Santa Fe: Experiencing “The City Different”

Staking out the best eats and spots for natural beauty in New Mexico.

On one characteristically sunny Santa Fe afternoon last autumn, I sat with my friend Lindsay at The Teahouse (821 Canyon Rd., teahousesantafe.com), a homey tea shop and restaurant situated at the top of Canyon Road’s famously high-concentrated stretch of art galleries. We’d chosen a corner table for the best people watching. This was Lindsay’s first time visiting the town also lovingly referred to as “The City Different,” and I’d talked it up as a haven for queer women.

That day, the Teahouse did not disappoint. On the way in, I’d pointed out Santa Fe’s longest-running former city councilor, who also happens to be a lesbian, sipping tea on the patio with a gal pal, both in full cycling gear, their whips propped nearby. Across from this duo, we spied a solo diner flipping through a magazine while her cat on a leash stepped through the branches of the tree above her table. Nearby patrons didn’t bat an eyelash, and even the dogs who were present seemed unfazed by the interspecies inclusiveness of the sun-spotted patio.

And now, seated inside, I conducted a quick mental census of my surroundings and determined that, including our own table, the restaurant’s current clientele was at least 75 percent queer. Granted, the women surrounding us in that moment were predominantly white, and mostly over 50. While this demographic is consistent with a significant percentage of gay women in this high desert town, it is not at all indicative of the community as a whole. The women were dressed sensibly, without airs, which is quite refreshing when you’re coming from Los Angeles and have grown accustomed to the contrived stylings of some LA queers.

Despite having previously lived in Santa Fe for four years, and being quite literally surrounded by lesbians, I was coming up short on ideas of how to actually meet queer women in a social context while in town. Lindsay had optimistically placed her copy of “Pagan Metaphysics 101” on our table, title page up, a facetiously hopeful conversation starter. We joked about trepidly approaching a nearby table of two butches to ask, “Excuse me, what apps are you on?” but I knew it would likely be for naught. The thing is, Santa Fe tends to be so gay-friendly that queer women are seamlessly integrated into every corner of the city’s life, rather than siphoned off into scenes or gayborhoods. This is great, idyllic even, especially for locals, but can be daunting for visitors or queers new to town who desire to sidle into the community and meet people.

Santa Fe was the city where I fell in love with a woman for the first time, but I was in college, and remained closeted for the duration of my tenure living there. My college apartment was situated around the corner from Rainbow Vision, which was, at the time, a trial living community for LGBTQ senior citizens and their friends. The irony of my college-aged self grappling with my sexuality and ultimately insisting on my heteronormativity while rainbow flags fluttered over the home of my foremothers next door is not lost on me. Rainbow Vision has now been re-named The Montecito (500 Rodeo Rd.) and, though they remain LGBTQ-friendly, they no longer target the community in their language or advertising. According to a local source, a small percentage of Montecito’s current out and proud residents hail from Rainbow Vision’s glory days.

With one notable exception of a recent and disturbing story of a hate crime committed against a lesbian couple outside of a local sushi restaurant, none of the local queer women I spoke with said they’d ever experienced anti-gay bias or discrimination at businesses in the city. It took me nearly a decade to fully appreciate Santa Fe’s status as a Lesbian Land of Enchantment, but it remains a stunning place for queer women to explore with partners, friends or solo. Here are some of my favorite things about “The City Different,” as well the best road trip destinations to explore some of New Mexico’s incomparable beauty.

EAT

African cusine at Jambo. Photo by Jambo

Bring your appetite. For such a small city, Santa Fe is densely packed with incredible dining options, including, but not limited to, the best Mexican and (of course) New Mexican food I’ve ever tasted. If you like spicy food, get green chile on everything. Hot tip: When they ask what kind of chile you want, say “Christmas” for both red and green.

Sazon (221 Shelby St., sazonsantafe.com) is a newer, high-end Mexican restaurant that fuses contemporary and traditional Mexican cooking. They start your evening with a flight of moles to sample. It’s a dining experience perfect for a special night out.

Other high-end but truly worthwhile options include Coyote Cafe (132 W. Water St., coyotecafe.com), Geronimo (724 Canyon Rd., geronimorestaurant.com) and Pasqual’s (121 Don Gaspar St., pasquals.com). After you fall in love with the food at Pasqual’s, you can buy their cookbook to recreate the magic at home.

If you love margaritas, don’t miss Maria’s (555 West Cordova Rd., marias-santafe com). They have an entire tequila menu. Speaking of margaritas, the San Francisco Bar and Grill (50 East San Francisco St., sanfranbargrill.com) is located just off the plaza, and serves a blended avocado margarita. It may sound weird, but it’s creamy and delicious and a perfect treat for the middle of shopping day downtown.

A short drive out of the middle of town on Highway 84 will reward you with Gabriel’s (4 Banana Ln., gabrielsofsantafe.com) where they’ll make fresh guacamole to your liking, in a stone bowl directly at your table.

For the best Southwestern ambiance, BBQ and beer, go to Cowgirl Cafe (319 S. Guadalupe St., cowgirlsantafe.com).

It feels borderline sacrilegious to attempt to name one favorite Mexican or New Mexican restaurant in town, but three clear leaders are Horseman’s (4354 Cerrillos Rd.), Adelita’s (3136 Cerrillos Rd., adelitasrestaurantsantafe.com) and Los Potrillos (1947 Cerrillos Rd.).

Clafoutis (402 N Guadalupe St.) is off-the-chain delicious French food, perfect for breakfast or lunch. Upon entering, you’ll most likely be greeted with a “bonjour” by the charming, gregarious French owner.

Backroad Pizza (1807 2nd St. #1, backroadpizza.com), from out owner Piper Kapin, serves delicious pies and has an upstairs filled with pool tables.

If you don’t feel like blowing your travel budget on a dining experience, there are plenty of moderately priced dining options that still deliver stellar food. Some of my favorites include Tune-Up Cafe (1115 Hickox St., tuneupsantafe.com), Jambo (2010 Cerrillos Rd., jambocafe.net) for homestyle African fare and Radish & Rye (548 Agua Fria St., radishandrye.com). Some great news for gender non-conforming folks hoping to visit town is that many businesses in Santa Fe are starting to have single-stall bathrooms that are labeled “gender-neutral.”

GET OUTSIDE

Santa Fe sits at a higher altitude than Denver, and enjoys 300 sunny days a year. Bring your sunscreen and moisturizer, drink plenty of water and remain aware that the threat of altitude sickness is real, so save your hiking for at least a full day into your trip to allow your body to acclimate. That being said, do not miss your chance to abandon the tourist traps in favor of breathtaking natural beauty.

If you want a good hike to counteract all the amazing food you’ll be eating on your trip, Atalaya Mountain is a six-mile trail behind the campus of St. John’s College (my alma mater; say hi!). This fairly-difficult vertical climb has a terrific pay-off view at the top. If you prefer to drive to a view, follow the road to the Santa Fe Ski Basin (Santa Fe National Forest, NM-475).

Yes, it snows in Santa Fe; the city enjoys all four, distinct seasons. This stretch of mountain road is particularly photogenic in the autumn when the leaves of the aspen trees transform into stunning shades. Skiing and snowboarding is available in winter, and there are romantic lookout points perfect for making out at any time of year.

The Randall Davey Audubon Center (1800 Upper Canyon Rd., randalldavey.audubon.org) is a bird and wildlife sanctuary perfect for the bird watcher or conservationist-minded woman. If you happen to be visiting in early December, there’s a fair chance you can catch one of Mother Nature’s greatest performances: a murmuration of starlings. The birds take flight around sunset and I’ve seen them engaged in their surreal dance above the west section of Airport Road, past the Municipal Airport entrance (100 South Polo Dr.).

During my college years, whenever I needed free animal therapy, I’d drive to the beautiful Santa Fe Animal Shelter (100 Caja del Rio Rd., sfhumanesociety.org) and visit with the dogs and cats available for adoption. Delightfully, the shelter is responsible for a “Bachelor” spoof adoption promotional video which includes a pit mix, ladies and Santa Fe scenery.

SHOP

Double/Take/At the Ranch Vintage. Photo by Double Take

For thrift and vintage, Double Take/At the Ranch (320 Aztec St., santafedoubletake.com) is a queer woman’s dream. You can walk from one room of vintage clothing into the next packed with cowboy boots, hats and Western-style shirts and jackets.

Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., collectedworksbookstore.com) is my favorite place to have a cup of coffee and comb through the shelves.

RELAX

Relax at Ten Thousand Waves Spa. Photo by Ten Thousand Waves

My most consistent tip for Santa Fe visitors is Ten Thousand Waves (21 Ten Thousand Waves Way, tenthousandwaves.com), a Japanese-inspired spa complete with a women’s tub, private tubs, a Japanese restaurant on-site and a full menu of massage and skin care services. Splurge for the “Four Hands,” during which two masters level therapists massage you in tandem. Or, if you are lucky enough to know a local who can show you the way, drive to one of the natural hot springs in the region.

SOCIALIZE 

Dance at Santa Fe’s new glitter party. Photo by Glitter

There is no gay or lesbian bar in the city, but Pride organizers hold a smattering of queer dance nights and special events to fundraise in advance of the big weekend. And there are some local efforts to gather women with more regularity. DJ Oona Bender has a lesbian following and puts on the monthly Trash Disco at Skylight (139 W San Francisco St., skylightsantafe.com). Also at Skylight, a party called Glitter bills itself “Santa Fe’s New Queer Women’s Dance Party” and is welcoming to “Lesbian / Bi / Femmes / Butches / Trans.” And once a year, a group of local lesbians throw an invite-only party called the “Red, Black, and White Ball.”

New Mexico has the third highest percentage of trans and gender non-conforming residents of any state. The Santa Fe Trans, Non-Binary, and Gender Non-Conforming Support Group hosts two events every month on a drop-in basis. In Albuquerque, a one-hour drive south, there is an inclusive gay bar called Effex (facebook.com/effexnightclub), though it’s been fairly overrun by straight people as of late. This year, Santa Fe Pride (facebook.com/santafehra) is September 15-17, and festivities include plenty of queer events, plus a women’s dance.

GET INSPIRED

Take in the art at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. Photo by Georgia O’Keefe Museum

The art scene in Santa Fe is arguably one of the most vibrant in the country. When I moved to Chicago after New Mexico, I would recognize artists’ work in Chicago galleries that had shown years before on Canyon Road. There are multiple gallery openings every Friday evening. Full listings are available every week in The Santa Fe Reporter (sfreporter.com).

Visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St., okeeffemuseum.org) for her evocative paintings and more about the woman behind them. There is also no shortage of invigorating ways to pass the time at the hip recreational spot The Railyard (332 Read St., railyardsantafe.com). Located in the historic Guadalupe District, the Railyard offers an array of restaurants, contemporary art galleries and shops, and is also home to The Violet Crown (1606 Alcaldesa St., santafe.violetcrown.com) a movie theater offering a great selection of indie films.

GET TO KNOW THE COMMUNITY 

Out state Senator Liz Stefanics was just reelected. She was a state Senator in the 1980s, and she and her wife were the first gay couple to marry in New Mexico. Santa Fe also has an openly gay mayor, Javier Gonzales. He grew up in Santa Fe, and recently spoke to NPR about the city’s renewed commitment to its status as a sanctuary city for those without documentation.

Honey Harris is a favorite local radio personality, and is credited with coining the term “lesbro.” Quinn Fontaine, a local artist, comic, and speaker is about to release his first book “Hung Like a Seahorse: A RealLife Transgender Adventure of Tragedy, Comedy and Recovery.” According to Fontaine, “Santa Fe is a safe place to be an artist of any medium for everyone.”

LuzMarina Serrano manages a program called NM GSA Network, which works with LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13 and 24. They are the only statewide program by and for young LGBTQ+ young folks. She’s working on three bills in session right now that affect New Mexico’s queer communities, including banning conversion therapy, allowing trans people to change the gender on their birth certificates without surgery, and making schools safer for LGBTQ students with an updated bullying statute.

Once you make friends, though, it might be even harder to leave. After you’ve been to Santa Fe, you’ll feel differently about going home, guaranteed.

Laura Zak is the co-creator and star of the Emmy-nominated and GLAAD Media Award-winning series “Her Story.” She lives in Los Angeles.