One last deal: Politico hotspot The Bull Ring changes hands

Oct. 3—Every night, for 41 years, Harry Georgeades was at The Bull Ring.

He was there in the mornings, too, always doing the books.

Sure, there were the out-of-town trips. But if Georgeades was in town, he was at The Bull Ring — the fabled Santa Fe restaurant where meals, deals and big wheels seemed to intersect almost on a daily basis.

Quietly, that familiarity changed a few weeks ago. Georgeades, 76, who bought The Bull Ring in 1981 and kiddingly said he was willing to sell it ever since, finally made good on the joke: He passed the keys to a group headed by Santa Fe restauranteur Clint Singley on Sept. 12. Georgeades will stay on for six months to assist with the transition, then depart for good to concentrate on his well-being.

"I have some health issues I'm concerned about," Georgeades said. "I'm going to try to get my health back. That's my main goal. I just want to do what I want to do."

Just as few Brits knew England before Queen Elizabeth II, Santa Feans younger than 50 wouldn't know The Bull Ring without Georgeades as the owner and ever-present host. That may be especially true for politicians and public officials who saw the place not merely as a place to get away but to get things done.

"When you walk into The Bull Ring, you always wondered who's going to be there," said former Albuquerque state Sen. Sander Rue. "There were legislators, lobbyists, cabinet secretaries. You go there to network, meet people, bump into people. The ambience was always so nice."

Rue said he remembers always ordering prime rib at the restaurant, but it's Georgeades who sticks in his mind.

"During my day, a lot of the committees would have their annual dinners there," Rue said. "Harry would come out and talk to us, and he knew everybody's name. Harry was always gracious. It's very much a part of the history of New Mexico state government."

Georgeades loves that kind of response, though he said recent decisions by the Legislature on alcohol sales helped prompt his decision to sell.

"When the Legislature changed the liquor rules, it just took a toll on me," he said. "Our liquor license was devalued. That's the major thing."

A new New Mexico liquor law in place since July 1 reduced the cost of a liquor license to the range of about $1,550 to $10,000 rather than anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000.

There's also this: Like all restaurants, the pandemic did a number on The Bull Ring. What was a lunch-and-dinner steak joint open to 10 p.m. is now open 4 to 8 p.m. (and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday), serving dinner only. Worker shortages are in play, too. For Georgeades, 40 years finally was enough.

Singley, the new owner, declined to discuss the purchase of The Bull Ring or his group's intentions with the iconic steak house on Washington Avenue.

"We want to keep the focus where it belongs: on Harry and the legacy he's built," Singley wrote in an email. "We feel fortunate to be a part of the Bull Ring, and intend to do right by customers and staff."

The Singley family and partners operate The Pantry, The Pantry Dos, The Pantry Rio, Santa Fe Capitol Grill, Baja Tacos and Flying Tortilla.

"No. 1, they are successful in everything they do, I can tell you that," said Georgeades, confident the new ownership group will maintain The Bull Ring traditions.

Georgeades said the staff is staying in place. Harry Georgeades may have been the owner, the name and the personality at The Bull Ring, but he said he may be nothing, possibly not even profitable, without his team.

"Let me tell you the two things that make this work," Georgeades said. "My executive chef, Socorro Balcorta, is the best meat and grill man. He's been with me for 25 years. Lisa Wilson is my general manager for 15 years. She made my life 1,000 times easier. Without them, this place would be nothing. Until the last 15 years, it wasn't very profitable."

Georgeades grew up near Boise, Idaho, attended trade school in Denver and became a Kodak microfilm service tech. He was sent to Rapid City, S.D., then was drafted into the military but didn't pass the physical. Kodak then sent Georgeades to Colorado Springs and then Santa Fe in 1969.

The entrepreneurial spirit struck. While at Kodak, Georgeades opened a vending machine business and Rio Grande Coffee, an office coffee service. He sold both and left Kodak in 1976 and tried out food service with Harry O's, a sandwich place and bar at DeVargas Center from 1976 to 1979.

"The kitchen was the size of a closet," he recalled.

Often enough during that time, he spent late nights at The Bull Ring, then on Old Santa Fe Trail just steps from the state Capitol. Today's that's the locale of Rio Chama Prime Steakhouse.

Merrill B. "Sonny" Johns launched The Bull Ring in 1971 in a building he would own for many years. Johns had been a one-term legislator and New Mexico Republican Party chairman in the late 1960s. By 1975, Bill and Christa Scott owned The Bull Ring.

"I was good friends with Bill Scott," Georgeades said.

The Scotts wanted to sell, and Georgeades and two others bought The Bull Ring in 1981. Georgeades bought out his partners less than a year later. The vagabond days were over.

"I didn't have any money," he said of his early years with the restaurant. "I had a lot of debt service. ... I like Santa Fe a lot. It was a very good town for me. Santa Fe was a pretty good place to be because there were opportunities."

From the start, The Bull Ring was a hangout for politicians and lobbyists. The politicos stayed loyal, even after Georgeades lost his lease near the Roundhouse and moved the establishment to its current spot in 1995.

"In the 1980s, it was parties and drinking," Georgeades recalled. "Now they can dine, be entertained and do their business."

During the 30- and 60-day legislative sessions, Georgeades reckons 75 percent of business is politicos in a time of year when business otherwise is pretty thin. Across the year, Georgeades figures business splits 50-50 among tourists and locals.

Back on Old Santa Fe Trail, The Bull Ring stayed open until 2 a.m.

"In the old days, I left [legislators] in there for the night," Georgeades recalled. "I'd go home, and they did their work. There was some rough times with friction and tension, but it never got out of hand. In the old Bull Ring, they used to make these deals on a napkin, and it worked."

Before the pandemic, The Bull Ring stayed open until 10 p.m.

"We stayed open for them if they wanted to have a party," Harry said. "We were there for them."

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican in the Senate since 2013, typically stops by The Bull Ring twice a week during the legislative session.

"A lot of time it's just for the camaraderie," Pirtle said. "It's good to have personal relationships with the people you work with."

Why is The Bull Ring politico-central rather than other downtown restaurants?

"I don't know," Pirtle said. "It was the go-to place when I came into the Legislature in 2013. A lot of it is the atmosphere created by staff. We are all treated with utmost respect, and we are left alone. It's definitely a special place for legislators to get together."

The move from Old Santa Fe Trail to Washington Avenue formalized Georgeades' conversion of The Bull Ring from continental cuisine to a steakhouse. "It was a lot simpler," he said. "Chefs can be temperamental. I needed something I could understand."

What Georgeades seemed to know best was people, whether they were visitors from out of town or state senators from just down the road. The keys to the restaurant are changing hands, but Harry's legend remains. No bull.