a visit to El Faro on trips to the city along with their grandparents and their uncle Evan. One of the pleasures of being a New Yorker while no longer living in New York was being able to recommend things to do and places to eat to the many friends who asked my advice while planning their visits over the years. And of course, El Faro was always at the top of my list, and nobody ever expressed disappointment. And there was the challenge of giving directions to find that corner, back in the days when you still gave directions to places.

The Sutton family, our last trip to El Faro before it closed. Summer 2011. Photo Credit: Evan Marshall

I was in shock and mourning when I learned, in 2012 of El Faro’s closure after 85 years in operation. It seemed that it came with a spate of closings of my favorite restaurants: Ralph’s Pizza on 9th Avenue, and Cucina di Pesce in the East Village, but no loss hit me as hard as that of El Faro. These days when I find myself in the West Village, I look longingly toward that corner on Greenwich and Horatio. New York has many new culinary delights with which to tempt me, but none that will sooth my soul like that lighthouse no longer giving off its beacon—El Faro.

[1] Gary Shteyngart provides his own memory of El Faro, and especially the smell of garlic and promise of pleasure that it seemed to offer. A recipe for Shrimp al Ajilio is also included. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/magazine/eat-memory-the-sixth-sense.html?searchResultPosition=2

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