Tomiño, Spanish restaurant in Manhattan, is transforming what it means to serve Spanish food. Learn about Tomiño and other Spanish restaurants in New York.
Food & Drink

The Vestiges of Manhattan’s Little Spain

An early summer rainstorm swept over Tomiño, a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy. It pounded the roof in a steady roar, with a verifiable waterfall pouring off the umbrellas separating outdoor tables from the elements. While diners scrambled to make sure their tapas were protected from the torrent, the waitstaff seemed nonplussed. 

The restaurant is Galician, after all, paying homage to the rain-soaked northwestern corner of Spain, sandwiched between the ocean, Portugal, Asturias, and Castile y León. The region is deluged with a steady downpour for much of the year, resembling Ireland more than the sunny southern stretches that are emblematic of Spain to the American imagination. If anything, the summer squall made the dining experience all the more authentic. 

Besides the weather, Galicia has one more distinction: a proclivity for migration, driven by periods of economic woes throughout the 20th century. During the first half of the 20th century, more than 200,000 Spaniards came to the United States, and the majority of them were Galician. 

Tomiño is about 20 blocks south of a stretch of New York that used to be known as Little Spain, which claimed 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, although stretching more widely into Greenwich Village.

Tomiño, Photos by Leo Schwartz

“Places like Tomiño borrow from an updated tradition in Spanish cooking — an emphasis on gastronomy, while not losing sight of the region’s culinary heart.”

The Galician community was particularly well-represented in Little Spain. They used to shut down blocks of 14th Street every July 25 for the Día Nacional de Galicia. Abingdon Square, at W 11th and Bleeker, was known locally as the Parque de Los Gallegos because Galician immigrants would land and go straight there to find a job and a bed. You can try in vain to find any mention of this community on Google. The only hard evidence is the extant food trails, like the nearby Sevilla Restaurant & Bar, owned and run by two Galicians. 

For the most part, even the iconic restaurants have closed, from El Faro to a tavern known simply as Spain, which shut down during the pandemic. Tomiño is part of a new generation of Spanish restaurants peppering Lower Manhattan. The old guard was known for its classic spins on favorites, such as croquetas or patatas bravas, even when essential ingredients were hard to find. Places like Tomiño borrow from an updated tradition in Spanish cooking — an emphasis on gastronomy, while not losing sight of the region’s culinary heart. Blended with the myriad influences of Manhattan, they are transforming what it means to serve Spanish food in New York.

Tomiño, Photos by Leo Schwartz

I have been in search of a good Spanish tortilla — runny, rich, and flecked with potatoes — since 2015. The year before, I had done the reverse migration, moving from New York to Galicia. The Spanish government, seemingly immune to its reputation of financial malfeasance, had a program called Auxiliares de Conversación, which placed English speakers from around the world in Spanish elementary schools (colegios) and high schools (institutos). I probably should have been more wary of the low barrier of entry, which consisted entirely of undergoing a background check and getting a visa, but nonetheless I packed my bag to head off to Europe. 

Like most who have never been, my idea of Spain was sun, flamenco, and paella. My sister’s friend had done the same program and taught in the Galician town of Ourense, which she spoke about in the most effusive terms. I ended up living in Santiago de Compostela, known for its near-constant winter rain. Whoever first said “the rain in Spain stays mostly in the plain” had clearly not spent much time in the country. 

Despite the weather patterns that make Seattle look like Sedona, the city still draws in millions of tourists a year for the Camino de Santiago. I lived in a small apartment right next to the cathedral. The apartment had its downsides: I could practically smell the pilgrims from my third floor window, and the church bell rang every 15 minutes. The apartment lacked insulation, and during the winter, with the temperature just above freezing and humidity just below 100 percent, I always felt on the verge of tuberculosis. 

The perks were real though — rent was less than 200 euros a month. More importantly, because the Camino de Santiago technically is any route that ends at the cathedral, I completed the pilgrimage every day on my commute.

Tomiño, Photos by Leo Schwartz

So much of Galicia stuck with me. The rain is dreary, but it creates surreal, stunning landscapes. I taught at an instituto in a small town named Lalín in the heart of Galicia, removed from the sea but blanketed with rivers and streams fed by the runoff. A few professors from the school also lived in Santiago, and I carpooled the two hours with them each way to Lalín every day. They would chat away in Gallego as I sat in the backseat, watching the scenery pass by: millennia-old Roman bridges, impossibly green rolling hills, and endless wind turbines, like out of a futuristic Don Quixote

More than that, though, was the cuisine — a melange of stewed cocidos, fresh seafood, and airy bread. Outside of a few restaurants, Galician cuisine isn’t as gastronomically inventive as the Basque masters or as syncretic as the Andalusians. Instead, it has other idiosyncrasies. Unlike the rest of Spain, Galicia, and especially Santiago, has maintained the tradition of free tapas. A two Euro glass of regional wine — the reason the Romans came to Galicia in the first place — comes with a Galician empanada or a plate of mussels. The best food, of course, is home-cooked, and my professors would invite me into their houses for lunch, giving me more pig and pulpo than I could eat in a lifetime. 

In my years since moving back to the States, I haven’t found anything close to the culinary wonders of Galicia until dining at Tomiño. Three brothers — Phil, Marco, and Victor Gonzalez — own the restaurant. Their parents hail from a small Galician town, the namesake of the tavern, growing up just a few hundred yards from each other before moving to the Americas.

“We always wanted to do something Spanish and Galician,” Phil told me, “and to bring to New York what we feel and experience and love when we spend our summers in Galicia.”

The brothers’ father left Galicia when he was 17, first settling in Uruguay, where he had his first jobs in restaurants. When their parents moved to the United States, their father helped open the first Brazilian restaurants in New York before starting an Italian bistro in the Theatre District. 

He never had a chance to open a Spanish restaurant. Phil owes some of it to the lack of proper ingredients, and some of it to the fact that his father’s best friends were the owners of Spanish restaurants themselves — why create unnecessary tension? 

Their father passed away in 2001, and Phil joined the family restaurant business a few years later. “We always wanted to do something Spanish and Galician,” Phil told me, “and to bring to New York what we feel and experience and love when we spend our summers in Galicia.”

Tomiño, Photos by Leo Schwartz

In 2013, they began scouting locations, and finally found the right spot in Little Italy that would become Tomiño. They opened in October 2017. Phil worked with a Michelin-feted chef from Galicia, Lucía Freitas, to design the menu. They were 80 percent of the way there, but wanted to use the last 20 percent to really elevate the restaurant. 

Mainstays of Little Spain like Sevilla and El Faro were born of the waves of Spanish immigrants that came to New York in the early 20th century, and they served homey food. With Tomiño, the Gonzalez brothers wanted to blend the familiar with the innovative new trends that have defined Spanish cuisine over the past half century from world-renowned restaurants like San Sebastián’s El Bulli. Freitas helped take the dishes to the next level, such as adding a basil aioli to the fritura de chipirón and an almond garlic cream with a slow poached egg to the menestra de verduras. When she returned to her restaurant in Santiago, she left her right-hand man — Fran Novas — in charge of the kitchen.

Salinas, Photos by Leo Schwartz

Up on W 19th Street, just a few blocks from the original Little Spain, the restaurant Salinas is doing a similar project. It is not Galician, but has the same spirit of uniting tradition with gastronomic restyling. Its chef is Luis Bollo, a native of San Sebastián and veteran of Michelen-starred restaurants. Before helping create Salinas, he opened the groundbreaking New York restaurant Meigas and was hailed as an ambassador of “new Spanish cooking” by the legendary critic Jonathan Gold. 

The owners of Salinas are two Americans, Donald and Mary Catherine “M.C.” Mikula, who travel frequently to the Spanish island of Ibiza. Similar to the Gonzalez brothers, they set out to create a taste of Spain in New York, hoping to bring the type of respect to the cuisine bestowed on its neighbors such as France and Italy. 

They searched for chefs, holding auditions in their apartment in Manhattan. “We were looking literally for a needle in a haystack,” M.C. told me. Finally, they found Bollo at his then-restaurant in Connecticut. They immediately knew they got their guy when they tried his gazpacho — the first time they had anything close to what they ate in Spain. 

For Bollo, Salinas represented a fresh opportunity to bring his unique approach to Spanish cuisine to New York City. Like the Gonzalez brothers, he did not necessarily want to just make the classics the way his grandmother had served them — he wanted to represent how the country’s culinary scene has adapted over the past decades.

Salinas, Photos by Leo Schwartz

“Just living in a city with all the different cultures gives you a different view of your own persona and your own culture, and I try to reflect that in our cuisine.”

The old restaurants of Little Spain still stand for an important era of the community: a time when immigrants wanted a facsimile of home. Salinas would be a step forward, though — a place that still holds true to the simplicity of the cuisine, but without a strict adherence to the set staples. Each dish that Bollo serves feels comforting yet novel, with elegant touches elevating each bite to new heights. A torrada de anchoas comes with truffle brandade; the grilled eggplant has toasted pistachios with a pistachio-anchovy aioli. 

Bollo has also learned from his time living in the United States. “I am not the same Spanish chef that I was 15 years ago,” he said. Part of that comes with learning how to replace ingredients he could not find. Instead of viewing this as a limitation, he would scour markets to find similar substitutes from other immigrant communities and cuisines that often elevated his own cooking. “Just living in a city with all the different cultures gives you a different view of your own persona and your own culture, and I try to reflect that in our cuisine,” he told me. 

The spaces of each restaurant reflect their visions. I sat in the back of Salinas, covered with dark wood and supported by a glass ceiling revealing the vertical scenery of New York. Tomiño has a similarly refined interior, with an open kitchen and living walls, although retaining touches of home: Estrella Galicia on tap, and images of their grandmother’s hórreo, or granary, scattered across the restaurant.

Salinas (left) & Tomiño (right), Photos by Leo Schwartz

Phil wanted Tomiño to be the type of place that people could come every week: welcoming, while still reflecting the evolving culinary scene of the Iberian peninsula. “We wanted to create a timeless place that isn’t just hot for a few years — where the flavors are out of style,” he said. “But we also didn’t want to forget the old Spain.”

He views one marker of success as having Spaniards, whether traveling to New York or living in the city, come in to dine. Clearly, he achieved his goal. Walking through the space, I could hear ceceo-tinged Castilian Spanish from many of the tables. If I did not walk out the front door into Little Italy, I would have thought I was back in Santiago de Compostela. 

“It is an homage to our parents, and a reminder that come July, we’re going to be in Spain again,” Phil said. “A reminder of how that air feels, and the beaches, and hugging your family and sitting down to the table for five or six hours and really not wanting to be anywhere else.”

Written By Leo Schwartz Multimedia Journalist A multimedia journalist featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Culinary Backstreets and BuzzFeed, writing everything from street vendor rights to food.
A multimedia journalist featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Culinary Backstreets and BuzzFeed, writing everything from street vendor rights to food.