I first drank a cup of coffee in La Flor de Santiago in 2003, the same summer I bought a house three blocks down Calle 70 from this historic cafe. The Mérida barrio of Santiago was already hundreds of years old when these heavy wooden doors first swung open for business in the 1920's. Now as the oldest operating cafe and restaurant in Mérida, La Flor has earned its own place in local history.
That's only one of several reasons why I was concerned a couple of weeks ago when I walked in for a session of backgammon with my friend Diane, to be told by her that there was almost nothing available from the menu. The place was getting ready to close down, according to one of the waiters. And it certainly looked that way. The baked goods display cases were empty: bakery closed. There was no espresso coffee: machine broken and not being fixed. As we ate toast, drank our cafe americano and rolled dice, workers walked back and forth carrying loads of buckets, bottles and boxes of miscellaneous junk from a storage area to the sidewalk. There, as soon as the items were set down, scavengers and recyclers scooped the items up and hauled them off.
|A mesero waits for customers on a recent slow day|
After I got the house fixed up and started living in Mérida full time I patronized La Flor less, but it has always been a special place. And just over the past year or so I've been spending a lot more time there again.
To be honest, the coffee in La Flor is not the best in town. But there is more to a good cafe than just coffee. La Flor is a place to meet. It's part of the neighborhood and reflects local culture. It's a place for people watching. There are old timers, many of whom arrive at the same hour daily and order the same thing they have for years. The waiters are mature, professional, friendly and remember your likes and dislikes. La Flor is a real, traditional cafe. Very few exist these days.
Most contemporary "cafes," and particularly the popular chain versions, although they may prepare a good cup of coffee, just don't compare to an established, old-style cafe. I've seen a couple of the nice old cafes in Mérida centro close over the past few years. I've tried -- and abandoned -- several of the newer ones where the staff is young, poorly-trained and managed, the music is loud and apparently played for the pleasure of the staff and not the guests, and any ambience or personality that exists seems to be more superficial marketing strategy than anything else.
I've heard since that La Flor de Santiago may remain open, but that the owners are looking for new ideas to improve the bottom line. Let's hope they manage to stay in business without changing things too much. It would be a sad loss to the community if yet another tradition fades away.