Drink up at one of Mexico City's 5 liveliest cantinas

A good cantina captures the nature of a neighbourhood and its people, says author Tim McGabhann. He reveals his favourite five authentic bars in the Mexican capital...

7 mins
Lining them up at the El Leon de Oro (Cantina El Leon de Oro's official website)

Lining them up at the El Leon de Oro (Cantina El Leon de Oro's official website)

Every Mexico City colonia has its own distinct character, from the sedate, leafy Art Deco vibes of La Condesa to La Guerrero’s gritty cheer. But if you really want to get to know the neighbourhood, you need to find yourself a good cantina.

Sometimes polished, sometimes homely, but always friendly - the modern incarnation of the cantina is a far cry from their post-Revolution version, where you’d find a scatter of chairs, a scuzzy bar, and no women, children, or people in uniform. 

Over time, they've become cleaner, more family-friendly places. The service can be so polite it’s almost baroque, and the free botana (snacks) on offer get steadily more elaborate with every round of drinks ordered. 

Here are five of the best starting-points for getting under the skin of some iconic Mexico City neighbourhoods...

1. El Leon de Oro

Bright, lively and spacious, with light spilling in through Art Nouveau-style stained-glass windows, El Leon is the perfect place to spend a rainy-evening rush-hour while you wait for the Metro and traffic to clear, or to kill a lazy Saturday listening to the live mariachi and bolero musicians who drift from table to table offering their serenades.

The menu boasts daily specials that range from casero staples like sopa Azteca and tacos de arrachera, but also more ambitious fare like snails in mole.

Perfect for families, people watching, or just watching the football on the many discreetly placed TVs, this former hole in the wall is the beating heart of the colonia Escandón, protecting that neighbourhood’s character against the rising wave of gentrification.

Where: Av. José Martí 103-A, Col. Escandón 

2. La Faena

While La Mascota and La India on Calle Bolívar typify the Centro’s wild side, La Faena is a quiet, cavernous bolthole for when the noise and glare get too much.

The old bullfighting trophies and photos that deck the wall pair nicely with the exhausted street performers and traffic light clowns who you’ll see here towards the end of a long day.

On Saturday nights, you’ll often find yourself amongst the city’s hippest residents, before hitting the house-music venues and alluring mezcalerías that have begun to pop up alongside the punk clubs, rock bars, and leather basements that remain the Centro’s nightlife mainstays.

Where: Calle de Venustiano Carranza 49, Col. Centro

3. Cantina La U de G

If it’s been one of those Centro nights, it’s likely that you’re stumbling out of an after after party not far from Cantina La U de G.

Make your way past the cemetery and its melted-looking tombstones, beyond a church that’s been split in half by the trees and ivy growing through it. Install yourself at the only cantina in this proudly working class barrio bravo.

If a few rollover beers and a heavy brunch of chamorro don’t help you, then the waiters’ affectionate, rough-housing humour will leave you feeling as golden as a bottle of Centenario Reposado.

Where: Calle Guerrero 258, Col. Guerrero 

4. La Invencible

Tucked away beside San Ángel’s market, with its façade designed by members of Diego Rivera’s legendary workshop, you’ll find a pair of scrubbed-wood saloon doors flapping back and forth under a faded cursive sign.

It might look like a stage set from a Pedro Infante movie, but the rowdiest it ever gets in here is a couple of gleeful whoops about the dominoes, and nobody’s likely to burst into spontaneous song. Apart from the bolero players who show up from time to time.

Students and older couples rub shoulders at the tight-packed tables in this intimate, homely space, and, if you’re peckish, the wait-staff will get you some tacos de guisado from the stall just outside.

Where: Local C, Calle del Dr. Gálvez 7, San Ángel

5. La Valenciana

Eagle-eyed fans of Narcos: Mexico will recognise the blue tiles and moodily lit Moorish archways from an early episode of the series, but the vibe is a long way from those mean streets.

La Valenciana offers a spacious terrace, and is overhung with lamps and hanging baskets that seem to blur this corner of the placid colonia Narvarte into a provincial square in mid-century Spain.

On a Friday night, tables are cleared out of one room, making space for a live Cuban salsa band, unleashing a sense of wild release that is triple-distilled chilango. 

Where: Av. Universidad 48, Narvarte Oriente

Tim McGabhann is the author of Call Him Mine, a gritty crime novel set in Mexico. You can order your copy on Amazon now

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