Borderlands are fascinating social and cultural mixing bowls. Their restaurants exemplify how variable these places can be. Lacking tradition as well as a local clientele and culture, there is little shaping them other than market forces. In Tijuana prominent historical factors shaping the market were drinkers’ desire for alcohol and restaurant owners’ need to recoup lost business.
The history of restaurants and cafes in Tijuana is marked by all the instability and calamity that the restaurant business is known for – and then some! Partnerships shifted, scandals erupted, and fires swept through the main street, Avenida Revolucion.
When Prohibition became the law in the United States, a number of San Diego restaurant, café, and bar owners – Italians, Jews, Slavs, and others — set up shop a stone’s throw away, in Tijuana, then a village of little more than 1,000 people. American visitors who began to head there did not go to soak up Mexican culture, but to escape restraints [see 1922 advertisement above]. Tourist eating places, all furnishing drinks and often entertainment, had names like Johnny’s Place, Aloha [American teens in Aloha Cafe, 1940s, below] , and Alhambra. Few were run by Mexicans and Mexican food ranked low on the culinary scale.
From the point of view of San Diego’s anti-alcohol, cafeteria-loving reformers, the drinking, gambling, and prostitution that went on in Tijuana made it a hell hole. Tijuana’s reputation, of course, did not stop everyone from going there, even many respectable, well-off San Diegans and Los Angelenos, as well as civic organizations. Determined to limit vice, prohibitionists waged vigorous battle to restrict passage by shortening border crossing hours, finally succeeding in closing the border from 6 pm to 6 am in 1926.
Despite the curfew, San Diego’s hotel and restaurant industries protested in 1931 that the 6 pm closing “ha[d] not prevented one single person from going to Tijuana,” and had actually reduced their business by 25%. They alleged that visitors went for the whole day or stayed overnight, enabling them to engage in more drinking, gambling, or whatever than previously. Tijuana flourished, opening more cafes, clubs, and hotels.
The better restaurants specialized in “international cuisine” which consisted mainly of steaks and seafood along with Italian, French, German, and Mexican dishes. In this category were restaurants variously operated by Alex and Caesar Cardini of salad fame. Julia Child wrote in her 1975 book From Julia Child’s Kitchen that she remembered going to Caesar’s for lunch in 1925 or 1926 with her parents. They had heard of his special salad and were eager to taste it. “Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, [and] tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl,” she wrote.
The border curfew was relaxed in1932 and lifted entirely in 1933. But if that had an adverse impact on Tijuana tourist trade, it was nothing compared to the blows delivered by the repeal of U.S. Prohibition in 1933 and a Mexican gambling ban in 1935. Tijuana bartenders correctly predicted few bars and cafes would survive. Sure enough, proprietors headed back to the U.S. Caesar Cardini opened a place in San Diego in 1936.
The tourist economy waxed and waned thereafter, thanks to such things as the 18-year-old drinking age, the availability of marihuana, and incidents of violence. Mexican cuisine became more popular in Tijuana’s tourist district in the latter 20th century. Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States, ordered Mexican dishes and German beer in an informal visit to the Old Heidelberg there in 1960.
Today Tijuana is a large global city, yet Americans tend to stick to the main tourist avenue as of old. There is a diversity of restaurants, many with Hispanic names and owners. Caesar’s has continued, off and on, since the Cardinis departed. Yet, as much as I’d like to believe a recent comment about it on TripAdvisor.com (“nice place to feel the real culture and history of Tijuana”), I have to ask, “Real culture? Real history? What?”
© Jan Whitaker, 2013