Painting the town red....my favorite bars and cantinas in El D.F.

Updated August 2013

Mexico’s capital has always been a city for nightlife, ever since its ‘golden age’ of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. Bars, cabarets, restaurants and clubs of every description buzz until the wee small hours. Bohemian ambiance, long gone in New York or Paris pervades here. From the chic Condesa D.F. hotel’s open air bar, which has hosted the likes of that frivolous hotel-chain heiress to the old-fashioned but arty downtown Salón Corona, where yuppies and artists alike down draught beer and tacos, there is something for everyone. On a given night one might catch a show of Astrid Hadad, the ‘Mexican Bette Midler’ at El Bataclan in La Bodega, an old mansion converted into a cabaret, or a lively young jazz group at the downtown club Zinco . Underground chilango sleuth David Lida and I were recently featured in a cover article in El Universal about cantinas and bars. Interviewed as to why we liked them, I replied "What enchants me about Mexico City is the way its past is present; this doesn’t happen in the U.S. where it seems all traces of it are erased; here it is alive and well and living in the centro".
It follows that most of my favorite places to hang out are the oldest ones, although I admit to being partial to a couple of newer hipster spots.

Bar Opera - Cinco de Mayo 10, Centro
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-Midnight,Sunday 1pm-6pm
The famous Bar La Opera with its bullet hole from Pancho Villa’s gun is on everyone’s list but Belle Epoch has never been “beller” than here and I still stop by once in a while for a slug. My fondest memory is of my Godmother, downtown actress/diva Joyce Aaron, who, a few years ago, stood up and conducted the entire bar through two full choruses of ‘Solamente Una Vez’. Don’t eat here the food is lousy, just drink and wax nostalgic.

Cantina Tio Pepe - corner of Independencia and Dolores, Centro
In Mexico City many old places have been preserved simply because nobody ever thought to change them; they are authentically old and do not have a “Disney-fied” restored look. This old cantina, with its original Art Nouveau bar has been the scene of many political discussions over the years. If you’re lucky you’ll get a booth.

Salón Corona - Bolivar 24, Centro
Tel: 5512-5725, open daily 8 am-1am
This truly cool place has been serving an excellent and wide variety of tacos ince 1928. Beer is cold and on tap, unusual in Mexico: order it “de barríl”. A mixed crowd (in class and age) has re-discovered this, one of the few surviving cervecerias in the Centro, and it is always bustling.

La Guadalupana Higuera 14, near the central plaza, Coyoacán
Open Monday - Saturday 1pm-11:30pm
Everyone knows that Frida, Diego and Trotsky partied here. But unlike the equivalent Hemingway hangouts, La Guadalupana has not become an overpriced tourist trap; it retains its old-fashioned working class charm, bullfighting décor and experienced service. Botanas are offered with drinks and there is a serviceable menu of Mexican standards at lunchtime.

Covadonga - Puebla 121, Colonia Roma
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm –2am
This traditional club for Spanish expatriots has become a hangout for the artsy-fartsy, but the old-timers can still be found sitting around schmoozing and playing dominoes in the vast, flourescent-lit room. There is a good wine list, but don’t be tempted by the food, which is mediocre at best. Stick to classic tapas like bocadillos, tortilla española or chorizo a la sidra.

La Bodega - Popocatépetl 25, corner of Av. Amsterdam, Condesa, Tel: 5525-2473
www.labodega.com.mx , open Monday-Saturday 1pm-1am
This lively bar/restaurant/cabaret occupies a funky old Condesa mansion. Downstairs live music is featured (usually Cuban), and upstairs there is a small theatre where well-known cabaret performers entertain. This is the home base for Astrid Hadad, the “Mexican Bette Midler” – she has to be seen to be believed. The food is good. We like to share the plato de entremeses, a plethora of Mexican antojitos, or the fish tacos.

Condesa DF - Veracruz 102 at Parque España, Condesa
Tel: 5241-2600, Open Sunday-Wednesday 7pm-Midnight, Thursday-Saturday 7pm-1:30am
Visiting frivolous like to stay at the Condesa DF, and since such people probably don’t sleep much, the noisy rooms must not bother them. For the rest of us, the rooftop terrace bar is a great spot for a drink and an hors d’oeuvre. Try to be there at sunset but do call to reserve a spot or you will be left in the lurch.

Cantina La Capital - Nuevo León 137, Condesa, Tel. 5553-0438
This is a new ‘cantina’, more of a casual restaurant really, its space open, modern and airy, its ambience mature, more sophisticated than the average Condechi hangout. The food is quite good – I recommend the tres ceviches.

Zinco Jazz Club - Motolinia 20 (basement), Centro
Tel: 5512-3369 , Open Wednesday-Sunday, from 9pm
The best jazz club in the city is in the basement of an Aztec-Deco office building and will remind aficionados of the Village Vanguard in New York. Good local groups headline; check their webpage for schedule.

Salón París - Torres Bodet 152 corner Salvador Diaz Mirón, (corner of the Alameda of Santa Maria la Ribera) Colonia Santa Maria La Ribera
This traditional and friendly cantina is supposedly the place where ranchera giant José Alfredo Jiménez got his start singing in public – although some say he was only a waiter here. It is a favorite with locals and still, at times, offers live traditional music.

Las Dualistas Aranda 30 (Ayuntamiento, near the Mercado San Juan) centro
This old pulquería, in business since the 1930’s, is one of the last in the centro (La Risa , Mesones 71, is the other). Although nothing of the original decor remains, a recently painted Aztec rock and roll mural gives the place a bit of pazzazz, as if the customers and juke-box weren’t enough. The curados of such flavors as honey, celery and tomato will convert even the most reluctant and the free botanas, make a 11 peso glass of pulque into the cheapest sit-down lunch in Mexico. Pulquerías usually close around 8 or 9.

El Oasis - República de Cuba 2, centro
This freindly working class gay men's spot is the only one of its kind. There is old fashioned couples dancing to ranchera music, karaoke on Wednesday nights, and a floor show on Saturday during which a gay mariachi sings and the pudgy waitors get up and strip!

Author Nicholas Gilman and Mexico City are flatteringly mentioned in the Washington Post:
click here to view

PS Letter from Haiti:
From the email of a friend working in Haiti:
"I can suggest you donate (to The Haiti Clinic) which serves the poorest of the poor in the worst section of Port au Prince via an existing building that by some incredible stroke of luck was not demolished in the earthquake. However, the prison gangs are now in control of ...that part of the city and the patients are afraid to come into the clinic. For this reason, Haiti Clinic is now trying to raise money to purchase and furnish a mobile clinic (i.e., on a truck) to travel to the people - especially the many regions that have yet to obtain any medical care whatsoever. I can vouch that the money will be put to the best possible use... NO skimming from donations, no administrative costs etc. 100% of the money is used for purchasing supplies.


And Now for the Bad News...

Last week I wrote about some of 2009’s culinary highlights. Now it’s time to vent. It was a rough year for el Day Effay, what with the flu, the crisis and endless drug news (most of which has nothing to do with the capital). The restaurant racket is a tough one - I know, I've labored within - and one must be lenient at times. But some faux pas gastronomiques are inexcusable. They deserve to be brought to light. 'Oscar' type awards are due here. I hope my younger (i.e. under 49) readers forgive me for some of the more arcane references. But as Imelda said when she plunked down her Visa card for just one more pair of Manolo Blahniks “I just can’t help it”…and now, the envelope, please

Adios para Siempre plated gold watches go to:
Le Cirque: c’est fini – tant pis.
A.O.: Japanese fusion nicely done in an old house with jazz. The Colonia Roma public wasn’t ready for it. They shoulda put up the TVs.
O'Mei: in the hotel Nikko put on a satisfying pan-Asian buffet...perhaps they shouldn'ta put out SO much.

The Imelda-Marcos-doesn’t-she-know-there’s-a-recession? cup should be handed to the St. Regis' Diana for their 950 peso brunch.

The Baby-with-the-bathwater medal goes to the government of el D.F. for sweeping up the vendors in the centro and with them some beloved streetfood institutions. They should go see how it’s done in Bangkok.

The Greta-Garbo-she-never-DID-make-her-comeback prize is earned by Martha Chapa, whose mysteriously closed Aguila y Sol is still discussed at finer soirees.

The To-Hell-in-a-handbasket statuette is deserved by El Mesón Andaluz for making their once fine arroz negro with hot dogs.

The Kathleen-Turner-blowsy-broad plaque goes to the historic La Fonda del Recuerdo for covering their nice old wood floors with plastic “pisos de lamina”.

The Paris-Hilton-dumb-as-she-looks award: is deserved by the restaurant Mirador, atop the Torre Latinoamericana, for dumping the fabulous mid-century moderne décor in favor of airport contempo.

I award the Premio Cantinflas to Tezka for their horrible service and absurdly translated menu: tocino del cielo = sky bacon; Manitos de cerdo = pig handies!

The Joan-Crawford-it’s-fun-to-be-a-bitch award: is merited by yours truly

See you at the Academy....

A note to my readers: I have inaugurated a new blog as a forum for my non-Mexican writings.


The Best is Yet to Come

    I’m not one for “best” lists: they’re superficial, presumptuous and tired. But everyone likes to sum up and take stock. For lack of a better time of year to do it (Ramadan might be a good alternative), I have taken a few moments to assess the food scene in our great capital, looking back on some of 2009’s better culinary happenings. Like just about everything I do, this list is subjective and should be taken with a grain of fleur de sel. 

1) My favorite restaurant in Mexico City: D.O.
(Hegel 406, Polanco tel. 5255 0612)
I like what they’re doing; although one could complain about the ‘greatest hits of Spain’ phenomenon, D.O.’s is eclectic, smart and constantly changing. Ingredients are top-notch, service is discreet and   the place lacks pretention.

2) Best newcomer in the foreign category: Astrid y Gastón
(Tennyson  117, Polanco, tel. 5282 2666)
I’m wary of ‘branches’ - A & G already exists in Lima, Madrid etc., but this one stands out. The young chef’s interpretation of Alta Cocina Peruana is savvy.

3) Best Mexican newcomer: Casa Mexico
(Génova 70, Zona Rosa, tel. 5525 4997)
A great new option in the  no-longer-chic-since-1960 Zona Rosa. The compellingly eclectic regional/traditional menu is expertly executed. No clichés here.

4) Best Hole in the wall: El Huequito
(Ayuntamiento 21 between Dolores & Aranda, Centro)
El H reigns supreme for tacos al pastor; some say they’re the oldest one.

5) Best Chinese restaurant: Ka Won Seng Restaurante Chino
(Albino Garcia 362, corner of Av. Santa Anita, Col. Viaducto Pieda
The most authentic one we have. It’s not as inconveniente as it seems, just go to metro Viaducto – it’s worth the schlep.

6) Best Pizza: L’Atelier de Quim Jardí
(San Luís Potosí 121, (corner Jalapa, Col. Roma, open only evenings)
Recently re-inaugurated as Avant Garde, you can’t beat this place for pizza con ambiente. Now if they’d only hire a good publicist…

7) Best new bar: La Capital
(Nuevo León 131, Condesa)
I prefer this airy Condesa space and more mature crowd to that of the movie star boys joint down south. And the food is good. Really it is.

8) Best old bar: Covadonga
(Puebla 121, Roma)
Some things never change. I certainly hope they don’t, anyway.

9) Best dive: Pulquería Los Duelistas
(Aranda 28, near Ayuntamiento, centro)
I was SO glad to see this, one of the oldest surviving pulquerías, re-open its swinging doors after a long absence.

10) Best street food: El Caguamo
(corner Ayuntamiento & Aranda, centro)
This one was really hard to come up with – name your favorite child. But for consistently excellent seafood, it doesn’t get better.

11) New places to keeps an eye on in 2010
Diana (Hotel St. Regis) – our gastronome friend Ada raves; Oca – we’ll see what the critic from the Washington Post has to say; MeroToro – anything Contramar anti-diva Gabriela Cámara does can’t be bad; Tonalá 20 – an amazing Porfiriato mansion in la Roma that isn't open, doesn't have a sign and tells you to go away if you knock- doesn't it make you want to go?

¡Buen Provecho!

A note to my readers: I have inaugurated a new blog as a forum for my non-Mexican writings.