New Book Recalls Tribeca's Quirkiest Restaurant Ever: El Internacional
Overlooking the corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway in 1984, with El Internacional at right. Main photo: Pamela Duffy
Last fall, Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art opened a major exhibition of works created by Spanish artist Antoni Miralda. One of the projects—a two-year installation of a sort—was Tribeca's long-gone tapas bar and restaurant called El Internacional. Located at 219 West Broadway, it was a sprawling two-floor baroque affair, part kitsch, part elegance, a visual extravaganza that was delightful, vulgar, silly and unforgettable. One of the last bursts of Tribeca's creative irreverence, it was an immediate success.
"El Internacional (1984-1986), New York's Archeological Sandwich," is a just-published oversize 275-page tome that memorializes the allure of this homage to art and gastronomy. The result is impressive—a potpourri of hundreds of photographs of food, recipes, celebrities, magazine articles, details of the restaurant's funky interior along with memories of dozens of artists, writers, waiters, other employees and Miralda, of course.
For his culinary canvas, Miralda chose an ugly squat building that had once housed Teddy's, a restaurant popular with celebrities in the 50s and 60s and, later, with reputed mafia figures. Teaming up with Spanish chef Montse Guillén, with whom he had already collaborated on art and cooking projects, they began renovating the abandoned building in the summer of 1984.
"When we began working on the building, we didn't have a plan. Miralda just started looking around, searching, accelerating to see the whole process unfold. When we first came here and opened these dusty old doors, the place was obviously dead, covered in inches and inches of dirt and dust. There were cobwebs as in a set of a monster movie." — Jordi Torrent, video coordinator at El Internacional
To their delight, hidden behind sheetrock and beneath moldy carpets, they found layers of its past, including impeccably preserved tiles and mosaic most likely dating back to when the eatery was a German tavern in the 1920s.
"When we uncovered the original European tiles on the wall, it was if we were literally chewing and swallowing layers of a savory archeological sandwich. Piercing, excavating and picking through textures of the 1950s and 1960s….It was an unforgettable experience, especially when the first turquoise glass mosaic began to appear right under our fingers. It was a eureka moment!" — Antoni Miralda
Outside the restaurant, Miralda embedded Coke cans, crushed by passing trucks, into the sidewalk. "My fascination with the cans dates from when I arrived in the neighborhood...and began to collect them," he says in the book. "I wanted to preserve them before they disappeared along with the neighborhood's old delivery trucks."
The front was painted an eye-catching "Dalmation facade," as Miralda called it, and the final iconic touch arrived in July, 1985, when a life-size reproduction of the crown of the Statue of Liberty was installed on top of the restaurant, later made famous in the opening titles for "Saturday Night Live."
Inside, ceilings glowed with blue glitter; in an oversized aquarium, a statue of a mermaid holding strands of pearls sat surrounded by hundreds of knives and forks that had been planted on the bottom.
Outside the kitchen, a sensual statue of a woman enjoying the embrace of a satyr sat atop a pedestal of plates. One dining room wall was filled with impressions of women's lips, a tradition begun after one diner had impulsively kissed the wallpaper. After that, the restaurant provided lipstick to everyone who reserved a table in that dining room.
And then the bathrooms! Marked with door signs of a kissing man and woman, each was decked out with a large 1950s style radio that was always on.
"Once I found a couple totally nude, making love in the ladies room. It must have been four or five o'clock in the morning after all the customers had left." — Juanjo, maintenance worker at El Internacional
The food, not surprising, was full of new twists, especially for a New York eating scene that had barely heard of the word "tapas." (It was common for people who answered the phone to explain to callers that they were not "topless.") Under Guillén's direction, there were pig ears vinaigrette, baby eels, marinated sardines and several dozen varieties of tapas, of course. The margaritas were blue and wine could be served in a Spanish "porron," a glass vessel used by throwing back the head and pouring the wine into one's mouth from a distance.
The restaurant had its own menu editor, who wrote commentaries on the history of food.
"Each menu included an essay on one of the many fascinating facets of food, such as the mechanics of dining (e.g. the evolution of the fork), etymology (salt was the Roman soldier's salary) or history (the fact that cornflakes were created to inhibit lust)." — William Dyckes, menu editor for El Internacional and author
Most restaurants lead notably short lives, and El Internacional was no exception. Two years after it opened, its creators handed over the reins to restaurateur Christopher Chesnutt who renamed in El Teddy's.
Miralda told the Trib in March, 2014, that El Internacional was a mere year and half old when he saw the end coming. The artists and actors who once dined there were driven away because, as he put it, “everyone was there.” And he had become distracted by the start of his six-year-long “Honeymoon Project” that featured a host of installations around the symbolic “wedding” of the Statue of Liberty and Spain’s monument to Christopher Columbus. In addition, some residents who lived near the restaurant rose up against what they said were unfiltered cooking smells and late night noise. The complaints caused Community Board 1 to oppose the legalization of El Internacional's outdoor cafe, which it had operated without a permit, until a variety of perceived offenses, including the embedded Coke cans ("a danger both to pedestrians and patrons") had been rectified.
Years later, after El Internacional's successor, El Teddy's, had closed and a developer was looking to demolish the building, CB1's heart had turned softer towards what it maintained in its resolution was "the most famous and one of the most felicitous [buildings] in the Tribeca East Historic District." But the board's plea to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the structure was rejected. In 2004, it was torn down and replaced by a six-story apartment building that now has a hardware and home appliance store on its ground floor.