You wouldn't close the door on your friends just because of a few feet of snow, would you? Neither would the Zia Diner-unlike other restaurants around town who canceled their New Year's Eve parties because of the recent sudden winter storm paralysis-the Zia rocked on, celebrating their 20th anniversary with all and sundry who were lucky enough to be there, along with Busy McCarroll and her Ambassadors of Pleasure, welcoming in 2007.
That level of commitment is what we've come to expect from our erstwhile diner. And they continue to deliver. "We had linens on all the tables, we turned the lights down," says owner Beth Draiscol. "This place really cleans up well, I have to say. The waiters were all dressed up, we served a moderately-priced prix fixe meal, and we all had so much fun!"
A lot of us remember the buzz that got stirred up as the Zia Diner prepared to open. That was New Year's Eve, 1986. With a bar as friendly and welcoming as your neighbor's living room, a big dining room with wide roomy booths and elegant yet casual tables, often reconfigured to accommodate large groups and families, and friendly yet respectful wait staff serving the ultimate in comfort food-meatloaf with piñons and roasted green chile, liver and onions, fish and chips and a whole host of pies-there was nothing else like it here in Santa Fe. And we needed it.
The Zia was a restaurant just for us. Tourists could come, too, but this was essentially ours, a local hangout, one of the few middle ground restaurants between expensive-classy and down-home.
Santa Fe born-and-bred writer Gregory Pleshaw (aka Gregory P!) wistfully recalls his first time there. "I was a junior in high school. It was either the spring or summer of "87 and the Zia Diner was brand new. My friend's dad took us there for lunch. I ordered the chicken fried steak, and we both ordered milk shakes. I remember being so impressed-it was (and maybe still is) the only place I'd ever been where you could order both fountain drinks and a martini."
One big reason we feel so at home there is owner Beth Draiscol, a local since 1978. She keeps Santa Fe's copious family album fondly in her head, her memory a collage of snapshots of all the quirky phases we've gone through over the past 30 years, our innocent, naive period, those wild "80s, our more recent huge growth spurt.
When she first came to Santa Fe, Beth cooked for Grand Central Station and then the Haven on Canyon Road, with a side business baking special order birthday and wedding cakes. "We had no money back then, but we were really young and no one worried about it. Those were simple times. I really enjoyed that period. Once my kids were born, I stayed home to bake brownies and lemon bars for Duke up at Ten Thousand Waves. Then during the "80s, I worked at Victor's. We were the bar who stayed open the latest in town, so we got all the opera staff and cast coming in, the artists and intelligentsia. When I moved to the Zia and Victor's closed, some of them followed me over here, and they still come in to this day."
Initially, Beth started as the general manager. Then, when after a few years, the original owners Tom and Katie Riggs split up and left town, she bought the Zia herself.
She kept their original vision, of a casual, every-day restaurant ("We want to be the place where locals can feel the closest to being at home when they're out."); she kept the no-muzak philosophy, the no-TV-in-the-bar ("We don't want a big box in there that takes you away from the present."); and she kept the hours, staying open continuously from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. ("Breakfast is a new thing."). She mentions the diner heritage, adding, "A lot of artists and writers-and people who just don't live regular hours, come here, and we want to be there for them. We have the daily blue plate specials along with the nightly specials so our cooks can be creative with fresh fish and pasta dishes and our regular customers get a little more variety, some extra choices on the menu."
One of the diner's original customers, Claire, says, "For years, my daughter and I used to have a nostalgic birthday lunch every year at the Zia. We'd order BLTs, onion rings and chocolate malts, and I always ask for (and get!) a triple malt. It reminds me of growing up in the "50s." She likes the "casual yet attentive" service. "It's not slapdash, you're very well taken care of. And in the coziness and privacy of a booth at the Zia, you're in your own little world."
"I can always find food there to which careful thought has been given," she adds. "I love the southwest chicken salad at lunch or supper-the chipotle dressing is deliciously piquant."
Another regular, Jane Waltenscheid, who used to own Le Bon Voyage next door, has been coming to the Zia's bar with an ever-widening circle of friends most Friday nights since she first got to town in April 2000. According to Jane and her friends, bartender Marcy Walsh, originally from Ireland, makes the best margaritas in town. "And she's fun-she's got a lot of good one-liners." The Zia bar now boasts a nice little menu of its own, featuring such snacks as mini burgers and homemade green chile mac and cheese.
The Zia's got something for everybody: a grilled tuna steak sandwich with chimichurri sauce, charred red onion and French fries; very good pizzas, the artichoke heart parmesan appetizer, Yankee pot roast served with mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables, Thursday's blue plate special and a whole host of salads. My own personal favorite comfort food at the Zia is the cobb salad, with generous layers of bite-sized turkey, bacon, bleu cheese, chopped egg, tomato and avocado and just the barest hint of a subtle sherry vinaigrette dressing (that salad has gotten me through more personal life challenges than I care to count). And where else in Santa Fe can you get shepherd's pie, a dish of creamy custard or bread pudding-or a banana split, for heaven's sake?
Not much is slated to change. A few years ago, the Zia bought Angel Food Catering from Shirley Pisacane (of Kokoman Circus and the Periscope). "We've kept all her recipes as well as expanded out the choices," Beth says, "along with making the prepared foods for Kaune's and also picnic food for opera-goers in the summer." And she plans to continue pursuing the best meats, all organic and raised in New Mexico. She may also start bottling their salad dressings to sell. "And write a cookbook. Maybe," she laughs.
"I think I'm supposed to be, here, doing this," she says about her role as owner of Santa Fe's preeminent diner. "We really do care about our customers. When someone doesn't come in, we kind of wonder, "Is he okay?'"
Gregory Pleshaw sums up our reciprocal feeling. "When I heard a couple of years ago that the Zia had been broken into," he says, "I felt like a close friend of mine had been personally violated." He pauses. "Really."
The Zia Diner is located at 326 South Guadalupe in Santa Fe. They're open every day from 7am to 10pm. 505.988.7008.