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A night at the opera should not be undertaken on an empty stomach — but finding sustenance before the curtain rises requires some advance planning. Here are some options for pre-opera dining both on the company grounds and in town.

A little tailgate history

No one knows for sure how tailgating at Santa Fe Opera got its start, but Yvette de la O, who managed special events at the opera for more than 28 years, believes the tradition arose more from necessity than from the desire to create a stylish new trend. When the opera opened more than 50 years ago — on the grounds of a guest ranch that had once been a working pinto bean plantation, mink farm, and pig farm — it was so far out of town that there were no restaurants or markets anywhere near the theater, longtime donors and board members told de la O. “So, bringing your own food was the only way to be assured of a meal before the performance.”

Over the years, she said, simple picnics eaten in a car or truck evolved into more elaborate events, hitting their cultish peak in the 1980s, when tents and tables for 30 began appearing on the grounds — and the opera had to establish a protocol for dining in the parking lot.

Tailgating parties today can be as uncomplicated as a fast-food spread on the bed of a truck or as swanky as a catered three-course meal on a table laden with linen, china, silver, and crystal. However you choose to art-direct your evening, de la O suggests you come early enough to set up and breakdown without rushing, and enjoy the mountain views and peerless people-watching with a glass of something bubbly in your hand.

Opera picnic boxes

Patrons who want the tailgating experience without the fuss of shopping and cooking, or the expense of hiring a caterer, can take advantage of special opera picnic boxes prepared on site under the direction of executive chef Guido Lambelet, who has been helming the opera’s catering program for Bon Appétit Management Company for the past 17 years. Although the company is headquartered in California, its commitment to environmentally sound sourcing means that Lambelet cooks from scratch and buys locally from La Montañita Co-op, Squash Blossom (which works with more than 20 small-scale New Mexico farms), and Beneficial Farms. Eggs are cage-free, meats are humanely raised without antibiotics, and seafood is sustainable.

There are three Sampler Tailgate Boxes ($19 ) — including a spicy brie en croute, smoked salmon, or vegan option — and four Dinner Tailgate Boxes ($28), featuring either salmon, beef tenderloin, chicken breast, or a savory vegetarian option. The complete menu for each of the boxes is posted on the “Opera Dining” page of the company website (

All boxes must be ordered 48 hours in advance and can be picked up at the Vladem Kiosk next to the box office two hours before the performance.

Preview Dinners ($70), also prepared by Lambelet and the Bon Appétit crew, offer a more elegant — and educational — on-site dining option, with an opera-themed, all-you-can-eat buffet, wine, and a speaker who introduces the evening’s performance over dessert and coffee. Lambelet has tied the five menus to the countries in which an opera’s action is set. Each includes three salads; a starch or grain; a poultry, meat, or fish option; dessert; and a fruit and cheese plate. Vegan meals are available but must be requested in advance. Detailed menus for each preview dinner also are available online on the opera dining page.

To make a reservation for a preview dinner or purchase a sampler or dinner tailgate box, call 505-986-5900 or go to the website. The “purchase” link on the dining page will take you to the ticketing calendar. In the “all events” dropdown menu, click on “performance enhancements” and then click on the date of the performance to order online.


Prefer to dine before you drive? Several Santa Fe restaurants have specially priced programs that feel leisurely but will still get you to your seat on time.

The Compound (653 Canyon Road, 505-982-4353, doesn’t have a special menu for opera-goers, but just let them know you have opera plans when you make your reservation and remind your server of your time constraints when you sit down. Sweeter still: You’ll also find a $10 coupon for The Compound on your printed ticket or its envelope.

Anasazi Restaurant & Bar (at Inn of the Anasazi, 113 Washington Ave. , 505-988-3236, is offering fixed-price, three-course pre-opera menus themed to the five productions. La bohème, for example, pairs wild mushroom bisque with coq au vin and tarte tatin, while The Pearl Fishers brings lobster, sea bass, and rice pudding to the table. Each menu is only available on the nights its eponymous opera is onstage. Service for the special dinners ($65) starts at 5:30 p.m. Visit the restaurant’s website for more menu details.

Luminaria Restaurant & Patio (at Inn & Spa at Loretto, 211 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505-984-7915, offers a special two-course, fixed-price pre-opera menu served from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on nights the opera is performing. Choose from four first courses (including two salads, salmon tartar, and Luminaria’s famous tortilla soup) and three main courses (Parisian gnocchi, Scottish salmon, or braised short ribs) for $35 — with menu upgrades (filet of beef, braised halibut, pork loin) available for an additional $5 to $10. More menu details are available on the restaurant website.

Terra (at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe, 198 State Road 592, 505-946-5800, also offers a three-course, fixed-price pre-opera menu. Starters include a choice of a green salad with yellow and green squash, yellow gazpacho with avocado sorbet, or spicy green chile corn chowder with candied bacon; entrées range from grilled salmon to seared tofu, roasted chicken breast to braised beef short ribs. Dessert is a variation on lemon meringue pie. The special menu ($59) is served from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on any night there is a performance at the opera.­

— P.W.B.

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