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Postcard from Mexico City, Or, How to Mourn the Cantina

July 31, 2020

Story: Michael Snyder

photo: Michael Snyder

Michael Snyder contemplates a summer without the blurry, tequila-fueled afternoons and chance encounters that only the city’s great, democratic watering holes can provide.

When I moved to Mexico City four years ago, the only neighborhood I ever seriously considered living in was the Centro Histórico, defined by its crooked churches and crowded streets and undoubtedly by its cantinas, one on nearly every corner (or so it sometimes seems) and for every taste and disposition.

In the evenings, I like to snag a flimsy plastic chair at La Faena, vast and dilapidated, and glug a honey-colored mixture of light and dark beers from a giant glass goblet. In the daytime, I prefer to stand at the long wooden bar at Tío Pepe, sipping off-brand Fernet and studiously avoiding the shallow metal trough embedded in the floor, once used as a urinal by anyone too drunk or lazy to make it to the bathroom (a tradition that ceased, thank god, when cantinas started admitting women in the 1980s). At my favorite cantina, which I prefer not to name out of respect for the regulars who still constitute the vast majority of its clientele, service reaches a platonic ideal of efficiency and warmth, of professionalism and informality. Here, I can while away an entire afternoon and evening over tall shot glasses of Tapatío and Tesoro de Don Felipe (cantinas are for tequila, not mezcal), gauging the hour by the way the sun bounces off the volcanic stone façade across the street.

For better or worse, things in Mexico City have started to resemble something like normalcy, at least in the city’s barrios populares, where the virus is seen as less grave a threat than another week spent without work. I’ve gone from a bizarre, resurgent interest in cocktails and drinking too much wine on my own to 14-hour binges of Modelo and mezcal with the clutch of neighbors who constitute my quarantine inner circle. Restaurants have started to reopen, albeit with limited capacity and even more limited government support, while the city’s ubiquitous street stalls, many of which never closed in the first place, have improvised safety systems of dubious efficacy. Plastic tarps and cling wrap stretched on flimsy wooden frames now separate vendor from customer, an understandable but tragic betrayal of street food’s insistence on human contact. I chose to live in the Centro because I love to navigate a crowd, love to be among strangers, love the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of sharing a packed sidewalk with people I’ll never know; it’s as close as one can get to disappearing completely from the world as much as yourself. Now, every time I cross the street to give someone six feet of space or think twice about grabbing a snack from a taquero without a mask, it feels like a betrayal.

The cantinas remain closed and I don’t know how many will survive. Old neighborhood institutions have already succumbed to the economic ravages of the virus, same as everywhere. Those cantinas that do make it, what will they be like when they open their doors? Will Charley, my favorite cantinero, shake my hand when I arrive and clasp my shoulder when he takes my order? Will the friends who I see every Friday—people whose names I only half-recall, whom I’ve only ever seen under those harsh white tube lights and through the giddy glaze of too much tequila—still abandon their table to come hover over mine?

These questions aren’t special or unique—every person who has loved any bar anywhere on earth has asked them this summer—but they are existential. They’re also probably sentimental, which is OK, too. Cantinas are good places to celebrate. They’re also good places to mourn.

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