By day Mexico City can be an urban nightmare. Come nightfall it's a dream: the traffic lightens, the air feels cooler and cleaner, and the sidewalks are pleasantly busy with strolling families, punk rockers, cell-phone-carrying executives, and so many young people that you can almost hear the hormones sizzling. Dinner doesn't begin until after eight and the nightlife lasts until morning.
El Centro Histórico
The narrow streets around the cathedral and Zócalo are no longer deserted after dark. Entrepreneurs converted aging office buildings into private clubs that are now
DISCOS AND BARS
There are elegant cafés and all-night dance spots amid the few old taverns and restaurants, such as the atmospheric Café deTacuba. Mexicans prefer mixed drinks; it's common to buy a bottle of rum, which comes with a bucket of ice, cokes, and mineral water.
El Bar Mata 11 Calle Filomeno Mata; 52-5/518-0237. Enter a rickety elevator that appears to be made from bedsprings and ride into the future. Above the cobbled street is a thoroughly modern bar with a beautiful curved glass wall and a rooftop terrace. A trendy young crowd moves to rock and acid jazz. Open most nights until at least 1 a.m.
La Nueva Ópera 10 Avda. Cinco de Mayo; 52-5/512-8959; dinner for two $25. A few steps from El Bar Mata, but decades apart in style, this place hasn't changed since Pancho Villa rode in on horseback and, just for the hell of it, shot a hole in the ceiling. The hole is still there, a badge of honor equivalent to george washington slept here. The French-style restaurant-bar is probably 125 years old; nobody can say for sure. A gray-haired quartet sings to small groups of men solving the world's problems.
El Moro 42 Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas; 52-5/512-0896. Since 1935, families have gathered at this modest place for the single item on the menu: churros—sticks of deep-fried dough. These can be dunked in four varieties of hot chocolate: French-style is regular cocoa; Spanish is sweet and thick; "special" is semisweet; and Mexican is lighter and laced with cinnamon. Open 24 hours.
Hotel Majestic 73 Avda. Madero; 52-5/521-8600; dinner for two $30. Mexicans unfairly regard this colonial-style hotel as down-market, but the rooftop bar and restaurant offer a spectacular view of the plaza, where a giant red, white, and green Mexican flag is ceremoniously lowered at 6 p.m. daily. Open most nights until 1 a.m.
Sanborn's 4 Avda. Madero; 52-5/512-2233. Great for coffee or midnight snacks, exceptional only because of its awe-inspiring setting: the 18th-century House of Tiles. (Imagine Woolworth's inside the Lincoln Memorial.) Stone pillars support the lofty ceiling, and water trickles into a fountain. A colorful mural by Orozco dominates the staircase leading to two restaurants and a jazz bar. Open until 1 a.m.
The hot area at the moment is the Colonia Condesa, a neighborhood known for its quiet parks and stately houses where at first light residents sweep the sidewalks in front of their gates. Now it's the new gathering place for the bohemian crowd. Lots of earnest talk, jazz, art shows, excellent people-watching. Older residents are not so pleased with the noise, and of late, the authorities have closed a few cafés. Freedom to socialize will prevail, however, so Condesa is bound to grow in importance.
Café La Gloria 47 Avda. Vicente Suárez; 52-5/211-4180; dinner for two $30. A woman known as Doña Gloria used to operate a small tortilla factory here, but now Gloria's is perfect for a late meal or drinks.
Fonda Garufa 93 Avda. Michoacán; 52-5/286-8295; dinner for two $24. A charming bistro in a 1930's two-story house. Photographs and paintings by local artists decorate the walls.
Mamá Rumba 230 Calle ¤uerétaro; 52-5/564-6920. One of the few bars in the world where if you shout "Viva Fidel!" people will buy you a drink instead of throwing one at you. Mexicans are crazy about Cuba, as you'll see from the graffiti on the walls.
Cafecito Corner of Calle Atlixco and Vicente Suárez; 52-5/553-6933. For years the best Mexican coffee (and everything else) was exported, but new cafés and coffee bars have rediscovered Mexico's finest. Beans by the pound.
Once a country town eight miles from the city, Coyoacán has been swallowed but not digested by urban sprawl. At night the two large plazas fill with families pushing baby carriages, incense-burning hippies selling leather goods and jewelry, and rockeros comparing pierced body parts. Try the locally made candies stacked in neat pyramids, or get a parakeet to pick your fortune from a tiny box.
El Hijo del Cuervo 17 Jardín Centenario; 52-5/658-7824. Founded by two writers in 1987, this happening bar with live music that attracts a young crowd is something of a local institution. Order sushi or antojitos (appetizers) with your tequila.
Bar El Hábito 13 Calle Madrid; 52-5/659-1139. Performance artist Jesusa Rodríguez entertains—and shocks—with a politically charged cabaret act.
La Guadalupana 14 Calle Higuera; 52-5/554-6253. A traditional cantina, next to a busy market where the intestinally brave can sample delicious tacos prepared at little stands.
El Parnaso bookstore 2 Carrillo Puerto; 52-5/554-2225. Where to buy that hard-to-find history of economic development in Latin America. A clean, well-lighted place with café attached.
Helados Siberia 6 Plaza Hidalgo; 52-5/554-4537. The city's most famous ice cream parlor has every flavor from avocado to pine nut. Next door is Lonchería Maria Elena, where corn lovers line up for gnarly ears, grilled then slathered with mayonnaise and chili powder, or cupfuls of corn off the cob, soaked in lemon juice and sprinkled with grated cheese.
Because of its central location and history, the Zona Rosa will always have a booming nightlife. Though there's a proliferation of topless bars, table dancers, and other titillating entertainment, it can still be fun to wander Calle Hamburgo and Calle Londres or the walkways lined with shops and cafés.
Frida's Bar 28 Calle Hamburgo; 52-5/511-8353. This elegant former mansion is hung with giant alebrijes, fantastical papier-mâché animals, and artwork celebrating painter Frida Kahlo. It's the kind of place where bouncers separate the cool from the uncool: los Juniors, the Mexican Richie Riches, are always cool, as are stylish tourists. Cover charge: $17 for men; women typically get in free.
View from the Top
Mexico's Empire State Building, La Torre Latinoamericana, at Avenida Madero and Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, has fallen into disrepair. The cheesy restaurant is gone, and all that remains is a grungy lookout on the 43rd and 44th floors. These days, the height of glamour is the ambitiously named World Trade Center (1 Avda. de las Naciones), which most people still know as the Hotel de México. From the top floors you can see acres of golden light spilling across the black-velvet background of the ancient Valley of Mexico. There is a pricey revolving restaurant, Bellini (45th floor; 52-5/628-8304; dinner for two $75), and a disco, Sky Club (46th floor; 52-5/488-0700).
For a quieter and charmingly tacky place from which to view the proud Independence Monument, have a drink at the 11th-floor bar of the Hotel del Ángel (154 Río Lerma; 52-5/533-1032).
Catch It Live
Every night there are dozens of concerts, recitals, plays, and dance performances in Mexico City's art museums, theaters, and universities. Movies—American, French, Spanish—are shown on giant screens, to the crunch of popcorn splashed with pickled chilies (tickets are only $1.50 to $2). Check listings in the two English-language papers, the News and the Times, or in the magazines Tiempo Libre and Donde Ir.
Ballet Folklórico de México Palacio de Bellas Artes, 1 Avda.
Juárez, Centro; 52-5/529-9320; performances Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. Doña Amalia Hernández built this world-famous company the old-fashioned way: with rigid discipline, excruciating thrift, and creative energy.
Auditorio Nacional 50 Paseo de la Reforma Bosque de Chapultepec; 52-5/280-9250. A major concert hall where everyone from Juan Gabriel to Alanis Morissette plays.
Plaza de Garibaldi, Centro An open square that swarms with musicians wearing tight black suits decorated with heavy silver buckles who jump hungrily in front of speeding cars to solicit business. To visit this mariachi mecca go in a group, preferably with a local host. Garibaldi is authentic, loud, and occasionally a crime scene, but it is your chance to try pulque, a viscous drink made from agave and stored in wooden barrels. Watch out, though: in a real pulquería, the bartender wears rubber boots to serve the sloshed.
Two of the city's best-known salsa clubs carry the name León, as in "lion," and the king of the jungle is singer Pepe Arévalo. For 42 years he's been setting the tone for tropical music. As he explained, "There is no such thing as salsa. That's a marketing invention. What there is is mambo, cumbia, danzón, cha-cha, plena, bomba, and so on. Salsa clubs used to have a bad reputation; I take some credit for changing that."
Bar León 5 República de Brasil, Centro; 52-5/510-3093. The real thing. When they check patrons for weapons, you know they find some. The place jumps with live music and good dancing.
El Gran León 225 Calle Querétaro, Colonia Roma; 52-5/564-7110. Same atmosphere as the original Bar León but bigger.
Salón México Segundo Callejón de San Juan de Dios and Pensador Mexicano; 52-5/518-0931. Decorated like the set of Metropolis, it caters to a crowd of ballroom dancers and intellectuals.
PETER COPELAND, managing editor of Scripps Howard News Service, was the Mexico City correspondent for five years.