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An Elegy for Little Dishes

Our writer mourns the loss of the tapas experience in Santa Cruz

By Steve Billings

Dear Diary: Writing this hurts. I want her back. We were just becoming close, she and I, spending more time together, enjoying the laughs, learning the intimate details, marveling at the changes, the growth, the satisfaction, the value. ... And then one day she shut the door on me, said she was closed for "remodeling"--but that she'd be back. I thought she would.

I thought maybe she needed some time to think things over, make some small changes, choices.

Of course I was confused, scared, but never once did I think she'd do what she did, that she'd act like we never even happened, like she didn't even know me. ...

Sorry you had to read that. I'm turning down the sorrowful Spanish guitar music in which I've been drowning for the past few months. But this is what happened, when on a late May evening, and out for a casual meal, I learned that Almar Grill, a place that was becoming my neighborhood joint--and Santa Cruz's only tapas venue--shut its doors for a short while to magically reinvent itself in the following weeks as a purveyor of pan-Asian noodles in the vein of midtown's Charlie Hong Kong touched with background splashes of O'Mei influence reflecting the shared ownership. Goodbye, Andalusia.

Hungry, I got on my donkey and started searching all over again.

Missing Out

Maybe the loss of Almar wouldn't be worthy of such a lament if we lived in an ever-changing dining scene like San Francisco or Berkeley, but the loss of our only Spanish-style eatery in town is a considerable blow to our dining options.

Like the loss of a good friend, losing Almar and its tapas hurts bad because you could count on the restaurant to pull through for you on any occasion. The versatile space provided enough romantic atmosphere to mask sad attempts at good conversation and could pull you through dinner with at least a chance of still stealing a kiss for your unique choice. When you danced with yourself, you could belly up to the bar, solo, order a cheap glass of rosé, fried calamari and their Morrocan eggplant. No need to speak, as good food is a solid companion.

I also enjoyed many festive meals with larger groups of friends, which, for a tapas joint, is the point.

And even though we weren't enjoying our tapas in the true Spanish way--on foot, between meals, with a glass of dry sherry, or sampling one or two things while walking from bar to bar on the endless quest for the perfect tapa--preparing this style of food in an American restaurant provided a useful cultural translation.

Sheer Variety

Most important is the ability of tapas (when a wide variety are ordered for the table) to impart an instant convivial feeling. Sheer variety is a topic interesting in its own right but when the flavors back it all up, and all of your senses become integrated, you begin to live a too-often-forgotten lesson that food and life can be just for pleasure.

So this is why I'll miss it, though now I feel like I am ready to move on to new things should they arrive. Like many bright lights in Santa Cruz, this one too was transient and snuffed out just as it was hitting its stride. My only hope is that there are those out there still interested and capable to bring new and creative dining experiences to town that will fill the holes left by those that disappear.

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From the September 8-15, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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