by Anya Sebastian

It’s the oldest neon sign in Taos and, together with the famous Inn it celebrates, a historic landmark in its own right. “The planning committees would never permit a sign like that today,” says Jamie Tedesco, Marketing Director of the Taos Inn. “It breaks all the rules, but as part of a historic property since 1982, they really had no choice but to grandfather it in.”

Doctor Thomas Paul Martin had no idea what he was starting when he rode into town in 1890, to become Taos county’s first, and for the next 40 years, only family physician. The home he bought and lived in, one of a cluster of old adobes set around a small plaza with a central, communal well, is now Doc. Martin’s restaurant. The rest of the complex, after going through several stages of evolution, became what is now the Taos Inn.      

‘Doc’ Martin, as he was affectionately called, turned out to be a dedicated and much loved physician, who would often trade his services for potatoes, chickens, pigs or similar offerings. Some patients never paid him anything at all. His wife, Helen, a gifted batik artist, was also the sister-in-law of noted Taos painter, Bert Phillips. In fact, it was in the Martins’ dining room that the Taos Society of Artists was founded in 1912.

As the years went by, the doctor and his wife acquired other homes in the little development of early nineteenth century adobes, renting them out to writers and artists. When the only hotel in town burned to the ground, the same year that Doc. Martin died, Helen decided to turn the homes into a hotel. It was time to call on the many patients who still owed the doctor for his services; now she needed services in return.

Drawing on their skills, as builders, electricians, plumbers, woodworkers, furniture makers and, of course, artists, she completely enclosed the little plaza, transforming it into the spacious hotel lobby area it is today. The central well was closed off and replaced by a fountain, with spectacular, 60-foot vertical vigas leading up to a stained glass cupola in the impressive, latilla-inlaid ceiling above. Just off the lobby is the Adobe Bar, where people would hitch their horses when they stopped by for a drink.

“There’s history everywhere you look,” says Tedesco. “We’ve come across all kinds of historical artifacts during renovations; pottery, pistol parts, old newspapers. Someone found a copy of the Denver Post from the early 1930s, stuffed into one of the walls.”

Since the hotel officially opened in June, 1936, next year marks the Taos Inn’s 75th anniversary. “We’re still in the final planning stages,” says Tedesco, “but we’ll be offering specials in food, wine and beer for $7.50 throughout June and we’re going to hold a grand re-opening event, with room tours and special hors d’oeuvres.”

But history isn’t all that the Taos Inn has to offer; it’s also famous for its food. Doc. Martin’s is a multiple award-winning restaurant, with a world-class wine list, which has earned the Wine Spectator’s ‘Best Of’ Award of Excellence for 20 consecutive years. Executive chef, Zippy White, specializes in fresh, local food, with a touch of the southwest and a dash of the unusual. The menu changes with the seasons and, at the time of writing, offered elk hamburger; rattlesnake-rabbit sausage with ancho chile and dried cherries; and Doc’s chile relleno, a signature dish featuring Anaheim chile, salsa fresca, pumpkin seeds and goat cheese cream.

Everything on the menu is, as much as possible, locally sourced and  organically grown. “I buy a lot from the Taos farmers’ market,” says White, “and we now have an arrangement with Taos pueblo to provide us with fresh produce from their heated greenhouses, throughout the winter. That means we can offer fresh, local produce year-round.”

The Inn also started cultivating its own vegetable garden a couple of years ago and is already producing beets, herbs, kale, tomatoes, arugula and rhubarb, with more to come. The garden is fed by compost, created from the kitchen’s waste products. “Everything gets mashed up and recycled back into the ground,” says White. “Even the frying oil is used as biofuels by members of staff.”

The Taos Inn has drawn many celebrity visitors over the years, including Greta Garbo, D.H.Lawrence and, more recently, Robert Redford and Jessica Lange. Among the attractions is the famous wine list, which contains over 400 different selections. Sommelier Craig Dunn has been the resident keeper-of-the-list for over 10 years and has been with the Inn for an astonishing 24. “I started as a barback,” he says, “then I became a bartender and from there, started working with the wine guy. He told me I had ‘good palate memory.’

Dunn went on to study with sommelier, Andy Lynch, and has achieved the first level of certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers. “The wine list definitely does attract people,” he says. “Some of them choose the wine first, then the food to go with it.”  Wines are also available by the glass and at prices that are not beyond average reach. “I always have choices that are more affordable,” says Dunn, “and we often do ‘pairing’ menus, putting food together with selected wines. We want people to taste, drink and enjoy the wines. This is not a museum!”

Maybe that’s the real secret of the Taos Inn’s success. It’s a historic landmark, but it’s definitely not a museum. Local bands play live music in the lobby every night of the week, the food and wine, and the Adobe Bar, draw locals and visitors alike, and the friendly atmosphere makes it feel like being in someone’s home. ‘Doc’ Martin (God rest his soul) would be well pleased.

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