Month 01: Mexico City
Hola from Mexico City! I’m writing from an incredible cafe called Blend Space, with a beautiful coffee bar and a retractable roof that allows a tree to grow in the middle of this semi-open space. This cafe is a hidden gem, totally unassuming at first glance from the street, which is how I feel about Mexico City in general – I want to look around and say “Did anyone else know about this place? Why are we not talking about this more?”
Obviously Mexico City is in no way hidden, with its nearly 9 million residents occupying almost 600 square miles. What is amazing is that despite its grand size, its people and culture are still supremely humble. I went on a scavenger hunt of interesting cafes, restaurants, and shops yesterday and after sitting down at a sidewalk-facing bar of a bakery/cafe called Boulangerie 41 I chatted with someone who worked there. I explained that I’m working remotely here in Mexico City and my company back home advises our clients on ways to improve how people experience a particular neighborhood or district through retail, and that I’m on the hunt for interesting concepts and retail examples to share with our diverse clients.
He asked why I came to Boulangerie 41, explaining under his breath that “this is just a cafe…” I pointed out a few features of the cafe. “The fact that you can just walk up to a seat from the sidewalk is totally unique, it changes the way the street feels, like this is all a space for everyone. And your kitchen is on a kind of mezzanine level with glass walls so people can look up and see where bread is being baked, it’s not being hidden in the back. Also, you serve wine here. That’s not very common back home, for a place that mostly serves breakfast and lunch to also have a wine list. That also changes the feel of the place, and has the potential to add life to the street outside of breakfast and lunch.” And he nodded along and finally said “That’s just what we thought people would like.” Humble.
While Mexico City is often known for its informal demeanor as expressed through their kiosks of all kinds – tacos, tortas, fresh juices, churros, chicharrones, frequented by all kinds of people – what has surprised me most is their growing scene of beautifully designed brick-and-mortar cafes, restaurants, and shops. I had the privilege of eating at Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera’s ode to fine Mexican dining which you may have seen in an episode of Chef’s Table. The cuisine in Mexico City is fantastic and diverse, and the storefronts and retail spaces are just the same. From a subtle, almost hidden entrance opening up to a beautiful, rustic gin bar to a barbershop doubling as a bar to numerous open storefronts welcoming all to take a seat and try the local fare, Mexico City has some of the most vibrant streets and neighborhoods I have ever had the pleasure of exploring.
The food halls that are so popular around the US are not quite as prolific here as I might have expected given the many other similar concepts and moods between what I’ve seen at home and what I’ve seen here, but the few food halls I’ve seen have been incredible. Mercado Roma is a complicated maze of independent vendors with bars you can pull up a stool to sit at or long wooden tables to share in the back, against the 50’ green wall. If you’re in the mood for a beer or cocktail, there’s a partially-covered beer garden on the roof. Fractal is a favorite for Remote Year participants, with small independent kiosks ranging from nitro-infused ice cream to fresh salads to seafood tacos to enormous sandwiches, with a bar up top with ping-pong tables and full views of the action below. Casa Quimera is an entirely vegetarian-friendly food hall surrounding a famous old mansion which houses a couple of restaurants and an art gallery. Nothing is ever just one thing.
Mexico City is bursting with public art, beautiful parks (and a city-wide campaign to improve all of their parks right now), and fun programming like nighttime picnics and kiosks that line the paths of Chapultepec Park, which is twice the size of Central Park in New York. The streets are lined with trees and benches, the smaller parks have exercise equipment (similar to Brooklyn Bridge Park) that is constantly in use by kids and adults alike, and on Sundays one of the largest streets in the city is open only to bikes.
The most important lesson to take away from Mexico City is that the best places are the most welcoming by design: small efforts like benches, shaded outdoor seating, open doors, and a variety of uses and retailers make this one of the most inviting and exciting cities I’ve ever been.