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The New Face of Acapulco

Viva Acapulco, Acapulco, Mexico, Las Brisas, pool

Photo: Trujillo Paumier

Just south of the Grand Hotel Acapulco, the costera Alemán becomes the Escénica, a corniche with sweeping vistas of the Pacific and the emerald hills above, and the Third Acapulco begins. Once known only for the iconic pink-and-white Las Brisas—a hotel built in large part to stash the mistresses of wealthy, married Mexican bankers—and its exclusive beach club, the area now called Acapulco Diamante is bringing new glitter to the 11-mile stretch from Acapulco Gold to the airport.

Real life in Acapulco Diamante looks like a Slim Aarons photo, with gated villas occupied by affluent Mexicans and their children, who prefer beachside lock-and-leave condos to brand-name resorts. Despite witnessing a building lull, this stalwart, worldly community has kept the heart of the city beating; Mexican regulars have always known that, apparent decline aside, the essential elements of Acapulco’s appeal remained: astonishing physical beauty, a deep vein of history, and weather as predictably excellent as anywhere in the world. Until hotel developers and restaurateurs began to think about Acapulco again in the last decade, Mexican jet-setters pretty much had the town to themselves. But with the necessary elements—investment, infrastructure, and cutting-edge design—finally in place, a renaissance is surely on the horizon. It’s Acapulco’s turn to shine again.

The first signs of this new Acapulco were a series of extravagant restaurants along the Escénica that began serving guests some five years ago. Their deceptively tiny roadside entrances open onto massive dining terraces that cascade down cliffs above Santa Lucía and Puerto Marqués bays. Gasp-inducing views stretch out to the old Acapulco of the 1930’s, which, late at night, looks like a vast curve of pavé diamonds. This Acapulco is certainly shiny and new, but at its finest, it is also distinctly rooted in the resort’s glorious past. Zibu, one of the best of the new restaurants on the Escénica, was built by Eduardo Wichtendahl, whose mother once worked for Teddy Stauffer—the legendary Swiss bandleader and front man at La Perla nightclub in “old” Acapulco’s Hotel El Mirador. In the resort’s heyday, Stauffer hired young daredevils to plunge from high cliffs outside his club’s windows into La Quebrada, one of a series of narrow, shallow coves on the Pacific coast. The divers at La Quebrada became world-renowned—even more so when one of them appeared as a double for Elvis Presley in his 1963 film Fun in Acapulco. That entertaining spirit is alive at Zibu, which is as playful as its food is delicious. Its décor—a huge palapa with three mosaic-floored rooms and decks built around mango and papaya trees and jutting rocks—was inspired by the galleons that first brought silk, spices, ivory, and other valuables from Manila and China, catching the trade winds on their return to the West. The menu, too, takes cues from Asia, mixed with the cuisine of the state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located.

Wichtendahl went to school with Rolly Pavia, the son of a Zihuatanejo restaurateur, who opened Becco al Mare with his family just up the road from Zibu a few months after. The restaurant’s wood-and-glass-cube entrance at road level leads to a minimalist room as magnificent as a Panavision stage set, only here it’s all white, letting the fashionable young customers descending its make-an-entrance staircase be the stars of the show—with that bay-and-twinkling-diamond view as the backdrop. It’s almost enough to distract from the food, but fresh pasta with sea urchin and the most extensive wine list in Acapulco will eventually get your attention.

One after another, more cliff-dwelling restaurants have opened—or reopened—since. “There’s always room at the top,” Wichtendahl jokes. True enough: the celebrity chef Richard Sandoval inherited Acapulco mainstay Madeiras from his father; he renamed it Pámpano, and, backed by Plácido Domingo, a local homeowner, remade it into a contemporary Mexican restaurant in 2008. Packed every night, but not running on all cylinders until the peak dining hour of 11 p.m., Pámpano (which is currently “redefining its concept,” according to Sandoval) is expensive by local standards. Still, Pámpano and all of its neighboring restaurants in the new Diamante seem like bargains when the quality of the entertainment—the rooms, the views, the excellent food, the crowd—is added into the equation.

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