Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Luncheon to Remember at El Quijote

Did you see “CBS Sunday Morning” this past Sunday? Specifically, did you catch its profile of the revival underway at the historic 140-year-old Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan? No matter. Here’s a link to the video report:

Once home, or passing residence, to luminaries including Andy Warhol, Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Sarah Bernhardt, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollack, and Leonard Cohen, the Chelsea is a landmark of history.

I never stayed at the Chelsea but I had one of my most memorable meals under its wing, at El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant housed along the hotel’s western street facade. The eatery’s neon red nameplate sign is visible at the beginning of the video. 

The year was 1988. For reasons too painful, too disturbing, to explain at this moment, my employer (Lebhar-Friedman) chose to close down in January the edition of Chain Store Age of which I was the editor and publisher. It would be 10 months before I was reassigned to another edition of Chain Store Age as editor and associate publisher, eventually named publisher until I retired in July 2009.

During those 10 months I was essentially mothballed but kept busy starting and writing a newsletter, Restaurant Personnel Management. Aside from keeping me on the payroll until a suitable executive position opened up, I also had the exquisite task of finding ways to spend $20,000 in American Express credits.

You see, during the last year of my defunct magazine’s existence, we bartered ad space for a line of American Express credit. By the time we closed the books at the end of January we had just over $20,000 in money owed us. 

I wandered over to my business manager and offered the AmEx credit card. Accounting had no way of accounting for this money so I was told to spend it on my newsletter and other corporate expenses, one of which became a luncheon with my art director Milton, production director Stan, and head of maintenance Dominic. 

Milton had recently turned 62, Stan soon to be 57, Dominic of undetermined comparable age, who, like Milt and Stan, had decades-long service with Lebhar-Friedman. I was the youngster of the group, a mere 40 years old, just 11 years with the company. More than just inviting my friendship, they also welcomed the credit card in my wallet. 

We cabbed down to El Quijote around noon. We started with some liquid libation. Having never been to the restaurant we asked our waiter for a recommendation. He suggested a specialty of the house—shrimp in green sauce. Four orders, por favor, señor. 

It might be hyperbole, but never to my memory have I enjoyed a more delicious luncheon meal. Baskets of fresh bread soaked up the garlic-infused green sauce. We kept drinking. We had dessert.

All the while Milt, Stan and Dom regaled me with stories of past and some present L-F employees. Finally, around 3 pm, we determined it would be judicious to return to the office at 425 Park Avenue, not that any of us were in any form or shape to do any work for the rest of the afternoon.

El Quijote no longer serves lunch. I’ve been back just once, with Gilda years ago. The shrimp in green sauce, while good, did not match my memory. 

Milton and I still see each other several times a year, COVID permitting. He’ll be 97, Saturday. Several of his paintings adorn our home. My favorite is a self-portrait hanging in our living room. I tell him and everyone that asks about him that in his black crewneck sweater he looks like a Portuguese fisherman.  

After retirement Stan moved to Lafayette, Calif., to be closer to his son and daughter and their families. He liked nothing more than driving his grandchildren around. He passed away earlier this year. He was 91. 

Dominic died first. Before he retired he gave me some Lebhar-Friedman memorabilia—a chair and bronze pole lamp from Arnold D. Friedman’s office and a 32-inch bronze Chain Store Age nameplate from the old offices at 2 Park Avenue. It is a featured memento on our living room bookshelves.