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Past Haunts the Present at a Neighborhood Fixture


Alcala Restaurant has been dishing out traditional Spanish fare to the United Nations community for decades, and a recent move from East 46th Street to East 44th appears to have done nothing to change it, from the old-fashioned menu to the regulars at the next table.

You’ll find the same dishes the last time you ate here — whenever that was: red peppers stuffed with mashed potatoes and salt cod; flattened chunks of octopus atop a potato-and-olive-oil puree and paella, of course.

Alcala Restaurant
Alcala Restaurant, just a few blocks from the UN, attracts diners who want untrendy food and peace and quiet. IRWIN ARIEFF

The emphasis has always been on seafood from northern Spain. But nothing contemporary — no nod to trends or fashions in cuisine or presentation. Together with the pleasant ambience — no tweeting, Instagramming or conversation-drowning playlists here — it all feels like a throwback to another time. But people may come more than anything else for the familiarity.

Unfortunately, the kitchen also seems pretty predictable. The same Basque-style seafood dish may be on the menu, but the piece of fish will be smaller and overcooked, the sauce will be bland and the plating unexciting. When ingredients lack fresh, succinct flavors, an outpouring of olive oil or butter can go only so far.

While this restaurant is not exorbitantly priced, particularly given its Midtown location, it is no bargain, either, so it is particularly interesting to see healthy crowds at dinner, an indication that it must be doing something right.

If the wait staff’s warm greetings are any indication, many of the customers appear to be regulars. There is also a strong UN presence, so this is a good place to people-watch. (Was that the former peacekeeping chief?) But Alcala also seems to draw from the neighborhood: couples and foursomes having animated conversations, catching up over a bottle of wine. The restaurant’s Web site calls for casual dress, but plenty of coats and ties and out-for-the-evening dresses were in evidence.

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Like the soft buzz of conversation, the lighting is a welcome departure from trendy restaurants: soft but bright enough to read the menu without a flashlight. The main dining room is long and narrow, with the tables separated by a decent amount of space. A small bar sits in the front.

Alcala Restaurant
Alcala specializes in Basque food, like monkfish in salsa verde with clams and shrimp. IRWIN ARIEFF

The decor is the opposite of pretentious. The ceiling is office-style acoustic tile, and the walls are adorned with touristy Spanish-themed paintings, tiles and brightly colored pottery plates. Complementing the interior is a list of reliable Spanish wines.

Alcala offers a fixed-price meal at lunch and dinner, which promises savings over the regular menu but offers little flexibility; you get the soup of the day, the fish of the day and a dessert of your choice. There’s also a daily special at lunch offering three different fish. Appetizers at lunch are $8 to $12 and main courses $17 to $30. Prices at dinner are a quarter to a third higher, with four types of paellas to choose from in the evening, for $22 to $27.

Tapas on the menu consist of 25 choices, at $7 to $18, ranging from ham and codfish croquettes to a grilled lamb chop. But some portions lie on the modest side and you’d want at least two or three to make a meal, so this can get pricey fast.

Alcala Restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from noon until 11 p.m., Fridays from noon to midnight, Saturdays from 3:30 p.m. to midnight and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. It is located at 246 E. 44th Street between Second and Third Avenues; (212) 370-1866.





Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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