Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Good Cafe on Parque Santiago


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
It was hard not to notice that we were just about the only customers. The few others were elderly regulars who drink coffee and while away the hours talking, reading newspapers and watching traffic pass by outside the large street doors. La Flor is a big place with a lot of staff, and overhead must be high. Selling cups of coffee to customers who hang out for hours, request lots of free refills and don't eat a lot probably doesn't pay the bills. Things weren't looking all that good for La Flor.

When I first lived in my house the kitchen was not functional, so I ate out most of the time. Hot mollettes, made from french baguette baked in La Flor's own wood-fired ovens slathered with refried beans, cheese and hot salsa, and washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and lots of hot coffee, became a frequent breakfast of mine. Or, I'd eat choco lomo across the street in the Santiago market and afterward cross to La Flor for coffee while leisurely reading the morning's copy of Diario de Yucatán.

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.


Here's Hammockman's post on La Flor.

19 comments:

  1. Oh my gosh! I was there that day, remember? I thought it was odd that there was nothing available from the menu. I assumed they had just sold out of bread earlier in the morning. And I saw the boxes on the sidewalk. I'm going to repost. Perhaps more people will discover your little place and help it stay open. Very sad to me.

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  2. I would hate for this lovely place to vanish before I get to hang out there. Thanks for letting me look in the door with this piece, Marc.

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  3. Benné, yes you were there. I did not have a chance to talk to you about it because I found out after you'd left. Let's hope they mange to stay open. It's one of the last authentic cafes in centro.

    Lynette, you'd enjoy it. I didn't even mention all of the art and interesting old stuff they have in there. I hope you, Benné and I can sit down to coffee or lunch there one of these days.

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  4. I hope they find a way to stay open. The ambiance there is really special.

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  5. Man, oh, man, what a wonderful place. I would kill to live three blocks from a place like that. How sad that it may close, however. Keep your fingers crossed.

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  6. Yucatango, that's why I will patronize them as long as they are open. It's the feeling and atmosphere of the place that I appreciate more than anything else. And, it's my "local."

    Felipe, it is a great place. I have known or visited similar old cafes in many cities, but these days authenticity is increasngly uncommon. It's where I'd invite you to share a cup if you were to visit Mérida. You can get a beer and a real meal there, too. Can't do that at Starbucks or Italian Coffee.

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  7. It's funny. On my first trip a year ago, the guidebooks mentioned Flor, but neither the real estate agent or my guesthouse hosts had heard of it, and they have been in the city for more than six or seven years. How could something so big, beautiful and well situated be so obscure?

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  8. There are certainly enough expats in the Santiago area that a concerted effort could be made to hold gatherings there, small morning coffee groups, other informal or spur of the moment get-togethers.

    It would be much better to support this place than a lot of others.

    Maybe the Merida bloggers group can meet there very soon and try to promote business on all their sites?

    Or maybe someone would like to be a silent partner in a lovely coffee shop? Many options to explore, if people really would like to help.

    P.S. To Lee: lots of real estate agents are fairly clueless. Not many know the city inside and out. {sigh}

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  9. Marc, thanks for writing about this. Unfortunately, this seems to happen all too frequently these days. Established businesses with history and a wonderful atmosphere fall prey to the hip, trendy places and are abandoned by the younger generation. Let's hope that the owners can find a way to remain open and save this landmark.

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  10. I went to La Flor today and the baked goods were back. A good sign.

    Lee, I can't imagine that a knowledgeable real estate agent selling in centro and living here for years would not know about La Flor. Maybe they work all the time and never go anywhere. Who knows?

    YucatanMan, I do think it would be great if the foreigners here would decide to patronize the locally-owned businesses rather than the big chains. However most everyone I know who drinks coffee is all excited about the new Starbucks on Montejo. I think that to keep a place like La Flor going, it needs to be patronized by a wide range of folks.

    John and Alan: Places like La Flor suffer, as do many smaller businesses, because people want to shop in malls and patronize the modern chain and franchise, corporate businesses. I guess people like places like Starbucks because they can go into one anywhere in the world and it's consistent. I would rather be surprised, enjoy the regional differences, and put my money into the local economies, wherever I am.

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  11. You're so right, Marc--a cafe to your liking needs a variety of patrons. If La Flor were to be flooded with ex-pats, it might succeed, but it would not be the same. I myself am not a Centro resident, and don't frequent many places there, because of the parking problems, traffic etc. But I've found that if one searches around, they can find places that fit what the old cafes offer--good "people watching", great service, menu flexibility, and even great coffee. My own favorite is Sanborns, at Fiesta Americana. I could write pages about why I like this restaurant so much, but….

    Sure, the owner of Sanborns is not "Local"; but he is Mexican. And the staff are ALL local. Don't forget, we're supporting more than the owners--but also everyone who works there.

    Good luck to your efforts, and to La Flor de Santiago.

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  12. oh my...thank you for the foots, marc. I was taken to the cafe by a lovely woman I had met on the plane on my first visit....Loved it then, and seeing the pictures reminded me of Merida....and, made me homesick.

    Hugs...see you soon.
    Karen

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  13. Always wanted to try this restaurant, but wondered why it seemed so empty whenever I went by. Now I'm sorry I didn't go sooner. Hope we get the chance next time we're there. I'd be happy to chip in to an espresso-machine repair fund if it helps keep one more good local coffee place in business.

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  14. I have just read your posts. I was so excited to go to this place while in Merida next week. I am wondering if you might give us all an update as to whether it is still open? Keeping my fingers crossed...

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    1. Janet, they are still open. I get the impression that things could change any time, but after closing the bakery for awhile they are again baking bread, and there seem to be more people in these days. Good signs. I also hear that they have started serving an economical lunch plate of the day, which could be pretty good, and may help business. I have been meaning to check it out. I'll post an update here in comments if I learn anything more.

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    2. Thank you so much! As I said in my prior post, I will be keeping my fingers crossed!

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  15. Marc, I have a new blog you might be interested in folowing--or someone you know might be...

    polishmex.blogspot.com

    thanks!

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  16. And my own comment in french, I know this coffe since 40 years...

    Le café de la fleur de Saint-Jacques, la flor de Santiago, est un lieu historique de Merida, la capitale de l’État et qui se trouve dans le quartier de Saint-Jacques, à quelques rues du centre.
    C’est un des plus anciens cafés de Merida, il aurait ouvert dans les années 20.
    Ce petit film a été tourné, lorsque la fleur était encore à son zénith avant que des « améliorations » ne la défigurent et en fassent un café moderne qui a perdu beaucoup de son charme.
    Nous avions l’habitude de prendre nos petits déjeuners à la Flor avec le très bon pain fabriqué par la boulangerie du café, mais aussi ses yaourts et ses cafés au lait ainsi que les excellents petits plats notamment l’omelette à la chaya, préparés par son cuisinier.
    La Flor était le rendez-vous des habitués que l’on pouvait retrouver à heures fixes, comme notre ami Tomas Vera Pen, décédé il y a quelques années. Tomas était mon compagnon de travail avec qui j’ai passé des heures à analyser l’économie et la sociologie du Yuc


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    1. Thanks for your comment, Michel. I will reply in English.

      Many have fond memories of La Flor. Mine go back about 13 years (of good breakfasts, good coffee and meetings with friends), but I know many people here who have memories like yours, from many decades ago.

      Unfortunately La Flor is now closed. It was renovated in early 2016 and is now a bar.

      Delete

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