For the past 14 years, the basement of the Spanish Benevolent Society on W. 14th Street has been rented out to Jesus “Lolo” Manso, who’s served up Spanish cuisine in the restaurant, La Nacional.
But at the end of January, Manso’s lease comes to an end, and the society has decided not to renew it. Instead, the nonprofit society will do something it has never done before: it will run the restaurant on its own, bringing in award-winning young chefs from Spain who will create and cook seasonal menus.
Though it’s a big change for the 97-year-old society, and for La Nacional, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, both tenant and landlord say it’s just business.
“It’s the right time for me to leave,” said Manso, who also owns the popular and well-reviewed Socarrat Paella Bars in Chelsea, Nolita and Midtown East. The Socarrat bars are trendier, more crowded and significantly more expensive than the staid traditionalism at La Nacional.
“I think [Manso] did a very good job with the restaurant, and he put us on the map,” said Robert Sanfiz, the executive director of the Spanish Benevolent Society.
But in Sanfiz’s careful assessment, there’s a suggestion that Manso’s La Nacional had seen better days.
“He knew that the day would come where the restaurant would change hands,” said Sanfiz. “So I don’t blame him for putting more of his efforts and focus on his other restaurants.”
Alex Gonzalez, a waiter and bartender at La Nacional, was more direct. “My boss (Manso) didn’t take care of this restaurant as much in the past year as he used to, because he knew he was leaving.”
Gonzalez said happy hour and weekend traffic had declined in recent months. And while the menu remains authentically Spanish, not everything in La Nacional recalls its Spanish roots – like the sangria, which contains orange soda instead of fruit.
“Sangria is better in Spain than it is here,” said Gonzalez. “Here, it is not really authentic.”
Manso is from Valladolid, Spain, a city north of Madrid. He immigrated to New York in 1984 and began working in other restaurants before he took over La Nacional around 2001. Yelp reviewers rave about his paellas and tapas at La Nacional; one diner called it “the best Spanish food outside of Spain.”
Despite the generally positive Yelp views of La Nacional, Sanfiz said that when the Spanish Benevolent Society takes over next year, he wants to make the restaurant more authentically Spanish. Sanfiz did not define specific changes. But the society, which promotes Spanish culture and traditions, may have been concerned that Manso would eventually try to make the restaurant more like his Socarrat paella bars – which bartender Gonzalez said are flashier, with more focus on atmosphere than on culinary authenticity.
The society also wants to assure that prices don’t escalate, said Sanfiz. Under Manso’s ownership, a meal at La Nacional costs $11 to $30. But at his Socarrat Paella Bars a meal easily costs double that.
Sanfiz also said that as a nonprofit, the Spanish Benevolent Society should give out free meals occasionally to those in need.
Planned changes at La Nacional – an interior renovation, newly designed menus, and new chefs – have to be made with a budget of just $150,000, said Sanfiz.
Manso said the society’s vision is a “romantic idea.”
“I wish them the best,” he said. “But they have to remember: it’s first a business and then a benevolence.”
The restaurant will close in January, with a reopening target date in early April. Sanfiz said those on the wait staff are all welcome to return to their jobs. But most say they can’t afford three months off from working and will likely try to find other jobs before April.