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Santa Fe: Artistic Dining, Compelling History, Art and High Desert Golf

LaFonda on the Plaza Hotel
LaFonda on the Plaza Hotel

By Neil Wolkodoff

Santa Fe is the ultimate confluence of culture, history, art, ideas, activities and culinary diversions all of which in some way had influence going 400 years back.

While the old Santa Fe Trail started in 1821 and served as the impetus for the trade upsurge through the area, the Native Americans used the trails along the Rio Grande well before this time. Santa Fe is an evolving, artsy stage gathering new ideas and creativity with a tie to the past in just about every area.

Getting around is essential to exploring Santa Fe, and while walking is easy in the downtown/arts district, you really need a car or shuttle to get to all the other places that make this an artistic mecca. Parking downtown uses meters or free lots, so planning your outing ahead of time will give you that one spot to park that makes those activities accessible. Art tours are constant and do change with season and artist, so checking upon arrival is the best way to plan your creative excursions.

Staying in Santa Fe should be based upon preferred activity locations. Roam downtown? Then the La Fonda on The Plaza, the oldest hotel is Sante Fe is an excellent option. Originally built for the railroad as an iconic Harvey Hotel in 1922, it has undergone significant renovation with respect to the original character of the rooms. Staying at the La Fonda is like staying in a living, New Mexican history museum, and art gallery.

The Terrace Suites in the La Fonda is a hotel within a hotel with its’ own concierge, entrances, and amenities. This is cultural tourism as they have their own docent program, and extensive connections with the art and culture community. The entire hotel is original art in the hallways and great rooms, and each room features original art culminating in hand-painted and restored headboards on the beds. The La Plazuela eatery is a previous open-air plaza with a fountain, and light beams dance among the tables and painted windows. Breakfast, lunch and dinner with excellent food competing with the extensive history and the ambiance.

Also central is the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, which by modern standards is cozy with 58 rooms. Small, but attentive to luxury service with some interesting features as their wine room that serves private meetings and dinners. Rooms feature local art and a southwestern flair, and Fido is even welcome at the Anasazi. The restaurant, just updated, is a revamped bar that flows into a tequila lounge area that morphs then into the restaurant. Good southwestern food with a Latin inspired menu with some unique creations, not the least of which is the Trout BLT.

Pool area of the Buffalo Thunder
Pool area of the Buffalo Thunder

The Buffalo Thunder Hilton at 16 minutes north of the city center on Route 84 is your ideal launch pad for northern activities. The casino serves as a diversion when the hand just has to hit the lever. Basic rooms all the way up to suites then the Uber-opulent Governor’s Suite. The lobby and halls serve as an impressive Native American art exhibit. The conference center is the largest in the area, and can handle 20-2000 people with Santa Fe flair. The Red Sage at the Buffalo Thunder is a steakhouse with a southwestern twist serving local steaks and buffalo with well-seasoned sides such as spicy spaghetti squash and roasted Brussels sprouts.

Dining in Santa Fe is boundless in type, application, and creativity. And nothing is bad, it’s just a different and unique take on what you might have been expecting. From the lunch counter option to fine dining with the appropriate Bonsai trees popping up from your entrée, it is difficult to go wrong here. And, once again, the car rules in that many these culinary canvases are going to be a drive from somewhere. Even more interesting is the chefs all know each other and root for each other, kitchen comrades to the last morsel.

The Tune Up Café is a local breakfast and all-day favorite with an El Salvadoran twist. The interior is funky comfort, and the food is amazingly creative considering you order at the counter. French toast to make a Parisian drool, and possibly the best breakfast burrito and a local steak & eggs plate.

Andiamo is the place to get your pasta on when you need a chili break. Two menu standouts are the Lasagna Bolognese and the Penne with Spicy House-made Lamb Sausage, with the perfect starter the beet salad with warm goat cheese. The profiteroles, puffed pastry with ice cream is a go-to pleaser. A black/white motif in Andiamo illustrates the accent on pleasing food and service, not trendy décor.

Pastrami tacos at Eloisa
Pastrami tacos at Eloisa

Eloisa is the homage of Chef John Riviera Sedlar to his grandmother and is a blend of southwestern and local influence with a big dash of adventure. The bar is the scene after work with the collection of craft cocktails (Sage martini?), and some overflow energy into the restaurant. The new rooftop bar with an appetizer menu is a good weather option. Gourmet adventure treats like Pastrami tacos and Potato Encrusted Scallops. Eloisa will be teaming with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for a combined art/food experience, as Eloisa was one of the chefs for O’Keeffe.

La Choza is a local favorite serving classic Southwestern dishes in a festive & funky decor. If you want Chili and something made with Chili, you can’t go wrong here with a broad array of vegetarian items. Chili Rellenos and the enchiladas are exceptional with one of the vast array of margaritas in the area to counter the spicy heat.

Chef Martin at work.
Chef Martin at work.

Restaurant Martin is the canvas of Chef Martin Rios, a Beard finalist, and arguably one of the most talents chefs in the U.S. Each dish is both a visual, tasty and balanced work of art. Some dishes that stand out include the crispy Berkshire pork belly, Colorado lamb porter house and possibly the best side dish ever, the truffled orzo mac & cheese. The chocolate truffle cake with cinnamon ice cream is the embodiment of Martin’s work – contrast, taste, stunning visuals with everything made on the premises.

Cowgirl and Mother Burger
Cowgirl and Mother Burger

Get hot to trot with the Cowgirl BBQ and their El Diablo sauce, Hades hot and probably a pretty good paint remover. While you belly up to a western bar with local beer and whiskey, the menu target is the Mother Burger, a beef-bacon-bison combination with green chili, cheese, tomato and truffle fries. The Mo Burger wins the local votes in the chili cheeseburger trail competition just about every year, and with good reason. The Chili Rellenos, made from scratch are equally as unique.

Pub food goes gourmet at the Fire & Hops Gastropub. Rather than brew beer, they have an ample local selection. The star is the affordable pub food with delicious choices such as the slow roasted shepherds lamb and the sesame noodle salad. Big and small plate selections let you dial up or down how many treats you want to sample. And what else to tie the food knot but beer ice cream made on site.

Pinon Course at El Towa
Pinon Course at The Towa

Golf is somewhat 5th fiddle to lodging and dining but is surprisingly good and worth bringing the clubs. The Towa Golf Club is three separate nines adjacent to the Buffalo Thunder. Choose from Valley, Pinion and Boulders courses all of which are visually attractive and in pristine condition. The place to golf most of the time if staying at the Hilton.

About 35 minutes west and slightly north of downtown, is Cochiti. While it’s technically in the high desert, water is from tribal lands, so over the hill you go and instant golf oasis. The holes meander through the slightly elevated mesa with twists and turns, but fairness from what you see is what you get. The Kiva restaurant on site cooks to order, so save stomach space for the green chili cheeseburger or enchiladas for lunch.

About 37 minutes north of town is the Black Mesa Golf Club. Imagine Scottish links golf placed on and in the Mesa environment. Ups, downs, carries and an occasional blind shot, and you have maybe the most impressive golf course in the area. I like it when a golf course advises you to use the practice area before you play; that is a hint that every shot will be required for navigation. Baxter Spann, the designer, moved minimal dirt for the course, so you are mostly navigating the natural mesa while on a golf course. Black Mesa had turf problems three years ago, yet is undergoing improvements as the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe is now in control of the property and putting in substantial resources.

Santa Fe is also quietly becoming a little bit of a spirits and wine innovator, a spin-off from the artsy atmosphere of the area. Sante Fe Spirits sprung from an orchard, with the first product Apple brandy, a “calvados” or European brandy bent. They also make vodka, and their most famous product, the Colkegan whiskey, with a little local flavor. Both a distillery tour and a tasting room/bar downtown.

Winners at Estrella de Norte
Winners at Estrella de Norte

Estrella Del Norte is a winery about 25 minutes north of downtown and has already won numerous awards for their Pinot Noir. Apparently cold nights and warm days leads to great Pinot! For the adventure pour, try the Holy Mole, a red wine infused with almond, chocolate and a bit of chili.

The Black Mesa Winery, not far from the Black Mesa Golf Club and is about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe, yet also has a tasting room in Taos. Jerry is the winemaker, Linda the creativity behind the labels. The BMW also has one dog and thirteen cats on staff serving various essential functions. For a small winery, they have won numerous awards. Especially tasty are the chocolate dessert wine and the 2011 Cabernet was a Jefferson Cup merit winner.

Spas abound in Santa Fe. The Wo’ P’in at the Buffalo Thunder is the largest spa in the area and has the most extensive wet area and amenity section for both men and women, and a full salon. The term means “Medicine Mountain,” and they have their own herbalist that mixes local organic products used in the treatments. One treatment of note is the Desert Sage Massage where the oil/sage combination adds to the excellent head, scalp and body massage.

If you are downtown and need an Ooh and Aah break, then Nidah Spa at the Eldorado Hotel is a good bet. The Enraptured Turquoise massage uses turquoise stones, and their blue hue healing properties.

Sleep In Style & Comfort

Buffalo Thunder Hilton

La Fonda on the Plaza

Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi


Kcal Up/Dining

Restaurant Martin

Tune Up Café


Red Sage

Fire & Hops

La Choza

La Plazuela

Anasazi Restaurant


Cowgirl BBQ

Santa Fe Links

Towa at Buffalo Thunder

Cochiti Golf Club

Black Mesa Golf Club


Spirits of Santa Fe

Estrella Del Norte Vineyard

Santa Fe Spirits

Black Mesa Winery


Ah, Spa

Wo’P’in Spa at the Buffalo Thunder

Nidah Spa at the Eldorado


Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.
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