Downtown Archæologies

El Internacional

by Laura

el internacional
Martha Wilson Papers El Internacional Restaurant
Downtown Collection at the Fales Library

Martha Wilson Papers
Box 74, folder 4
January 1, 1970



When pondering which aspect of downtown New York I am most intrigued by, I could not ignore that food, and the ambiance that it provides, pulls me in the most. My chosen artifact for this project is an edition of the El Internacional Newspaper- a publication for the iconic 1980s Tribeca restaurant.

When exploring the Downtown Collection at the Fales library, I began to look into the Martha Wilson Papers. She generously contributed her articles from “El Internacional,” which surely shed light on the reasons for why the institution is known to be the“First Postmodern Art Restaurant.” (Tribeca Citizen)

The restaurant ran from 1984 to 1986 and was done by artist Antoni Miralda. According to an oral history of the restaurant, “El Internacional was conceived as an artistic project and social experiment, carried out between 1984 and 1986 by artist Antoni Miralda and chef Montse Guillén in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, New York. Their initiative merged the cultural contexts of contemporary art and cuisine. The restaurant’s popularity and renown became a daring exploration of cross-cultural, trans-disciplinary aesthetics and grew to become an iconic symbol of the New York scene of the 80s.” ( The restaurant replaced “Teddy’s,” a German restaurant turned Italian which was known to be filled with celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Eventually, the owner, Sal Cucinotta, sold the restaurant, and it became El Internacional. (Martha Wilson Papers) Aspects of Teddy’s remained once it turned into El Internacional, which is why Miralda mentioned that the new restaurant can be considered as an “archaeological sandwich.” (Martha Wilson Papers)

The entrance of the restaurant was composed of black and white tiles, and above the wall there was a massive Statue of Liberty Crown. Inside of the restaurant there were four separate rooms, and each was filled with various colors which were said to have brought life into the restaurant. A large aquarium which contained elements dedicated to a mermaid goddess, Yemoja, divided the place. It introduced very small dishes, know as tapas, to the United States, which soon after became a popular sensation. El Internacional soon became known as “America’s new melting pot cooking and serving incredible bits and pieces of world culture…there’s the European, the African, the Asian, the Latin. This is a restaurant that celebrates every major ethnic group in New York.” (Martha Wilson Papers)

The 1980s were a time of experimentation in downtown New York City. Art was on the rise; moreover, modern, diverse, and exciting art was gaining substance. Artists such as Keith Haring, Jean Basquiat and Andy Warhol were on the rise. The AIDS crisis was getting worse and worse, and with that came more outspoken protests amongst society. CBGB was hot, and had a heavy influence on the music scene. Overall, New York was bumping with excitement and exploration during the 80s. People were becoming more cultured, more interested, and thus, more interesting. With the rise of El Internacional, downtown New Yorkers were able to dive into the foods of other cultures, expand their knowledge and exposure to modern art, and most importantly, found a way to do all of this while partying- what could get more New York than that? “When there’s a full moon, it’s almost like being at a great party, a party in a big house, where you can walk into each room and each room has a different atmosphere.” (Martha Wilson Papers) The front page of the article, written and published in 1985, discusses the relation between Miami Vice, the television show, and El Internacional. Bill Dyckes mentions that the restaurant was hesitant to allow the show to use the restaurant. Back then show was compared to petty music videos and commercials; however, he concludes that El Internacional finally accepted the offer for the sake of art. It is also evident that the restaurant was ready to be featured in one of America’s top television shows for the sake of fame. These two features, I believe, are indicative of the New York culture at the time- doing things for the sake of art and differentiation, but also doing things for the sake of making a name for yourself.

In the middle of the front page in a excerpt regarding the Mexican Day of the Dead. This feature on the front page marks the restaurants’ dedication to diversifying itself and bringing cultures from abroad into New York.

The last feature of the front page of this article is about the restaurants innovative videomenu. They immediately differentiate themselves from the competition by naming the article “The First Videomenu.” Dick Belsey shares the El Internacional has scores again by creating a “36 minute work of art that will tell you all you’ll ever want or need to know about the many tapas, main courses, and desserts we have to offer.” (Martha Wilson Papers) In describing the menu, Belsey shares that “Serena, the mermaid who lives in the aquarium in our main dining room” is the host of the videomenu. The menu “unfurls in the water as a flaglike shape, emulating the restaurant’s well-known motif. The test and images move across the screen in three bands, each of which bears a different kind of information. In the top band, the name of the specialty is given in Catalan or Spanish. In the center band, intriguing images of our fabulous fare excite the eye, and in the bottom band , a scrolling text tells something of the origins or pleasures of each dish.” While the installation of a videomenu could, at first glance, seem to be merely a technological advancement of the restaurant, the owners twist it in a way to make it seem as though this new innovation is just another way to bring more culture and diversity to the restaurant. Everything in El Internacional is geared towards newness, acceptance, diversity and culture from abroad. From the art to the food, every aspect of the institution seemed to match perfectly to what was going on outside of the restaurant, in the streets of downtown New York.

However, there was a community of people who fought the rise of El Internacional. Members of the Tribeca community hated El Internacional, and did not accept this sidewalk cafe as an important neighborhood institution. (Martha Wilson Papers) There were attacks at both the restaurant’s appearance and the restaurant itself- “although architecture and design magazines around the world have praised the unusual facade, a number of board members and neighborhood residents have voiced their dislike of its distinctive appearance.” (Martha Wilson Papers)

Restaurant advocates argued the El Internacional encapsulated the community- it brought people together in joyous occasions, and it even restored aspects of the old community by preserving tiles from Teddy’s. Moreover, it was argued that the crown of the Statue of Liberty preserved the view from Tribeca from before tall buildings blocked the view of the Hudson.

Martha Wilson, the preserver of these articles, stated that the restaurant was a victim of “sub rosa racism,” and argued that some members of the community had trouble digesting the aesthetic approach of El Internacional. She wrote a letter accusing the Tribeca community of being anti-hispanic and anti-puerto rican. She hoped that New York would eventually accept this bold aesthetic move.