On a recent Thursday evening in Chelsea, the publicist standing next to the bar at Txikito was having a tough time. None of the faces filing into the tiny Basque restaurant’s reopening party were Instagram-famous or even identifiable as members of the press. Instead, the guest list consisted almost entirely of regulars who dated back to its opening day in 2008, in the middle of the financial crisis. After shuttering for 29 months in the wake of the pandemic, it is sputtering back to life.
The small group of restaurants that chef Alex Raij has opened with her husband, the Basque-born chef Eder Montero, began scrappily but became a rare New York success story. Raij and Montero have done it without playing the game at which shinier chefs and restaurateurs have excelled, which is impressive, because their restaurants are still in business. And they’re still wonderful, the kind of neighborhood spots you wish were around the corner from you.
Txikito was ahead of its time, but it’s lasted long enough for everyone else to catch up. It’s hard to remember, but when Raij and Montero opened their first restaurant, Tia Pol, in 2004, there were few good restaurants in the newly established Chelsea gallery district. There were even fewer tapas restaurants serving more than low-quality paella, toothpicked chorizo, and headachy sangria. And there weren’t any that were celebrating the diversity and high quality of regional Spanish cuisine, or empowering young female chefs to send out pig’s-ear salads and naked anchovies.
When they opened El Quinto Pino, an eight-stool tapas bar on West 24th Street, three years later, “viral sandwiches” weren’t yet a thing (until Frank Bruni, then the New York Times restaurant critic, deemed their uni panino “the sandwich of my life”). Txikito, Basque for “little,” opened at a time when Spanish cuisine was most associated with the radical modernism of El Bulli, not the region’s elemental, distinctly unphotogenic food, such as octopus carpaccio or whole turbot with golden garlic.
“When we opened, [New York restaurant critic] Adam Platt described it as a bomb shelter,” Raij recalls with a laugh. “He said he didn’t understand why you would name a restaurant something people couldn’t pronounce or understand.” (It’s cheek-ee-toe.)
After the success of Tia Pol, “people didn’t understand why we were opening this beige-food emporium,” Raij says. “But for me, cooking Basque is a refinement, a practice. It’s so reductive and unpretty, I think it makes you a better cook.”
“When we opened, Adam Platt described it as a bomb shelter.”
In 2009, Raij and Montero left Tia Pol, but they continued to set the standard for Spanish food on a lovely block in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill. In 2012 they opened La Vara, whose robust flavors draw from elements of Moorish and Jewish cooking that, Raij says, Spaniards claim as their own, having converted or squeezed out the communities that created them.
Nearby, Saint Julivert Fisherie is a casually sophisticated restaurant with a coastal menu. With their knack for intimate rooms and quietly cool décor, friendly staff and menus that reward repeat visitors, La Vara and Saint Julivert are a second (and third) home for locals, while also drawing regulars from farther afield. “Others might have better real estate and nicer things, but we have truly the best, most amazing customers,” says Raij.
“Each of the restaurants has a slightly different point of view, but you really feel a sense of continuity and thoughtfulness between them,” says Marysia Woroniecka, the president of fashion label Zero Maria Cornejo and a regular customer. “It feels genuine, as opposed to restaurateurs thinking, ‘Oh, here’s a new concept!’”
Despite two decades of success, Raij and Montero remain mostly chefs’ chefs, whose fans range from Daniel Boulud to Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson of Frenchette and Le Rock. They are two-time semifinalists for the James Beard Awards, and in 2018, La Vara received a Michelin star.
Of the media, says Raij, “We always had integrity, but we were denied prestige.” This has made it harder to attract talented staff, while many of their dishes can now be found on the menus of chefs with more resources. But what she deems their semi-invisibility has proved to be a gift: “We have so much freedom,” she says.
On March 16, 2020, Raij and Montero put everything in Txikito’s freezer and locked the door. Just a few weeks ago, they cleaned it out to prepare for the restaurant’s long-awaited reopening. “Txikito has been greatly missed by many of us,” says longtime regular Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose arts center is nearby. “Alex and Eder are true pioneers.”
The room has been refreshed with Prouvé-inspired maple paneling, and now the feel is less Basque cider house. But it remains a clubhouse for those who know that quality and integrity, not better real estate and nicer things, are what make a restaurant a second home. As Baryshnikov says, anticipating yet another feast, “Topa!”
Christine Muhlke, a former editor for The New York Times and Bon Appétit, is the co-author of Wine Simple, with Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm, and Phaidon’s Signature Dishes That Matter. She is also the founder of Bureau X, a consultancy that pairs chefs with projects outside of the food world