San Miguel is a city of walls, big, formidable walls that edge right up to the sidewalk. But again and again, I felt I was being let in. One of my favorite places came to be Berlin, a bar and café on Umurán, where the owner, Detlev Kappstein, like the most relaxed of hosts at a private party, seemed to have as much fun as anyone else in the local arty crowd of Americans, Europeans, and Mexicans. The room was convivial, the smoke thick, the conversation spirited.
In my daily travels I kept passing La Cartuja, a restaurant I remembered fondly from a New Year’s Eve years before, but it never appeared to be open. It wasn’t listed in the guides I had, and no one seemed to know it. Thinking it might be closed during the day, I went one night, only to find the door locked. But the following evening, with rain shining the cobblestones, the door opened into an absolutely empty dining room with a reserved sign on every table. Soon the owner, Jesús Diaz de Vidar, came out, a fit and dapper man with a neatly clipped goatee and an ascot round his neck. Was the restaurant open?my guest and I asked. "Si, está abierto"; it was always open, he said in a distinctly old-country accent, his whirring r’s the Latin equivalent of a Scottish burr. The reserved signs?No problem. He whisked one away. Could we see the menu?There was no menu; he would tell us what he’d prepared. He did, and then escorted us to a table. We could have been in the Pyrenees. Racks of dusty wine bottles lined the walls. Shelves sagged beneath the weight of peaches and pears curing in jars of aguardiente. The mood for our dinner was set by one very loud crack of thunder that rattled the entire town. While rain drummed on the roof, Don Jesús brought a carafe of red wine with plates of pickled baby carrots, Spanish ham, and cheese. A classic paella and rabbit in a rich, dark wine sauce followed.
The weather and the empty room were so eerie, I found myself increasingly curious about this restaurateur who showed no anxiety about his lack of customers. Each time he came to the table, I asked a question or two, and by the end of the meal a portrait of the man had emerged. He said his family had emigrated from Spain in 1946. He cooks all of the food himself and runs the restaurant with the help of his son. He makes his own wine from grapes he grows on land on the edge of town. He’d also grown and pickled the carrots we’d just eaten, and the fruit in the jars came from his orchard.
"And your customers?" I indicated all the empty tables.
"Oh, if you come at two in the afternoon,"—I’d always passed earlier, it turned out—"every table is full and the air is full of smoke. Everyone drinks lots of wine, then they have Cognac and smoke cigars." (Mexican senator Luis Alberto Villarreal, a former mayor of San Miguel, later told me that La Cartuja was his favorite restaurant in town.)
After dessert, Diaz de Vidar took us through the kitchen into a tiny adjoining shop, strong with the smell of leather, where he sells saddles of various styles—Spanish, Mexican, English. Besides running the restaurant and tending his vines and orchard, he raises and rides horses.
Diaz de Vidar was singular, but I kept meeting people like him in one important respect: they had come to San Miguel to reinvent themselves, to live the lives they truly wanted.
Directly across from Bellas Artes, on Calle Mesones, are several attractive shops. Stopping in Casa de Papel, a stationer’s, I fell into conversation with an American wearing Chanel sunglasses pushed back on her head. With a Mrs. Dalloway air, she gave me her card (people exchange business cards here like old-fashioned calling cards). A few doors down, an encounter with an Israeli living in the area contrasted with the pleasantries just exchanged. "Americans are stealing San Miguel from the Mexicans," she told me angrily.
That might surprise the 60 percent of the city’s tourists who are Mexican nationals. San Miguel is famous for year-round patriotic and religious festivals. Easter is huge, but September has the most impressive fiestas. On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, people from all over the country come to celebrate with fireworks, dances, bullfights, and a rodeo in the cradle of their freedom. Some Americans may fault San Miguel for a lack of authenticity, but urban Mexicans go there to participate in their traditional culture.