This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.
By Margaret Cooper
While living in Spain for 6 months, my friends and I frequently visited the same restaurant to catch up about host families, travel plans, and classes while practicing our Spanish skills.
As we visited more frequently, the staff often joined our conversations and offered us different wine or plates to try. It was always comfortable spending 2 hours or more laughing, eating, and drinking together, and the workers were more than happy to take a break and join us.
After returning to Spain in 2017, I have been searching for that same pleasant culture and distinct food wherever I go.
Don Quijote Restaurante is a little restaurant an hour south of Chicago in Valparaiso, Indiana. Attached to the restaurant is a shop selling Spanish souvenirs related to such Spanish cultural icons as
The restaurant itself has details to make you feel as if you are in Spain like light pink stone walls, balcony windows, and a stage with a mural of the original Don Quixote, as depicted in Miguel de Cervantes’s Spanish novel.
As I spoke with the owner, Carlos Rivero, he spoke about searching for the perfect restaurant with character and potential to be made his.
Carlos was born in Spain to a family in the restaurant business. Since his father was a chef, he was always learning to cook. After relocating to the Midwest, he aspired to open a restaurant for people looking for something different based on that same culture he had grown up around.
It’s been more than 34 years now since he established that dream in Valparaiso. Carlos mentioned he sees restaurants as institutions and personal service is what sets a great one apart.
What sets a Spanish restaurant apart is the talkative staff and patrons as well as the relaxed atmosphere, as if nobody there knows the time or has anywhere to be. Carlos’ upbringing leaves Don Quijote with this same sensation.
In an almost staged manner, soon after sitting down a couple sat near me and began discussing how it was their favorite place to eat in town. Similar to lively Spanish restaurants, the staff at Don Quijote is friendly and full of recommendations, more than happy to stop and chat with you about what to order.
While I visited, I ordered some of my favorite Spanish dishes and wine with a little direction from Carlos as he passed by to visit with more customers.
I ordered tapas, which are a small Spanish plate often meant for sharing, so I could try more of a variety. The food was served quickly, and I was more than happy with each plate that came out.
Each bite brought me back to warm afternoons in sunny Spain; it was authentic and delicious. After another recommendation, I tried the flan and it was the best I have ever tasted. Flan has been a popular Spanish dessert since it was brought to Spain and made to be a sweet custard.
As the night progressed, I was even more excited to see some live Spanish music performed, which happens every Friday and Saturday.
After eating, Carlos sat down with me to discuss how he has grown the restaurant into other areas he feels passionate about.
Carlos stays actively involved in the local community through scholarships and philanthropies. For five years, Carlos has been sponsoring a scholarship for students to travel abroad to Spanish speaking countries, so they have the opportunity to see the world in another way.
For philanthropies, he holds auctions and events to give local students supplies they need and can’t get access.
While getting involved in the local community, Carlos also gives his visitors a chance to get involved in his culture.
On New Year’s Eve, Don Quijote hosts an event similar to how it is celebrated in Spain with the popping of the grapes.
Their other popular event is the “feria de abril” or April fair. The April fair is a festival of flamenco dancing. Buses of people from nearby areas visit during this week to eat, drink, learn how to dance flamenco, and listen to great music.
Carlos’s passion for his home is also evident when every two years as he takes a small group of community members on a trip to Spain. The group goes to different areas to experience the culture and learn from Carlos and the locals.
In past years, the group has done the famed Camino walk through northern Spain, a beautiful and spiritual trip, led by Carlos and a Spanish bishop who knows the area well.
Carlos also plans to take a group to his home city of Madrid to visit museums, watch flamenco, and explore surrounding towns.
On my way to Don Quijote I was looking forward to a good meal, but after being there and talking to Carlos and the employees, I discovered it is more. Don Quijote is a part of the community in Valparaiso, with one foot still in Carlos’ beloved native land.
Don Quijote is located at 119 E Lincolnway, Valparaiso, Indiana. (219) 462-7976