It’s debatable as to what makes a proper Mexican cantina. Some are salons; some are bars. But in general, we’re talking about classic, large-scale rooms where you can kick back and borrow a set of dominoes from the bartender.
Here are seven of the best drinking halls in Mexico City.
Bar La Ópera
La Ópera first opened as a French bakery in 1876 – where the Torre Latino now stands. Opened in 1906 and operated as a traditional cantina until 1980, it is now more restaurant than traditional drinking hall.
Among the most luxe of Mexico City’s aged cantinas and one of the more historically permissive — it allowed women to join the men from the beginning — La Ópera has always catered to the cultural elite.
Famous as much for the bullet hole left in the ceiling by a failed attempt to assassinate Pancho Villa as for the always well-prepared Medi-Mexi cuisine, La Ópera’s classic mirrors, glossy eggshell ceilings and gilded molding make for a feeling of cozy decadence.
In the dining room, youngish posh men in suits mingle with older posh diners in hair from grey-blue to grey-purple and eyebrows from wooly push brooms to thinly penciled masterpieces – the wealthy retired or never had to bother retiring. At the bar it’s mostly tourists, national and international, which makes for easy conversation.
The service is attentive and helpful but not obtrusive, and the tomatillo salsa is served in sauciere dishes for a touch of class. The frequent live music leans toward old Europe and is usually quite good – a trio featuring stand-up bass, Spanish guitar and dulcimer on a recent visit sounded like a playful romp through the Pyrenees.
Av. 5 de Mayo 10, Centro Histórico, Mexico City. Monday – Saturday, 1:00pm – midnight; Sunday, 1:00pm-6:00pm
The walls surrounding La Faena were built in 1753. So, the room feels ancient, though the bar didn’t open until 1959. Mexico City’s largest cantina is worth a visit for the décor alone. The immense hall with towering ceilings and peeling paintwork exudes a faded charm.
It’s a bullfighting museum of sorts, decorated with massive tattered bullfight-themed canvases that must be five meters across. The memorabilia was donated by the original Spanish owners.
Bullfighter mannequins, identified on plaques, gather dust behind glass. They look both tongue-in-cheek and sincerely homoerotic. The clientele are mostly young world music-leaning hipsters. But all are welcome.
Venustiano Carranza 49, Centro Histórico, Mexico City. Noon – 11:00pm (later on weekends); closed Wednesdays
La Riviera del Sur
One of the city’s many newfangled cantina concepts, La Riviera del Sur has nailed the ambience with a spacious dining room, glamorous — not too bright — lighting and a free-flowing party atmosphere.
The expansive Yucatecan menu is authentically delicious, with the cochinita pibil a favorite. The outdoor seating is romantic on a clear evening, and the staff is always helpful if your party doubles in size, as it inevitably seems to.
Chiapas 174, Colonia Roma Norte, Mexico City. Monday – Sunday, 1;00pm – 2:00am
Cantina Tío Pepe
This real deal old-school cantina is located on the edge of Chinatown. Opened in 1890, it’s the oldest cantina in the city. At Tío Pepe, the urinal trough remains. On the patron side of the bar runs a sloped tile drain so, back in the day, patrons wouldn’t have to bother leaving the bar to answer nature’s call.
An engraved sign behind the bar reads: “The entrance of minors, women, and vendors is prohibited.” This, of course, is not the case anymore. But not much else has changed since the bar became Tío Pepe in 1890.
The original German beer-stein lanterns remain, and the liquor selection skews classic — Havana Club, J&B, Don Julio and Herradura. Ask to read a copy of the strikingly poetic history of the cantina to dive a bit deeper into its story.
Av. Independencia 26, Colonia Centro, Mexico City. Monday – Saturday, noon – 11:00pm
Its position right on the edge of Colonia Escandón gives Montejo a strong neighborhood party vibe. It’s a multi-floored, pale-yellow monstrosity that somehow manages to feel close to cosy.
Montejo is a rum and Squirt or brandy and Coke kind of spot, with extensive tequila and mezcal selections. Locals from near and far tend to come for lunch, get to feeling fine, and stay ‘til closing.
Multiple groups of stringed, classic Mexican trios pass through daily, and the entire cantina joins in song. Montejo is the kind of place where you get noticed and make friends.
Av. Benjamín Franklin 261-A, Colonia Condesa, Mexico City. Monday – Saturday, 1:00pm – 2:00am
Cantina El Centenario
El Centenario feels delightfully old-school though it teeters slightly on the edge, which is nice to see in Condesa. Although the clientele is split equally between old-timers and youngsters, it’s the kind of place to live like they did back when it opened in 1948, with a shoeshine and copious tequila in the middle of the afternoon.
The white-shirted and black-vested waiters can get a bit cheeky and are fun to spar with. Tiled walls, a huge bull’s head and light sneaking through the small windows give it a cozy cave-like feel. Supposedly the menu is Spanish, but not very good. The “tortilla” pan omelet is served hot, but the nachos are topped with cold liquid cheese. Stick with the liquid lunch.
Av. Vicente Suárez 42, Colonia Condesa, Mexico City. Monday – Saturday, noon – midnight (later on weekends)
Another classic Spanish/Mexican salon/cantina, Covadonga has been around since 1940. Daytime finds mostly old men playing dominoes with an eye to whatever game is on TV, while nighttime beckons the trendy.
The service can be delightfully bizarre. Many of the waiters have been on staff for decades, so expect some orders to be forgotten. Don’t be ashamed if you must wave them over.
The chicken caesar salad is tossed tableside, with raw egg and mustard. The waiter, having prepared the dressing far too soon, stands at his post, staring into space until the chicken arrives.
The mostly Asturian (Asturias, Spain) menu is quite good for a full meal or simple serrano ham and manchego cheese snack. The room is huge and perfect for large parties and late nights, despite the intense lighting.
Puebla 121, Colonia Roma Norte, Mexico City. Monday – Saturday, 1:00pm – 2:00am; Sunday 1:00pm – 7:00pm
Andy Hume is a Mexico City-based freelance writer. He writes regularly for Mexico News Daily.