Tanti Luce Lights the Night
The afternoon rains have washed away the heat, and the July air feels cool and clean. Above me the sky, patterned with leftover grey clouds, spreads out. I sip a cucumber-infused margarita and lick the salt from the corners of my mouth. Cars drive by, and I catch bits of conversation from the groups of people walking down the street. As the sun retires, the clouds catch its light like a screen, and the blue-grey gives way to pink and lavender, etched into the folds of the clouds.
This is a very special spot in Santa Fe, but it’s the first time I’ve been here. For the last eight years, the deck overlooking a Spanish courtyard on the corner of East Alameda and Shelby Street has stood empty and forgotten. Although plenty of people (myself included) have passed by and wondered at the untapped potential, no one has made a move—until now. The new owners of the corner property, Barbara and Ken Rice, have teamed up with Rick Smith, the owner of Tanti Luce 221, to create an outdoor dining and shopping area: the Deck at 221, which opened in mid-July. This venture brings a new business model to Santa Fe, combining dining, drinks and shopping, while reclaiming a historic site for our community.
When the Rices’ retail store in Cloudcroft burned down in 2010, they decided to move to Santa Fe and reopen their previous business. Barbara passed the vacant courtyard and its adjacent two-story building every day and fell in love with the property, but it wasn’t for sale. She was persistent and eventually was able to buy the property and turn the building into the Turquoise Butterfly (“out of the ashes of the Copper Butterfly, came the new Turquoise Butterfly”). There she sells the work of many different artists, including jewelers, potters, woodworkers and even furniture makers. But, she asked herself, what to do with the courtyard?
Enter Rick Smith, owner of Tanti Luce 221, which opened in April of 2012. The former CEO of large national health agencies has a larger-than-life presence, with a booming voice and equally booming confidence. Tanti Luce 221 is his first restaurant, which he opened after spending a year interviewing restaurant owners from Los Angeles to London, eager to learn the mechanics of the business. “Ours is a very unique collaboration,” Rick explains when I ask him how the Deck at 221 came to be. “Two businesses got together for the betterment of each other. It’s a friendship, not just a business collaboration.” Like Barbara, Rick saw the potential of the space, and the two decided to create a unique dining and shopping area. It totals about 10,000 square feet, with the top floor deck running the whole length of the square space. The lower level consists of a center courtyard lined with stall-like rooms open to the air. In some of these rooms Barbara displays her wares, while others are set up for private dining.
Barbara’s been able to trace the property back at least to 1913. Because the building is so old and it was unused for so long, construction to get the new Deck at 221 venture up and running was a more complicated and longer process than either of the business owners anticipated. There were permits to acquire, inspections to pass and architects and engineers to consult. Two new bathrooms were added to the courtyard, and the entire deck was re-supported. Three new staircases were put in, and a brand new bar was added to the deck. “We brought the property back to life,” Barbara says. “It’s a part of Santa Fe’s history, and it needs to be open to the public.”
I am blown away by the transformation when I step out the backdoor of Tanti Luce and down several steps into the lower courtyard. Sandstone floors stretch across the space, with a bubbling fountain in the center. Potted plants and statues are interspersed with tables and chairs for dining. Around the edge of the courtyard, the little booths with open fronts display Turquoise Butterfly’s artworks for sale. Each has its own theme, and my favorite, of course, is the wine room where you can buy handmade iron wine stands. One booth holds a long rectangular table with several chairs, perfect for a girls’ night out dinner party. Upstairs, the deck runs the perimeter of the space, with the new bar in one corner. Dining tables overlook the Santa Fe River and East Alameda Street in one direction, while in the other the Loretto Chapel rises into view. The space is completely open to the sky, and the sunsets seen from up here are to die for.
The view and the combination of restaurant and retail isn’t the only thing that sets the Deck at 221 apart—there’s also Chef Tom Kerpon’s delicious Mediterranean menu. Tom has called Tanti Luce “irreverent fine dining,” and when I ask why, he explains, “I’ve been cooking for a long time, and I find that sometimes chefs take themselves too seriously. Food is temporal. So if a menu item seems irreverent, it’s because we take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously.” This dynamic shows in the cuisine, which ranges from bar menu fare (green chile tempura, lobster crisps) to the dining room menu (Chef’s Bolognese, linguine with clams). Folks visiting the Deck at 221 will be able to order from either menu.
Likewise, service and atmosphere can range from casual to fine dining, and the deck is open for both lunch and dinner. Rick says he envisions the courtyard being an extension of the dining room, with a more formal feel, while the upstairs deck will be louder (think ‘60s Motown on the stereo) and more vibrant; you could come have a full dinner or just stop by for one of the fun cocktails created by manager Missy Auge. I loved her Cran Balls of Fire (a sphere of frozen cranberry juice floating in Grey Goose Cherry Noir Vodka, Cointreau and fresh lime juice). The Deck will also have a different atmosphere than other places in town. Rick emphasizes that a generous amount of space has been preserved between tables. “This will be the most roomy and comfortable outdoor bar. Other places you feel packed in like sardines. Here, you get personal space.”
Rick says his first objective for the Deck at 221 is to achieve differentiation, and he’s certainly achieved this with his vision of the new space and the concept of all-in-one eating, drinking and dining. But he emphasizes that ultimately the customers will decide what the Deck at 221 will become. “You get a vision, but when you open, it becomes what it wants to become. A good restaurateur executes vision and then steps back and lets the customers decide what it will become.”
And there’s something about this space that calls for vision and versatility. As I sit on the deck enjoying Chef Tom’s tender New Mexico buffalo short ribs—the truffle mashed potatoes and Barolo reduction are anything but irreverent—I can envision groups of people having cocktail hour by the copper scaled dragon overlooking the river, couples at the tables in the courtyard sharing a great bottle of wine, tourists having beers with pickles and poppers while watching the sunset.
Like I said, there’s something very special about this place. You can feel it in the air while you walk around the courtyard and you can feel it as you climb the stairs, with the sky above and the city moving around you. This spot has seen many transformations. Now perhaps it’s finally reaching its full potential. The people who come here, whether tourists or locals, will be the final creative force for the Deck at 221.
The Deck at 221 is located at 221 Shelby Street in Santa Fe. 505.988.2355. tantiluce221.com