721 Revolución, Zona Centro, Baja
Hotel Nelson premiered in 1948 as an extravagant south-of-the-border vacation destination boasting telephones in every room and the first elevator in northwest Mexico. Thanks to its central location and (at the time) luxurious accommodations, the hotel went on to host a litany of famous artists, politicians, and celebrities — Marilyn Monroe among them. Back then, Bar Nelson occupied a small corner of the downstairs lounge, which expanded and remodeled in the ‘60s and has seen few alterations since.
Today, you can follow the Googie-font sign beneath the Arch into the tobacco-stained time warp that is Bar Nelson. Unlike many downtown drinking holes, this retro dive is a surefire spot for otherwise dull early weekdays. If you’re lucky, you may have a cordial afternoon chat with an off-duty Mexican migrations officer or pass an evening drinking in silence next to stoic mariachis who study the labels on their beers as Phil Collins croons from the jukebox. On weekends, you may overhear fanatical debates between art students who just came from a free film screening at CECUT or find company among the sullen deportees, drunk construction workers, and disgruntled elementary-school teachers who shout like 18th-century poets at nobody in particular.
Indeed, it’s the kind of place where sketchy liaisons might rendezvous at midnight — an aura that likely led to the bar being featured in 2009 narco-assassin film La Linea (though you’ll have to stray a few blocks up to Zona Norte to find the magnificently breasted women depicted in the short scene).
Completing Nelson’s vintage vibe, the juke is partial to classic-rock anthems (nine out of ten times it’s Pink Floyd, though Cream and the Beatles make appearances) along with some Tool and Radiohead rarities.
So here’s el deal: the Especial is a salt-rimmed highball glass loaded with ice, a finger of fresh-squeezed lime, 1.5 ounces of white rum, three fingers of 7-UP, and a splash of Coke. They go for 25 pesos (two bucks) and make a supremely refreshing session cocktail, though you may want to intersperse the occasional caguama (liter) of Tecate to mediate tomorrow’s hangover.
If — as it has been posited — Tijuana is purgatory (it is), then Nelson is the dive bar in the waiting room to heaven.
- Prices: Caguamas, $3; bottle, $1.75; liquor, $2.50
- Happy: A star on your receipt gets a free drink
- Capacity: About 50
- The Deal: El Especial for 25 pesos
- Food: Chips smothered in hot sauce
- Cards: No