comida | food
From bordello to fine dining From brasserie to bucking bronco, the guard changes, but The Palace still stands STORY BY JOHN VOLLERTSEN PHOTOS BY KERRY SHERCK
Although the address is not quite as notorious as 109 E. Palace Ave. — where scientists and military men and women were cleared to work in the secret atomic world at Los Alamos in the 1940s — The Palace restaurant at 142 W. Palace Ave. has easily had as historic an impact on our fair city — minus the nuclear fission. In a year when New Mexico celebrates its 100th birthday and Santa Fe its 401st, this landmark establishment continues to set herself apart from our foodie town’s other 200-plus restaurants by constantly reinventing herself, changing out the culinary talents, painting or flocking the walls, and striving to keep the old-timers happy while luring the young and trendy through the swinging doors. A vast array of characters has helped form The Palace’s rich history. Perhaps most notorious was Doña Maria Gertrudis Barcelo, aka La Doña Tules, a Mexican woman who established a saloon on the site circa 1835. Until her death in 1853, La Doña ran The Palace as a gambling joint (with rumors of more intimate entertainment upstairs). Historical records describe her as more handsome than a beauty, and one can only surmise that she must have had an amazing presence to successfully run such a business when Santa Fe was still part of the Wild West.
Owners from afar The many operators of the long-lived eatery have spanned the globe. The building as it stands today opened in 1961 under the ownership of a French couple named Charles and Mimi Besre. Two sets of proprietors later, restaurateur Lino Pertusini, an Italian, took over. Pertusini, who owned and operated The Palace for 18 years, is happy to share what he thinks gave the restaurant
96 2012 Bienvenidos
its draw in its glory days. “In those days that part of town was the center of Santa Fe living,” he said. “There was a gas station across the street, a parking lot and Safeway. People would do their banking on the Plaza and walk down to shop [and] it was easy to park. We would do 200 lunches and 400 dinners [a day].” Pertusini, who now owns both Pizzeria da Lino and Osteria d’Assisi, has many fond memories of the halcyon years he operated the place. “We brought in an Italian designer to host a fashion show in the dining room. [You have to] realize that in those days there were only a handful of dining options. Customers would arrive for dinner [before the] opera and be all dressed up; it was an event. We were lucky; we had a very loyal and consistent following.” Though many might remember Pertusini’s menu as being Italian, he considered it more Continental, with Caesar salads assembled at the table. “For a time,” Pertusini said, “I had both a Frenchman and an Austrian working as chefs in different stations in the kitchen. They were iincredibly competitive with each other, always trying to outdo one another; the food they put out was fantastic.” Roland Richter, chef-owner of Joe’s Diner and Pizza, got his culinary start in Santa Fe at The Palace under Pertusini. “I interviewed with all of the major restaurants in town,” he said, “with Mark Miller at The Coyote Café, at SantaCafé and The Compound, but took The Palace job with Lino because I liked the idea of working with a hands-on operator. I liked how Lino’s brothers Bruno and Pietro were all involved.” Richter, who is German-born, had just arrived in the States from Toronto. When Lino sold The Palace in 2003 to focus on his new venture, Osteria d’Assisi, he was able to bring many of his staff to his second project. “I had a bartender that worked for me for 27 years,” he recalled. And, like The Palace, the building that houses the Osteria was also a house of illrepute. “I see a trend here,” he chuckled. The next owners of The Palace included a successful
New York restaurateur named Jean DeNoyer, local businessman Eddie Gilbert and chef Alain Jorand, who today heads up the cuisine at Adobo Catering. “Our original plan was to reopen The Palace as a French brasserie similar to the ones DeNoyer was famous for,” Jorand recalled. “A massive [$2 million] renovation took place. … We took over in December and opened in January, sadly missing the holiday season. The menu was primarily French with a few New Mexico dishes. We flew in Dover sole and offered dishes like osso buco, lobster with vanilla beurre blanc, and côte du boeuf. Fairly quickly I discovered that we all were not in agreement on what the food should be and I left the project by April, followed by DeNoyer a short time later. After that I took a break from cooking and sold cars.” After the French departed, Gilbert drew Geronimo owner Cliff Skoglund and its chef Eric DiStefano into the project. Skoglund envisioned The Palace returning to its Italian heritage with the help of DiStefano’s modern spin on the popular cuisine. “We set out to return The Palace to its former glory and it was fun for me to be cooking some of those classics,” DiStefano said. “Our most popular dish was spaghetti and meatballs, and regulars would come in to the kitchen and ask me to prepare their favorites dishes.” The restaurant was given a cosmopolitan makeover with flat screen TVs scattered around the room showing Italian “art” films, many of which boasted muscular men in various degrees of undress going through what might be described as wrestling moves. “I remember being there and there were two older ladies from Santa Fe society dining while that soft porn was playing over their shoulders,” Pertusini recalled with a hearty laugh. “I think the décor was a stretch for some people,” DiStefano added, “and not everybody was digging it.” A year later, Skoglund abandoned the Italian theme and adopted a modern Southwestern saloon concept that he hoped could become the model for a chain
Bienvenidos 2012 Summer Guide to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico