She appeared suddenly on the barstool next to mine. No idea who she was, where she came from, or whether she was alive or undead. Her face looked pale and wragged, with dark sunken eyes under a mass of wiry hair. She sat there with a handbag slung tightly over her shoulder, like she was ready to dash at any moment.
She did not look out of place at El Quijote, the old Spanish-themed bar-restaurant adjoining New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel. Unusual characters were regular patrons of the place, and that was probably the only time anyone called those people “regular.”
One thing was clear: The stranger seemed very interested in my dinner. I soon noticed that she had produced a pair of chopsticks—an odd choice of utensil for Spanish cuisine—which she used to snatch bites of seafood from my plate when I wasn’t looking.
In one snapshot, the mystery woman appeared to be laughing into a cocktail napkin. Then she vanished.
Some friends, who caught on before me, began taking photos. I decided to play along, grabbing two plastic straws to use as my own flimsy chopsticks and mugging for the camera. In one snapshot, the mystery woman appeared to be laughing into a cocktail napkin. Then she vanished.
Some say the Chelsea Hotel is haunted: a popular rest stop for passing spirits as much as living lodgers. I’m not saying this particular scavenger was a ghost, though she was pretty spooky. She was more likely a drifter or junkie. The old hotel had a reputation for attracting those, too.
It is unquestionably a location steeped in lore, which is why I liked to go to El Quijote, sit on those red faux leather–upholstered barstools, and soak in the Old New York that I, an inhabitant of the modish gentrified city of today, could otherwise experience only through books or films.
It was, quite frankly, the weirdest watering hole in the city. Every visit felt like stepping into a time warp.
In its heyday, the Chelsea Hotel housed actors, authors, artists, musicians, and eccentrics. Some became famous, others not so much. El Quijote, linked by a door in the hotel lobby, was their unofficial clubhouse. Founded by refugees from Franco’s Spain, who decorated its walls with murals depicting scenes from the classic Miguel de Cervantes novel Don Quixote, the restaurant became an especially popular hangout for many counterculture figures of the 1960s.
Andy Warhol regularly held court in a back room, sometimes accompanied by Naked Lunch author William Burroughs and avant-garde filmmaker Harry Smith, who, according to one text, had a bottle smashed over his head during an argument at the bar one night. Poet-songwriter Patti Smith, meanwhile, used to collect leftover lobster shells at the restaurant for her then lover Robert Mapplethorpe’s art projects. “The Chelsea was my home and the El Quixote [sic] my bar,” she wrote in her 2010 memoir Just Kids, describing its dining room packed with rock stars, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish.
Nearly a half century later, El Quijote remained much the same place. Same Cervantes murals and kitschy figurines. Same big, brassy antique cash register behind the bar. Complimentary matchbooks (remember those?) were still available at the front door, despite the city’s 21st-century smoking ban. The menu included the same paella and shrimp in green sauce that sustained the hippies back in the ’60s, albeit at presumably much higher prices. Celebrity sightings were probably less common, though I did spot Fred Schneider of the B-52’s there one night sharing a pitcher of sangria with friends.
Even as the Chelsea Hotel itself succumbed to the overwhelming pressures of present-day real-estate development, a series of new owners trying to purge the storied inn’s remaining bohemian holdouts and finish a now-decade-long luxury renovation, El Quijote carried on as usual, untouched, for years. It was like that bar in The Shining, only funkier.
I hoped it might stay that way forever: a quirky escape hatch from the shiny, stainless steel shuttle of full-speed progress.
I hoped it might stay that way forever: a quirky escape hatch from the shiny, stainless steel shuttle of full-speed progress. Then, suddenly, more than a year ago, it closed. A reported renovation, estimated to take six months, has dragged on ever since.
On a recent visit, the doors to the shuttered restaurant were propped open while workers inside took measurements. The dining room and bar looked gutted. Only the murals remained.
Even if the new owners fulfill their promise to preserve some of its historic character, El Quijote will never be the same place again—its wonderful weirdness washed away along with the shabby chic decor and the even shabbier artists, filmmakers, and wannabe rockers who lived in the brick pile beside it.
In a way, I suppose this brings the story of El Quijote to a fitting, literary end. The moral being this: Nothing lasts. Not in this town. Not in this era. To think otherwise is foolish. Or in other words: perfectly quixotic.
Chris Shott is a writer based in Brooklyn. He was previously an editor at Thrillist, Food Republic, Washington City Paper, and The New York Observer. He previously wrote about Shake Shack fries for WSWD.