In Manhattan’s Theater District, a tapas pioneer has remained a stronghold of traditional Spanish cuisine for 30 years.
Mesón Sevilla is a family-owned restaurant with one of the largest tapas selections in New York City. Over those 30 years, it has stayed doggedly true to tradition, serving only authentic Spanish food like what you’d find in its home country.
Sticking to Tradition
Owner Adolfo Pérez was one of the first to introduce tapas to New York City. A transplant from Galicia, a region in the northwestern corner of Spain, he championed the Spanish small plates, traditionally served as an accompaniment to a drink and eaten over a night of leisurely tapas bar-hopping. His first restaurant, Picasso, was one of the first tapas restaurants in the city. He gained a popular following, and when he opened Mesón Sevilla, his fans followed.
Since then, the New York tapas scene has flourished.
But most Spanish tapas places are either fusion or “new kitchen,” says Adolfo Pérez Alvarez, Pérez’s son and the general manager, while his father has “kept the custom alive in a traditional sense.” As trends lean modern, Mesón Sevilla stands firm, sticking to tradition despite going against the culinary current.
“To go that route would be untrue to the essence of the restaurant, of it being traditional, of it being old-world, and reminiscent of a time that doesn’t exist anymore,” Alvarez says.
In fact, over the years, the tapas menu has actually evolved to become more traditional—dishes ruled insufficiently authentic have been weeded out.
Those that remain are traditional plates “that you’d find almost anywhere in Spain,” Alvarez says. But unlike tapas bars in their home country, which each tend to specialize in only a few tapas, Mesón Sevilla offers over 50, making its selection likely the largest in New York City. (Portions are generous, too.)
Some tapas take inspiration from Alvarez’s family roots. In Galicia, his grandmother used to prepare banquets for the wealthy, using products from the family farm. It was then that Alvarez’s father first started learning about the kitchen, kickstarting a culinary passion that would eventually lead him to New York.
The callos, or tripe, is a “hardcore” Galician dish (“You have to like tripe,” Alvarez says), prepared according to his grandmother’s recipe. For the less daring, there’s the caldo gallego, a “super typical” Galician soup that’s eaten all over Spain. Loaded with chorizo, potato, white beans, and collard greens, it’s hearty, and comforting, and exudes home-cooked warmth.
Other favorites, which span the rest of the country, include albondigas (Spanish meatballs); patatas bravas (spicy cubes of fried potatoes); and gambas al ajillo, (garlic shrimp), which comes sizzling in a pungent oil that’s best sopped up with warm bread.
Mesón Sevilla’s loyalty to tradition also shines in the preparation of its dishes. In the Spanish kitchen, simplicity is key.
“They’re more traditional in the sense that they’re more true to the actual flavors,” Alvarez says. “You’re not going to find foams and over-aggressive sauces or over-produced accompaniment.”
“It’s a very Spanish way of cooking, to enhance flavors without changing the flavor of what you’re actually preparing.”
That philosophy is beautifully showcased in the Pulpo a la Gallega, a typical Galician dish that shows off the region’s famed seafood. Mesón Sevilla’s rendition uses a whopping four ingredients: octopus, olive oil, Spanish pimentón, and sea salt.
The octopus comes straight from Portugal or Galicia, whose waters are reputed to be its best source. It arrives frozen—the freezing process tenderizes the meat, so no traditional bashing against the rocks is necessary—and is defrosted just before cooking.
The only preparation required is to then boil the octopus over the course of three to four hours. The secret is knowing when to stop. “It seems like a simple thing, but five minutes makes a big difference,” Alvarez says.
Mesón Sevilla has the timing perfected, and the result is buttery soft. Finished with a simple drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of pimentón and sea salt, the original flavor of the octopus shines through. The fragrant smokiness of the pimentón—authentic Spanish paprika imported from Spain, not the supermarket variety—elevates without overpowering the briny meat.
A Neighborhood Establishment
Alvarez credits much of Mesón Sevilla’s success to its consistency over the years. Their cook, for instance, has been with them since he was 17 years old—he’s now 44.
Reliably authentic and down-to-earth, the menu offers respite from flashy fusion foods or carefully manicured meals. That sense of homeyness extends to the relaxed ambiance and decor: the space is cozy and unpretentious, with an intimate bar that greets you at the door, warm yellow walls hung with paintings of Spanish bullfighters, and strums of Spanish guitar floating over the speakers. It’s a place where people can feel at home.
“We like to promote that,” Alvarez says. “We’re not stuffy in any way, shape, or form.”
Perhaps that’s what brings customers back time and time again. “We [pride] ourselves in being a neighborhood establishment, where people have been coming to for 20, 25 years,” Alvarez says. “We have tons of customers that say, ‘I came here with my kids, and I came here with my grandkids.’”
In an ever-changing city, Mesón Sevilla plays the role of a warm and reliable friend. It’s a glimpse—and taste—of the Old World in New York City.