Historic Cantina, El Nivel, Goes Dark

by David Simmonds

I like good drinking bars. The kind that don’t need goofy themes or gimmicks, like green margarita pitcher specials filled with lots of mix and ice, but scant tequila. And I don’t like paying more than $3.00 for a bottle of beer, or mute bartenders who use a shot glass to measure exactly one-ounce.

In Mexico I have visited (maybe visit isn’t the right word here) more bars than I should admit to, but just three of them have earned “best bar in Mexico” status, and now two of them are gone. In Puerto Vallarta, on the Malecon near the Oceano Hotel, once stood  Casablanca restaurant and cantina. The restaurant was good….but the bar was great. It had a Bogie-perfect atmosphere, featuring large open-air windows looking out to the sea and the Malecon strollers, tropical plants, ceiling fans, and comfortable seating that encouraged world-wide strangers to become fast friends. And they always had a mesmerizing, eclectic mix of music, volumed just loud enough to hear without drowning out the conversation. No one danced on tables and flashed their boobs. The Casablanca was always full (this was Richard Burton’s hangout) and then, suddenly, they were closed, replaced by a tourist trinket-and-tee-shirt shop. I can’t remember exactly when it closed, but it must have been 15 years ago, and it has never been duplicated (apologies to La Bodeguita del Medio, which is pretty good).

The one-of-a-kind Hussongs Cantina is still going strong in Ensenada, although not quite as wild as it was in the 70’s and 80’s. Opened in 1892 by German immigrant Johann Hussong who landed in Ensenada in search of gold, the bar has changed very little over  many decades. It is a fairly small room, maybe 15 bar stools and 12 tables filling about 1,200 square feet. Once dominated by young gringos looking for one-night love and older fishermen drawn by the strong drinks and cheap prices, Hussongs now draws more locals than tourists, with the young gringo crowd preferring the newer, darker clubs in the area. No matter, it’s still Hussongs and ranks at the top of my Mexico bar list.

My third choice, El Nivel in Mexico City, has now tragically closed its doors, unable to reach a lease agreement with the building owners, National Autonomous University of Mexico, who should know better. El Nivel is Mexico’s oldest cantina, opened in 1855 on a small side street just off the historic zocalo, very near the National Palace. It has been the preferred drinking establishment for many of Mexico’s political leaders and is reported to be the place where Fidel Castro met with Che Guevara as they plotted the overthrow of Cuba’s Batista regime. That is some history.

Now the doors are shut amid many angry protestors, who have demanded that the University change its position. The activists say they will now ask the government to step in and declare the building a national historic site, allowing the bar to reopen.

Mexico needs to protect its cultural history at every opportunity, not just the well-preserved iconic archaeological sites, but also the thousands of centuries-old buildings located throughout the cities and towns. Once they are gone, they are gone for good, and a little bit of the heart and soul of the country goes with it.