Salud! Cheers! Na Zdrowie! : Times Writers' Concise Correspondents Course in Cosmopolitan Conviviality

Mexico City's most famous bar boasts French decor, Spanish food and mint juleps said to be better than anything served in New Orleans.

Yet for all these imports, Bar La Opera is somehow very Mexican. Maybe it's because of the bullet hole in the ceiling, the result, it is said, of a visit from Pancho Villa.

Or maybe it's the intrigue of Mexican politicians and businessmen cutting their deals during endless lunches. Or a bartender called La Carioca who sings tunes from Veracruz and reminisces about the visits of past Mexican presidents to La Opera.

"This place thrives on folklore," says manager Moises Argote. "Politicians, actors, gangsters. They all come here."

La Opera is named for its location near the Palace of Fine Arts a block away. The decor recalls Mexico City's 19th-Century flirtation with belle epoque design. Gold leaf swirls adorn the ceiling, giant mirrors dominate the walls, and the rows of booths feature red velvet and leather seats and ornate wood carvings.

Five years ago, the bar began to serve meals, ending its long existence as a strict cantina .

La Opera's list of visiting dignitaries has included every modern Mexican president except the present head of state, Miguel de la Madrid. "In the old days, presidents could just walk in and have a drink and no one would much mind," Argote says. "Now, it's much more complicated. Someone might insult him, and, of course, security is a problem."

It was President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines who, in the 1950s, favored mint juleps and made them a trademark of La Opera. You can ask for the presidential mint julep, made, apparently, with about half the things kept behind the big wooden bar.

As for Pancho Villa, who galloped in after occupying the nearby National Palace, Argote notes that the revolutionary was a teetotaler and ordered nothing.

"On the other hand," Argote adds, "I think some of his friends might have had a drink or two."

Bar La Opera, 10 Fifth of May Street, Mexico City. Telephone: 512-8959.

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