The first Spanish restaurant in Washington, D.C., La Taberna del Alabardero, is still one of the best after 25 years. And its silver anniversary celebration March 27 demonstrated why it's still golden.
Guests feasted on squid paella in its own black ink; marinated fresh sardines with roasted pepper salad and cream of cauliflower in its own black tins; Andaluz gazpacho shots with vegetables and croutons; octopus kabobs; Iberian cured meats; Catalan cream with berries...
The restaurant's founder, Spanish priest Luis de Lezama, told guests at the intimate reception, "Twenty-five years in Washington is not easy at all."
Difficulties abounded from the very beginning. No sooner had he signed the lease for the downtown restaurant space, than Spain cancelled its bank loan. "Vaya con dios," the priest has always said.
He ate for $1 at a food bank near the planned restaurant's posh location. Lezama noted that then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry "always went to embassy events to eat for free." The priest complained to Mayor Barry, who eventually helped him, and "sent people from jail to work for the restaurant."
The restaurant's opening day, March 27, 1989, "was very busy -- but the next day, everything was stolen!" Lezama recalled. A policemen had urged him to buy a gun, but advised, "'please, kill them inside the restaurant, not outside on the street.'"
The news was far more positive in reviews:
- "Zagat", then as now, dubbed it the "Rolls-Royce of Spanish restaurants" that takes diners on an "atmospheric mini-trip to Spain".
- "The New York Times" recommended La Taberna and hailed it for "introducing the sophisticated Spanish food in the nation´s capital."
- "Washingtonian" Magazine described it as the best Spanish restaurant in the United States.
- "Esquire" swooned that it was the best Spanish restaurant outside of Spain.
Back then, very few Spanish wines were available in Washington. Today, more than 300 Spanish wines are on the wine list at La Taberna del Alabardero.
The tongue-twisting name comes from the guards ("Alabarderos") of King Alfonso XIII, who reigned in Spain from 1902–1931.
Father Luis started the original La Taberna del Alabardero in Madrid 40 years ago to make money for his shelter for at-risk youths aspiring to become bullfighters.
One of his mottos is "do not give a man a fish, but teach him how to fish" (a quote attributed to Jesus Christ, but also to Chinese philosophers including Confucius).
Lezama's culinary school has taught 10,000 students. He proudly admits that he never learned: "Fortunately, I do not know how to cook. I am only a good tester" or taster.
The priest's restaurants, now numbering 22 across Spain in addition to the Washington one, plus his three hotels, employ the students and graduates.
"This company has something spiritual that only the ones who work here can explain," said Javier Velázquez, manager of their D.C. restaurant. "Three important things we go by: our culinary tradition, a special attention to flavors, and a firm commitment to service."
The reception evoked Ernest Hemingway's words in "The Sun Also Rises" (no, not "The Moveable Feast"). "The first meal in Spain was always a shock with the hors d’oeuvres, an egg course, two meat courses, vegetables, salad, and dessert and fruit. You have to drink plenty of wine to get it all down."