Revisiting Mexico City’s forgotten cantinas
La Ópera opened in 1906 and operated as a traditional cantina until 1980 when it became more of a restaurant. (Phoebe Ling)
Clustered around the historic centre of Mexico City are hundreds of old and crumbling cantinas. Following years of neglect, the cantinas and city centre are now staging a comeback.
"The government has rescued the centre. The streets are cleaner, safer and customers are returning," said the Ricardo Mancera, the operator of the La Ópera cantina. Cantinas are a cornerstone of Mexican cultural heritage and the emergence of a young art and design scene in the centre is helping to keep the cantina tradition alive.
Cantinas were historically a private space for men to drink, talk and play dominoes. Now a refuge for men and women, cantinas are busiest between 2 pm and 5 pm, but stay open until midnight. Beer and tequila are the drinks of choice and many cantinas serve botanas (appetizers) after a few rounds of drinks. Music is part of cantina life and wandering guitarists and singers ply their trade for around 30 pesos a song.
The best cantinas in the centre are within blocks of each other and easily visited on foot.
El Tío Pepe (Independencia 26, at Dolores)
Opened in 1890, this is now the oldest cantina in the city. Visitors enter through Wild West-style swinging saloon doors that still carry a sign banning entry to "minors, women and hawkers". The cantina retains its original wooden bar and lampshades, which are in the shape of beer barrels and hang over the booths. Look for the channel along the base of the bar but keep your distance, it was once a urinal. Don Sebastian and Don Aureliano have been serving beer at this archetypal cantina for 80 years between them.
La Ópera (5 de Mayo 10, at Gante)
This is the established favourite among tourists and locals due to its luxuriant red velvet banquettes, baroque interior and excellent service. Opened in 1906 and operated as a traditional cantina until 1980 it is now more restaurant than traditional cantina. The menu is extensive and, despite the grandeur, affordable. Highlights include bull's testicles and squid in ink. A bullet hole in the ceiling testifies to a failed assassination attempt on revolutionary hero Pancho Villa.
Salon España (Luis González Obregón 25, at República de Argentina)
This is a must for those with a taste for tequila. At this deservedly popular spot, 227 types of tequila can be washed down with the house specialty of sardine or tuna sandwiches.
Salon Luz (Gante 21, at 16 de Septiembre)
This is a Mexican institution with a German twist. Opened in 1913 by German owners, the cantina serves up frankfurters and waiters prepare the house specialty, steak tartar, at your table. Self-styled troubadour Angel Gonzalez has played at the cantina for more than 20 years and his services are in demand. "Men like to serenade their women with the most romantic songs," he said.
El Río de la Plata (República de Cuba 39, at Allende)
With its younger, student atmosphere, this place is packed to the rafters from Monday to Saturday. Decoratively uninspiring, the main attraction is the very cheap beer (15 pesos) and the free appetizers that appear following the third drink. It is one of the liveliest cantinas in the city and stays open until 2:30 am.
La Faena (Venustiano Carranza 49, at Bolíva)
Mexico City's largest cantina is worth a visit for the décor alone, though its glory days have passed. Set in an immense hall with towering ceilings and peeling paintwork the cantina oozes a faded charm. The main attraction is the collection of bullfighting memorabilia, donated by the original Spanish owners, that now haphazardly hangs on the walls. La Faena stays true to the original ethos of a cantina and adopts a no frills approach. Long serving barman Manuel Tenorio laments the efforts of other cantinas to move with the times and complained, "they even sell wine".
For a healthy serving of history and folklore with your beer, the Mexico City government organizes a popular weekly cantina tour. Revellers travel by tram to three cantinas, accompanied by lively and knowledgeable guides on three different routes. Tour guide Francisco Ibarlucea explained the specialness of cantinas by describing them as places of "meeting and memory, euphoria and lamentation, embrace and rejection". For more details on the tours, email firstname.lastname@example.org.