A touch of blarney in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY, Mexico — With pints of thick black Guinness passing over a dark wooden bar, the Pogues’ Christmas melody blasting out of speakers and revelers noshing on bangers and mash, the pub feels like it could be in downtown Dublin — or even Southie in Boston.

But this drinking hole sits in the heart of Mexico City.

Named “Celtics” and decorated with bright green Irish colors, it is one of dozens of European-style bars and pubs that have sprung up in the Mexican capital in recent years. 

Also close-by are drinking halls full of Germanic beer, Parisian-style lounges and a British public house, complete with cups of tea and full English breakfasts.

The new wave of haunts appeals to a generation of Mexicans who have grown up with the internet and cable TV and prefer the merry-making of the old world to Mexico’s traditional macho cantinas or more-formal dancing salons.

It also reflects the nation’s increasingly open free-trade policies, which allow the import of foreign beers to compete with the Mexican classics. Brands including London Pride Ale, Schneider Beer and Amstel can now all be found in the urban jungle alongside Corona and Sol.

Many of the bars have been started by restless Europeans, who crossed the Atlantic looking for adventure and settled into the warm Latin culture.

Londoner Umair Khan first set foot in Mexico City in 1996 to have a quick stint at teaching English abroad. But falling in love with the country, he decided to stay on and add his own touch to Mexico’s metropolitan mix. 

“When I first got here, there were not many options for going out. You often ended up sitting in a restaurant drinking beer or going to a cantina with an older crowd,” he said. “But this was a huge city with a big young middle class who wanted something different from that.”

Khan spent several years organizing club nights; then in 2004 he joined three other Brits and a Mexican partner to found The Black Horse pub. Celebrating five years this Christmas, it has now become a landmark on the city scene, known fondly by many Mexican clients as “El Black.”

Khan says the music is one of the key features drawing in the drinkers, with resident DJs pumping out the latest hits from British rock bands such as The Arctic Monkeys to classic ska tunes from groups like Madness.

“The internet has really allowed people to play a lot of different music here. Back when I first arrived, you just couldn’t find much variety of records in the shops. But now people here are listening to stuff from all over the world on the net,” he said.

Another attraction of the European-style joints is the informality. While many traditional Mexican nightspots seat clients at tables to be attended by waiters, the new wave of pubs invite clients to drink and mingle.

“It is a much better atmosphere when you are not pinned down,” said 26-year-old Karina Aguilera, dancing with an ale on a Saturday night. “You can meet people more easily and have a better night out.”

Working as a graphic designer, Aguilera is typical of the crowd that fills out the new bars. With beers costing $3 and upward, the spots are expensive for working class Mexicans. But many young professionals such as architects, computer specialists and media workers have disposable income to spend on their Saturday nightlife.

Many of the bars have opened in the Condesa, a central neighborhood built around an oval race track that used to be used for horse contests.

First populated by thousands of Spaniards who fled their country’s civil war in the 1930s, it has since welcomed waves of more immigrants from Europe as well as bohemian Mexican actors and artists.

Its central streets are now rammed with bars, pubs, restaurants, cafes and pool halls, fighting for customers with their variety of smells and sounds.

However, some of the old-time Condesa revelers feel that the whole European bar scene has become a little too successful.

With crowds frothing through swing doors, big business owners have latched onto the opportunity. More recently, several big-name chains such as the Seattle-based Starbucks and Mexican nightclub chain Don Quintin have opened up alongside the Euro-pubs.

Some merry-makers such as writer Alejandro Bernal, 35, say it is time to look elsewhere for the alternative touch.

“The whole scene used to be something really different, quite exotic here in Mexico City,” Bernal says, eying a queue of cars waiting for parking spaces outside a packed bar. “Now it has become a bit too commercial. It has lost its edge.”