I had a list an arm long of cantinas I wanted to visit on my recent trip to Mexico City. I got to exactly one. I was close to visiting La Covadonga, a huge and old cantina, but our local Mexican guide, a chic and pretty young native, talked it down so as tacky and "creepy," we decided to avoid it.
The one we did visit, however, was exceptional, and unique. The opulent La Opera, right the Centro Historico, opened in 1876 and reminded me more of the grand, wood-paneled, high-ceilinged cafes of Vienna and Trieste than a Mexican cantina, which one always expects to be charmingly scruffy. The place is grandly of the Guilded age. The wooden bar (which was carved in New Orleans!) is mammoth, about 20 feet tall and 10 feet deep.
Cushioned banquettes surround large central pillars and roomy booths line the walls. The walls are covered with brocade wallpaper and the ceiling is edged with ornately gilded, embossed, Art Nouveau tin. Mirrors abounded, lending added grandeur to the room. A tuxedoed Mariachi band, including an ancient, blind man playing something like a zither, serenaded the drinkers. "La Opera" was stamped on everything, from the windows to the floor mats to the packets of free, green mints. (Though, for some reason, carved into the backs of each wooden chair was the letter "B.")
We were shown a bullet hole in the ceiling directly above one of the booths opposite the bar. It was reputedly put there by Pancho Villa. We didn't believe it. It was too neatly placed, too centered. (Of course, this detail is the one thing all travel guides mention about La Opera.)
We became fascinated by a trio of old, dignified men in suits who held court in the first booth, near the entrance. They looked so comfortable, so supremely confident, we deduced that they had been meeting in that booth regularly for years. Someone suggested they were part of local organized crime. I didn't think so. But they were movers and shakers of some sort. Perhaps powerful lawyers of politicians; La Opera has always been a political watering hole.
I ordered a shot of Herradura Antiguo Reposado, a tequila I am told cannot be had in the U.S. (I found out upon returning that is was only recently introduced in America.) I did not get a chance to eat anything, though I hear the food is good. A good place to linger. Sadly, we had to be on our way after a single drink.