Lluís Cruañas, one of the most influential and beloved restaurateurs of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Catalonia, died last Sunday at the age of 79 in the Costa Brava town of Palamós, near his home in Sant Feliu de Guixols.
Cruañas was born in Sant Feliu, a fishing town and center for the cork-making trade, in 1937. Five years later, his father opened a tavern called Eldorado in the town. This was a simple place where fishermen and cork-makers came to play cards, drink, and eat cheap seafood like espardenyes, a kind of sea slug, sautéed with garlic and parsley. The younger Cruañas went to work in his father's tavern when he was old enough, and in 1970 opened a small full-service restaurant of his own next door to Eldorado, which he dubbed Eldorado Petit (petit means "small" in Catalan as well as French).
The menu was mostly traditional, focusing on rice and fideus noodle dishes and on the region's excellent fish and shellfish. The restaurant thrived, drawing travelers off the autoroute between France and Barcelona, and in 1978, with financing from some of his regular customers, Cruañas and his wife, Lola (who died several years ago), opened a second Eldorado Petit in Barcelona.
This became one of the best restaurants not just in Barcelona but in Spain throughout the late 1970s and into the '80s. The dining room was softly lit and warmly furnished, and the food was refined Catalan fare — shimmeringly fresh giant shrimp lightly poached in seawater, salt cod salad garnished with angulas (elvers), black rice (made with cuttlefish); whole turbot roasted on a bed of thin-sliced potatoes — even espardenyes, no longer the cheap throw-away fare of Costa Brava fishermen, but a newly discovered delicacy among Catalan diners, more expensive per pound in the market than even lobster.
Though Cruañas was a good cook and could run a kitchen, he left the day-to-day cooking to others — the early Catalan celebrity chef Jean-Luc Figueras (who died two years ago) was responsible for the cuisine at the Barcelona restaurant for much of its existence, and such other now well-known chefs as Toni Saez, Domingo Garcia, and Pedro Moreno worked for Cruañas — while he and his wife oversaw the dining room. He had a genius for it: He was amiable and helpful, the kind of host who made every person walking into the place feel as if they were special, but he also had an eagle eye for details of presentation and service. He got everything right and made it seem effortless.
In 1990, benefitting from the publicity surrounding the awarding of the 1992 Olympic Games to Barcelona, Cruañas opened a new Eldorado Petit, this one in New York City, overseen mostly by his son, Marc. Though the place got a favorable two-star review from Bryan Miller in The New York Times, it never found the kind of appreciative clientele its predecessors in Catalonia had known, and it closed late in '92.
One effect of the Olympics in Barcelona was a shift of community focus from the inland portion of the city to the coast, and Eldorado Petit, which was in a hilly residential neighborhood in the city's Sarriá quarter, gradually lost its customers. In 2002, he closed that restaurant, too, and retreated to Sant Feliu. There, he expanded and modernized the original Eldorado Petit, now called simply Eldorado (or El Dorado) and opened a tapas bar nearby and a seafood restaurant, Eldorado Mar, overlooking the water. Cruañas's daughter, Suita, is in charge of Eldorado Petit now, while Marc runs Eldorado Mar. Their father, though, remained a frequent presence, greeting old friends and keeping an eye on things.
The best thing Cruañas did for American diners was to give early exposure to José Andrés — the greatest champion of Spanish food both traditional and avant-garde in this country today. Andrés was brought to New York by the proprietors of another restaurant from the Catalan capital, Paradís Barcelona, part of a chain. He wanted to work for Cruañas, though. As Andrés tells it, "Lluís was a gentleman! He was a friend of the owner of Paradís and told me 'I cannot hire you directly from him, but if you are somewhere else first, later on I may.' So I went to Puerto Rico, and then, on the day he got two stars in the New York Times, I called him, and he said 'Come see me in my apartment.' I didn't get there until 11.30 p.m. He was in his pajamas, and he gave me his baby to play with, then said 'You're hired.'"
Andrés was in charge of the food at Eldorado Petit for more than two years, until it closed, earning himself a reputation that led to his beginnings as a successful chef-restaurateur in Washington, D.C.
Andrés adds, "Nobody taught me more respect for our profession than him. He was always radiating positive energy through his smile. When he arrived at the restaurant in New York, even the flowers that were almost dead seemed to reborn again!"