Plan Tijuana: The Interrupted Renaissance of Avenida Revolución

Categories: Tijuana Sí!
Bill Esparza
Caesar's Hotel during Prohibition

Oh to have been in Tijuana during prohibition, to have seen the shows, the glamour, and style at the Agua Caliente casino; to have bellied up to the Long Bar for a beer after having dined at Caesar's or Victor's on their famous table side salads. Back then Tijuana was a much different destination than it is today, I mean, you had a young Margarita Carmen Casino--later known as Rita Hayworth--dancing at the Caliente Club, and there were the horse races and gambling.

Tijuana was an adult playground and an escape from the irrationality of prohibition for Angelenos, just as was Havana for Miamians, until the U.S. repealed the Volstead Act and much of the action moved to Las Vegas. Today Tijuana is a Mexican food and wine lovers paradise, but there aren't enough attractions to warrant more than a weekend stay unless you hit Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe, and the vital culinary forces of region are sectarian. For us regulars, we've everything we need, and can go on exploring food and drink for years, but in order for Tijuana to return to its glory days it must become more than just a great place for food--Av. Revolución must rise from the ashes, and the rest of Baja will come along for the ride.  

Bill Esparza
Caesar's Restaurant, Tijuana, B.C.

The first thing that needs to happen is for Av. Revolución to have a makeover and return to the spirit of 1929 with bars, clubs featuring live music and shows, classic restaurants, and a loosening of the gambling laws. Chef Javier Plascencia already broke ground when he brought back Caesar's restaurant from the dead, and Chefs Miguel Angel Guerrero (El Colegio Baja Med) and Chad White ( La Justina Gastro Bar) have also set up on La Revu. These restaurants reflect the new tourism that will increase in the coming years as U.S. citizens gradually gain confidence crossing the border, but the old college drinking crowd and day time curios shoppers are not coming back. 

La Revu's stubborn merchants have failed to acknowledge this change, sitting on dusty stocks of stuffed rottweilers, Scarface silkscreens, and twisted Corona bottles is unkempt shops that only turn on the lights when a customer walks in. If these guys won't sell their properties at a fair market value, then they must be relocated by the local government. One of the world's most famous strips can't afford to have buildings and lots lie fallow for much longer. It hurts the handful of viable businesses that have erected in the past years.

While Tijuana's hipsters would say that La Sexta is where it's at now, and the city has reinvented itself--that is true--but La Sexta is not what many of us are looking for. I enjoy walking through and taking in the action but it's for a very specific audience--it's no substitute for a revitalized Av. Revolución.

Bill Esparza
Tijuana during Prohibition

The city needs to set aside La Revu as a prohibition era landmark and clear out all the struggling curios shops, crappy cubeta (bucket of beers) bars, and tacky strip clubs. This calls for real city planning and cooperation among the various interests--difficult, but not impossible. 

Tijuana can become a New York City, or Los Angeles when it can consolidate the regional talent--if you want to experience the best cooking in the region you must split your time between Tijuana, Ensenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe. Chef Jair Téllez finally opened in Tijuana--smart move--but the rest of the great Baja chefs should also consider opening something in Tijuana to make Baja a scene--it would also be a great promotion for their restaurants in Ensenada and the Valle. 

New York City, Chicago, Paris, London, Los Angeles and Tokyo are destinations because the best chefs flock to their respective urban centers. L.A. wouldn't be the same if our Cimarusti Dotolo and Shook, Sedlar, Voltaggio and Ludo were based in Santa Barbara. Yes, Keller did it, and so did Adria, but we can agree there are exceptions.  

With Plascencia, Tellez, Guerrero, Hernandez, Molina and more all in the same town with bars serving craft beers and Mexican wine to have a memorable meal before catching a show on Revolución, then hitting the slot machines. You're in town for a stretch so you catch Julieta Venegas at the Jai Alai Palace after tacos at the the new Tacos Kokopelli brick and mortar then head out to the new Av. Revolución. The next day you'll take in a Xolo's game--that would be a real vacation. 

Vegas has the Strip, Memphis has Beale Street, and New Orleans has Bourbon Street--Tijuana needs Av. Revolución to be vital again and packed with the new tourists, who want to explore the high and low cuisines of Baja California, drink all the wines and craft beers, but also would like to enjoy a broader experience. 

I first witnessed the Tijuana nightlife back in 1987, when lines snaked all over La Revu filled with alcohol-poisoned San Diegans that would wait for a half hour just to get into El Torito--where dollar beers kept you going 'til the sun came up and 2 Live Crew, the Beastie Boys, and Tone Loc filled the night air. Tijuana was full of tourists back then, but they were cheap, crass, philistine thrill seekers--these weren't the lady and gentlemen rounders of the '30's.

That could be Tijuana once more--a classy den of iniquity for a food and wine crowd. Av. Revolución's Renaissance began with Caesar's restaurant and idealist Baja chefs, but the time has come for the powers that be to embrace what is self evident--if they build it--we will come.

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