Ornate ceiling moldings, fin-de-siècle trim decadently awash in gold leaf, sinuous Art Nouveau tendrils curling from the wall sconces, a bar hand-carved from solid walnut and shipped from New Orleans: Bar La Ópera is hands down Mexico City’s most sumptuous cantina.
Yet curiously, what everyone goes for is a hole in the ceiling.
The hole dates to December 6, 1914—so legend would have it. On that day, José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, a.k.a. Pancho Villa, a.k.a. the Centaur of the North, after a triumphal entrance into the capital with 60,000 rag-tag troops at the peak of Mexico’s Revolution, took out his pistol while seated at a booth on the cantina’s right side and proceeded to put a slug in the plaster overhead.
Tequila had nothing to do with it: Villa was a teetotaler. The accepted version is that the caudillo from Chihuahua was conferring with his compadres in the bar when a gang of rowdies entered and started a ruckus. The shot was his way of soliciting their attention. Another recounting holds that Villa rode into the cantina on horseback and discharged his revolver out of sheer equestrian exuberance—a version more cinematic than factual.
What had brought Villa to the capital in the first place was the Pact of Xochimilco, an accord signed on December 4 with Emiliano Zapata, the sad-eyed guerrilla from the state of Morelos who ultimately became the revolution’s chief martyr. Villa and Zapata viewed with consternation the growing power of Venustiano Carranza, a northern warlord and landowner who sought to block serious land reform while coopting the revolution for his own ends. Therefore, two days before the cantina episode, in a private house in Xochimilco not far from the district’s famous floating Aztec gardens, the Centaur of the North and the Atilla of the South signed a concordat reaffirming their commitment to radical land redistribution. Afterwards, they paraded their 60,000 troops down the Paseo de La Reforma to the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, and managed to get themselves photographed in the Palacio Nacional—with Villa jovially occupying the president’s chair.
An older, wilder Mexico—one all but lost today amidst the patrons busy over the Ópera’s upscale menu: snails in chipotle sauce, pulpo a la gallega.
The Ópera saw further history pre- and post-Villa. Founded in 1876 as a Parisian-style café by two French sisters, its first incarnation occupied the site of today’s Torre Latinoamericana, right next to the Gran Teatro Nacional, where operas were performed—hence the name. After moving to its current location in Av. Cinco de Mayo in 1895, it was decorated in the Frenchified style that reflected Mexico’s rage for all things Gallic under Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911)—a look it still preserves today.
The Ópera didn’t lack for illustrious clients. Porfirio Díaz himself was a regular, as was nearly every subsequent Mexican president. The bar also served as a gathering spot for Mexico City’s literati, including Carlos Monsiváis, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Gabriel García Márquez, who would frequently close the joint down with their late-night bull sessions. In 2012, the Colombian painter Fernando Botero held his 80th birthday party in a quiet booth in back.
Today, the Ópera is less bohemian and more family-friendly than the watering-hole of yore. Gone are the arsenals of hard liquor and free botanas (snacks) typical of old-time cantinas, as well as the late-night sprees of blurry memory. But the newspaper clippings on the walls testify to its storied past, as does the ceiling puncture, carefully preserved in lead, from a moment when a one-time sharecropper, muleteer, and bandit could still make a bid for Mexico’s destiny.
Bar La Ópera
Av. Cinco de Mayo 10