I expected to love the art, architecture, and history of Santa Fe, and I certainly did. But I didn’t know how much I would love the food. I had only visited once before, when I was in college, and my memories of the food were mixed.
When I returned earlier this year, I discovered a city with a distinct regional cuisine and dozens of highly rated restaurants. When you add the city’s passion for good cocktails, especially margaritas, you have a unique dining experience in the United States.
With 8 days to explore the City Different, I had the chance to try over a dozen restaurants, mostly in the historic city center. These are my favorites, in no particular order.
Note: Tourism Santa Fe arranged this trip, but all opinions are my own.
1. The shed
On a walking tour of Santa F, our guide pointed us to The Shed and told us we should eat there during our visit. He mentioned that the queues can be very long as it is a popular place. Never one to pass up a restaurant recommendation, I arrived the next day at opening time and was promptly seated for lunch.
The shed has been in operation since 1953 and moved to its present location in Prince Patio in 1960. This adobe hacienda dates back to 1692, when the King of Spain gave the property to Captain Diego Arias de Quiros in recognition of his service to his country. .
Following the host to my table, I was surprised at the size of the restaurant. There are nine bedrooms and an outdoor patio. Each room is painted in bright colors and the walls adorned with local artwork.
The menu has a great selection of appetizers, soups, salads, and sandwiches, but I highly recommend ordering one of the New Mexican specialties. This section includes tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and tamales, most smothered in red or green chili sauce. Grown in New Mexico, these peppers are always tasty and sometimes spicy.
Any trip to Santa Fe must include at least one meal with red or green chili sauce. Or, if you prefer, combine the two and ask for the Christmas sauce. If you’re worried that the sauce is too spicy, ask for it on the side.
I opted for the spinach enchilada plate topped with Christmas chili. When my entree was served I was surprised to see that my enchiladas were flat and not rolled up. It turns out that in Santa Fe it’s quite common and was probably influenced by the cuisine of the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. After tasting my enchiladas, it didn’t matter if they were rolled or flat because they were delicious. And the mezcal margarita I ordered made it even better.
Cowgirl might have the biggest menu I’ve ever seen in a restaurant, so I’m sure there’s a starter for anyone at this fun and funky restaurant. Set in a century-old building in the Guadalupe neighborhood, Cowgirl is a spin-off from the original New York location. Both were meant to celebrate cowgirl culture through the foods of the American Southwest.
The walls are covered in framed cowgirl photos as well as vintage signs and memorabilia. The large outdoor patio is optimal for summer meals. Live music is offered several times a week. This is a lively restaurant, perfect for a casual and hearty meal.
After perusing the large menu for several minutes, I ordered Cowgirl’s world famous Butternut Squash Casserole. Layers of squash are combined with caramelized onions, breadcrumbs and Jack cheese. I’m always thrilled to discover unique vegetarian dishes, and this one didn’t disappoint. Accompanied by a Cadillac margarita, it was the perfect meal on a cold winter day.
For a truly unique dessert, order the Ice Cream Baked Potato: vanilla ice cream rolled in cocoa powder, topped with whipped cream, candied green walnuts and chocolate sauce. It’s quite misleading – it looks like a baked potato was delivered to your table.
Pro tip: Santa Fe takes its margaritas seriously; so much so that the tourist board has created the margarita trail, a list of restaurants serving the best of these tequila-based drinks. Get your paper passport or download the official app and start ticking off the 40 different margaritas on offer in Santa Fe.
3. Luminaria at Loretto Inn
While the food at Luminaria is excellent, its location in the famed Inn and Spa at Loretto is an equally good reason to dine here. As New Mexico’s most photographed building, chances are you’ve seen this hotel before, with its classic adobe architecture.
The award-winning Luminaria serves Southwestern cuisine in a rustic setting accented with New Mexican art. Its outdoor patio is a coveted place to brunch on warm weekends.
Lunch entrees include salads and sandwiches as well as tacos and burritos, while dinner includes steak, ribs and seafood. However, whether it’s lunch or dinner, the real star is the Loretto Burger, winner of the 2021 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown People’s Choice Award. This coveted award involves a lengthy selection process followed by an intense tasting contest each year. Luminaria’s version includes an Angus beef patty, white cheddar, avocado, cilantro-lime aioli, and candied chili bacon.
Pro tip: If you’re in the mood for a drink, be sure to try the Strawberry-Jalapeno Margarita, one of the official entries on the Margarita Trail.
4. Chez Tia Sophia
My research had pointed me to a place for the perfect New Mexican breakfast. So, early one morning, I walked the two blocks from my hotel and ventured to Tia Sophia’s place. Decor is basic, nothing fancy. People come here for the food.
Read any review and you’ll quickly learn that everything on the menu is good. Tia Sophia’s breakfast burritos, green chili stew, blue corn pancakes, sopapillas and enchiladas are all popular. I ordered the huevos rancheros with Christmas chiles and was very happy with my selection. Two easy eggs on blue corn tortillas with beans and cheese and potatoes on the side. Looking at other diners’ orders, it was clear that all portions were generous.
Opened in 1975, this family restaurant is popular with locals and visitors alike. Several regulars were greeted by name during my visit. And it’s supposedly here that the combination of red and green chili sauce was given the name “Christmas” by a waitress, Martha Rotuno.
Pro tip: Only breakfast and lunch are served at Tia Sophia’s, so be sure to arrive before 2:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:00 p.m. on Sunday.
5. Plaza Cafe Downtown
Plaza Cafe stuffed sopapillas with calabacitas (a type of squash) were so delicious that I went back a second time. I don’t usually repeat restaurants when I travel, but I couldn’t resist.
Open since 1905, Plaza Cafe is the oldest restaurant in Santa Fe. It was purchased in 1947 by a Greek family who have run it for over 7 decades. As a result, the menu is a nice combination of local New Mexican and Greek specialties. The decor of the American restaurant seems a bit at odds with the cuisine, but somehow it all works. And its location in the historic square makes it an ideal lunch stop during a sightseeing tour.
A sopapilla is a crispy, fried pastry that has its roots in Spain. Traditionally served as an accompaniment to a meal instead of bread, sopapillas have evolved over time into a main dish by stuffing them with meat or vegetables. In New Mexico, it has become popular to top them with cheese and green or red chili. I opted for the calabacitas. Other options include ground beef and chicken.
Pro tip: The Plaza Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and with a large indoor dining room and outdoor patio, it’s a great place to grab a table without a long wait.
6. The Compound Restaurant
Compound is not the place to go for new Mexican cuisine, but rather the place for the ultimate dining experience in Santa Fe. If you’re celebrating a special occasion or want to splurge on your visit, be sure to make advance reservations here.
Mark Kiffin, a James Beard Award-winning chef, has been running Compound since 2020. His impressive menu combines North American, Italian and Mediterranean influences. Top quality ingredients are flown in from artisan producers across the United States and Canada. Award-winning wine director Kristina Hayden Bustamante has curated a wine list to perfectly complement the cuisine.
While dinner entrees include a variety of meats and seafood, I opted for the vegetarian offering of wild mushrooms and stone-ground organic polenta. This delicious dish was complemented by a glass of pinot noir selected by Kristina.
The Compound’s interior was designed by renowned architect and furniture designer Alexander Girard, who is also known for donating his considerable folk art collection to the nearby International Museum of Folk Art.
Pro tip: If you’re hoping for reservations on weekends or during peak summer season, be sure to be a few weeks in advance.
If all this talk about her cooking has you planning a trip to the different city, check out: