As you step into one of the gleaming chocolate-colored booths and glide along the ruby-red upholstered cushions, the nostalgia that pervades La Opera Bar is palpable. From an intimate corner cabin, you watch the hustle and bustle of the dining room, but stay inside your own culinary world. One of Mexico City’s few century-old businesses, La Opera’s booths have served as a meeting place for notable journalists, politicians, scoundrels and authors. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once refused some fans an autograph on a napkin, left the bar and returned an hour later with autographed books for them. A faded newspaper clipping on the wall shows Carlos Monsivais, José Luis Cuevas, Fernando Benitez and Carlos Fuentes sitting around a table, deep in discussion.
“People were chatting a lot, they were sitting together and talking,” says Moises Escudero, the bar’s current manager. “We’re not used to it – we’re used to debating five different issues. [mobile] applications, but people were sitting and speak here, and the booths give you that little isolation so you can hear each other.
Walking through the front doors at different points in history, you may have seen Carlos Monsivais polishing one of his pieces for the The Reform Where The universal, or seen local businessmen sneaking up to Porfirio Diaz asking for political favors. The original La Opera was a few blocks from its current location, near the current Torre Latinoamericana on Calle Madero. La Opera was located opposite the Teatro de la Ciudad, which housed the best opera houses of the time, and back then it was more of a coffee and cake crowd.
The name stuck even after moving to its current location on Avenida 5 de Mayo and became a nighttime retreat for the rich and the well-to-do. Many opera stars have graced the bar with their presence, enjoying after-show drinks and even offering a song if the crowd is lucky. At first a small section of La Opera was cordoned off at the back for female drinkers, a rare sight in watering holes of the time. This meant that Porforio Diaz and his wife, Carmen, would separate before entering, as the ladies had their own entrance on Filomeno Mata Street.
After the revolution, and after an infamous bullet fired into the ceiling by Pancho Villa – supposedly to protest the bourgeois vibe of La Opera when Villa’s men came to town to liberate the masses – La Opera was transformed in a cantina for several decades, where (mostly) men came to drink and play dominoes. In true cantina style, there were endless plates of snacks that kept coming as long as you had a drink in your hand.
In the 1980s, the Opera evolved again to once again become the family restaurant it is today. These days the evening crowd is a handful of locals with their children, tables of older men come to bicker over politics and a few jaw-dropping tourists who have come to see Villa’s bullet hole in the ceiling of the restaurant. Waiters serve with an air of attentive formality, asking if guests would like a pre-dinner cocktail or one of the Opera’s signature appetizers — snails in chipotle sauce, for example.
The elaborate wooden bar that greets you as you enter the restaurant is almost as old as the restaurant itself. It was imported from New Orleans in the 1890s when the site of Cinco de Mayo opened. The glass-covered oil paintings embedded in the backs of the booths stem from an art movement centered on Chicago in the early 1900s, when artists signed their work with obscene images instead of their signatures.
Although La Opera is not necessarily known as a culinary mecca, its menu satisfies a desire for classic cuisine served in style and lists many traditional favorites in the Mexican cuisine lexicon – carne asada with tampiqueña Where will tear on the grill. You won’t find craft cocktails at the bar, but you can order a no-frills gin and tonic or rum and coke, along with a classic bandage – a shot of tequila, a shot of spicy tomato sangria and a shot of lime juice – sip slowly and intermittently.
While some might say the world has lost its appreciation for the glamor of Mexico’s Golden Age, there is something enduring about the appeal of La Opera bar, something that continues to draw in generation after generation. generation at its tables for an after-work drink or a tangy beef tartare spread on slices of baguette soaked in olive oil.
The surrounding streets are still teeming with vendors like in the bar’s heyday, but there are more and more business names on the buildings every year, and there’s something comforting in knowing that La Opera remains chic and timeless in its setting and decorum. La Opera bar is a must stop if you want a taste of old Mexico, and even if that’s not your style, you’ll want to see this bullet hole for yourself.