La Fonda: A Harvey House Jewel

Lynn Cline - July 27, 2016

If walls could talk, what stories we'd hear from La Fonda...

If walls could talk, what stories we'd hear from La Fonda, the stately hotel that occupies the southeast corner of the Santa Fe Plaza, likely the oldest hotel corner in the country. Located on the site of Santa Fe's very first inn—which opened in the early 1600s after Spanish settlers established the city—La Fonda is just one of a handful of legendary Harvey Houses that remain from America's first fine-dining hotel and restaurant chain.

Founded by English-born immigrant Fred Harvey, who opened his first Harvey House in 1876 in Topeka, Kansas, the company got its start catering to travelers of the American railroad era. At its peak, the company operated 84 Harvey House facilities, a chain of eating houses and hotels that spanned the American West.

In New Mexico, Harvey Houses were located across the state, from Albuquerque and Belen to Carlsbad, Clovis, Deming, Gallup, Lamy, Las Vegas, Raton, Rincon, San Marcial, and Vaughan. They've all disappeared except for La Fonda and La Castañeda in Las Vegas, currently undergoing renovations by the same owners of La Posada, a fully restored Harvey House in Winslow, Ariz.

Step into La Fonda today and you're instantly transported through history to the hotel's heyday as a Harvey House, re-designed in the 1920s in a combination of Pueblo and Spanish style that became known as Santa Fe Style. Harvey's architect Mary Colter—designer of numerous noteworthy Harvey Houses including Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon and La Posada in Winslow—worked with Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem to create the new La Fonda, which was Meem's first big project.

Look up and admire the hand-carved beams, stained glass skylights and 25-foot cathedral ceiling. Then grab at a table at La Plazuela, located on the hotel's original 1920's patio. Executive Chef Lane Warner has worked at the hotel almost as long as La Fonda's Harvey House chef, Konrad Allgaier, who had cooked for Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm before coming to Santa Fe and combining his classical European training with traditional New Mexico cuisine at La Fonda for nearly 25 years.

Allgaier was famous for his Chicken Lucrecio, a chile-roasted chicken with almond and garlic gravy, beef empanadas, with vanilla sauce, huevos rancheros and sopapillas, according to Stephen Fried's award-winning book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time.

Other items on La Fonda Harvey House menu over the years included Fresh Lobster Farci Thermidor with Potato Chips and Boned Mountain Trout Saute au Buerre Noisette. There's also Fresh Ox Tongue on New Spinach with a Sauce Madere and Whipped Potatoes; Shirred Eggs with Home Made Sausage Cakes; and a Fresh Scallop Patty a la Poulette. A La Fonda Favorites section of one menu from 1958 includes a Santa Fe Omelette with Green Chili and Rarebit Sauce with French Fried Potatoes and Tossed Green Salad, and there's even a Peanut Butter and Bacon Sandwich option.

Impeccable service for dining at La Fonda was provided by the signature Harvey Girls, a staff of thoroughly well-trained waitresses who were famous for their role in the Harvey House success. “You never met anybody anywhere except at La Fonda,” syndicated newspaper columnist and New Mexico resident Ernie Pyle once wrote, “you never took anybody to lunch anywhere else.”

Today, you can dine in three different La Fonda locations—the La Plazuela the newly re-designed La Fiesta Lounge and the Bell Tower Bar, open seasonally for until just after sunset.

La Plazuela signature dishes include guacamole prepared tableside, along with Beeler's “Haluka” Pork Chop, char-grilled and served with fresh thyme, Marsala jus, fingerling potato salad and fresh seasonal vegetables; and Chilean Sea Bass, wine-poached and served with roasted tomato butter sauce, roasted cauliflower mash and fresh seasonal vegetables.

La Fiesta Lounge offers casual, regional cuisine along with live music and dancing. Enjoy such starters as flight of house-made salsas, Kale and Roasted Jalapeno Hummus and La Fonda Caesar Salad with queso cojito Caesar dressing. For a full meal, try the Rellenos de la Fonda stuffed with Mexican cheese; the Braised Short Rib Tacos and the Hatch Green Chile Cheeseburger . A daily New Mexican buffet is available for lunch and the resident mixologist has concocted some delicious libations, including signature margaritas and martinis.

Up on La Fonda's fifth floor, the Bell Tower Bar offers some of the best sunset views in the city and a menu of light bites that includes Ethel's Chicken Salad and a variety of quesadillas—don't miss the Pork Carnitas & Mexican Cheese and the Grilled Calabacitas with Black Mash & Mexican Cheese. If you've got a sweet tooth, order the Chocolate Nutella Quesadilla with Strawberries or Bananas. And don't miss the Bell Ringer Margarita, the bar's signature drink.The Bell Tower Bar is open for lunch also live entertainment on Sundays.

La Fonda is prized Santa Fe gem, and its current owners, Jenny Kimball and her brother Phillip Wise, are devoted to preserving the hotel's Harvey House legacy. They bought the hotel in 2014 from the family of Santa Fe businessman Sam Ballan and his wife, Ethel, who purchased La Fonda from the Fred Harvey company in 1968 and have overseen extensive renovations aimed at returning the hotel's design to the Mary Colter traditions.

La Fonda hosts Harvey House weekends that celebrate its history in collaboration with the New Mexico History Museum that includes lectures, specials events and even Harvey House meals. The hotel also offers complimentary docent tours of La Fonda's extensive art collection dating back to 1922, on Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 to 11:30 am. You can sign up for these tours at the concierge desk or by calling (505) 995-2333.