Amid sea of change, restaurant remains a constant


By Erica Stein

Mark Lugris has watched his corner of the Meatpacking District change from a quiet neighborhood, home to butchers and Spanish immigrants, to a celebrity haunt to a depressed, drug-laden “no man’s land” to a popular club and bar district. But the biggest transformation Lugris’ business — the family-owned restaurant El Faro, located at the corner of Horatio and Greenwich Sts. — has undergone is a new coat of paint, a shortened bar and an expanded tapas menu.

El Faro opened in 1927. The original owners, Manuel Rivas and Edwardo Cabana, were immigrants from Spain who rented the ground floor of the building from the Eastern European Maritime Union. As Franco rose to power in the ’30s, Spanish ex-pats and sailors flocked to 14th St. and Eighth Ave., which became known as Little Spain. Some of them lived in the boarding houses across the street from El Faro, or worked in the restaurant itself. One of Rivas and Cabana’s employees was Lugris’s father, Andres, who worked as a dishwasher at El Faro for 10 days, before leaving to work on MacDougal St. at Grandos, another Spanish restaurant, where he learned to cook.

Grandos was also where Andres Lugris met Jose Perez, with whom he pooled his money and bought El Faro in 1959 for $4,000 dollars. Andres’s son, Mark, grew up at the restaurant, and remembers, among other things, when seafood was cheap. “The earliest menu we have is from ’59, and paella cost $2.50,” says Lugris (it’s now $13 for lunch and $19.25 for dinner). “In the ’50s and ’60s, mussels were off the map for mainstream America. It was exotic cuisine. Then Hemingway’s books opened up Spanish culture, in a limited way. El Faro became the mother of Spanish restaurants.” As celebrities like Jason Robards began frequenting El Faro, the neighborhood regulars and the meat-packers remained customers, leaving the restaurant with an eclectic clientele that rotated throughout the day, resembling the modern schedule of meatpackers, residents and nightlife.

“I’d look up the street before we opened in the morning and I’d see the workers from the Meat Market just covered in blood,” says Lugris. “They’d walk in the door coming in for shots and beers in the summer. When I was a kid they were terrifying. And then we’d be so crowded that at 11 a.m. the line would be out the door and people would take their food and sit on the steps across the street. Every night we’d have celebrities come in, not to be bothered, just to sit.”

Occasionally, the famous did some bothering of their own. “Sid Vicious was in here a couple of nights before he turned up dead and he was so impossible my father had to throw him out.” It was after that, in the late ’70s and ’80s, that the surrounding area went into decline. “Past Gansevoort St. it was a no-man’s land,” says Lugris.

A member of the new Meatpacking District Initiative, Lugris has seen the area come back, but has reservations about its newfound popularity. “I’m afraid of losing the local flavor. Sometimes I feel like we’re a dinosaur. A lot of the other old places are closed: Rio Mar, Capital Blast, the Detroit Garage…”

Lugris, however, believes that a large part of El Faro’s appeal is its tradition and imperviousness to change. “If you want to see how it was here 40 or 50 years ago, all you do is walk through our door and you’re there. I have families who’ve been coming here for four generations and they all say don’t change a thing. Those people helped us get through 9/11 when no one was coming into the neighborhood. If I changed the color of the tables or the kind of plates, they’d kill me.”

Other than a small renovation in 1965, the space is largely untouched. The recipes are unchanged from those Andres brought from Grandos, and are still served in the same kind of metal pots. Lugris says that he suffers criticism in Zagat’s because of the restaurant’s décor, which features murals of flamenco dancing and bull fighting that were painted directly over the 1927 originals by Roger Vilarchao (one of the original works can still be seen in the front of the restaurant). “But it’s important to be able to give people coming with their grandkids the same kind of experience they had,” he says. “Look at this bar. People love it. Think of the kind of stories it would be able to tell.”

The bar once regularly delivered James Baldwin his favorite drinks at his corner table. The writer was a regular who would haunt El Faro from opening until 2 in the morning and, according to Lugris, told his father that two characters in “In Another Country” were based on Andres and Jose. The bar’s current customers include some spillover from the new nightlife activity in the Meat Market. “Some of that crowd from the Meatpacking District bars find us a step down,” he says. “But then you have a lot of young people walking down the street and finding us.”

In 2001, Lugris expanded the tapas menu — Spanish-style appetizers and finger food — to entice new customers and made sure they’d be served in the right kind of pot to placate the long-timers. The result, he says, has been great. “I love this. I hated to watch young couples and groups of kids walk by, look at the menu and decide it was too expensive. So the tapas is perfect. Everything is $6.25 to $8.25. So they come in as couples, decide they like it, then bring five or six friends and enjoy the food family style. I love turning a new generation on to my food.”

The food itself, however, has never changed and has always been the draw. The same dishes remain the most popular: “Seafood in green sauce, garlic sauce. We’re one of the only ones who do chicken villaroy anymore. It’s cream sauce, battered and dipped in egg and fried. It’s a heart attack, but I have people who’ve been coming in forever, twice a month, just for that.”

El Faro is open Tuesday through Sunday, from noon to midnight.