Mexico’s Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos) on November 1 and 2 is a time of celebration rather than sadness, where people gather at graves, or build altars to offer food and drink to their lost loved ones. “Traditionally relatives give bottles of tequila and mezcal to the spirits of their deceased,” says Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers. “A Margarita is therefore the essential ingredient to a good Day of the Dead party, as well as a good bottle of tequila for sipping.”
Today, the celebration is marked by growing numbers of people here in the UK, and what better way to do so than by visiting one or more of the best Mexican bars in the country? To avoid the cliché “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!”, you should order tequila made with 100% agave - these are soft, expressive spirits that are a world away from the rough stuff that you’ve probably had in the past - and sip it, not shoot it. Get set for tequila o'clock at these rather wonderful venues:
Words: Laura Foster
Hidden underneath Santa Chupitos - yet another cocktail bar - is El Bandito, a tiny, atmospheric drinking den with bare brick walls and wooden beams, a killer play list... and a late license that runs until 3am. With over 100 tequilas and mezcals on offer, there is plenty to sample, but if you fancy a cocktail instead, try the refreshing Millionaire’s Cocktail, with tequila, sloe gin, fresh lime and apricot. Give the bar’s unofficial mascot - a brightly coloured piñata donkey - a hug, and dance until the early hours.
Arriving in the tiny and aptly named Casita really is like visiting a friend's house. Pull up a stool at the bar and order a tequila con verdita - a shot of tequila that's accompanied by a delicious green shot consisting of coriander, mint, jalapenos and pineapple juice. You'll soon find yourself talking to everyone else in here, wearing a sombrero, and staying far later than you ever intended.
A legend on the Leeds drinking scene, Neon Cactus may offer up fun times, but they still take their tequila seriously. Split over two floors, this bar/eatery offers up simple and reasonably priced Mexican food earlier in the evening, which is perfect for lining the stomach before the DJs fire up the decks.
Check out the “Tiki-laa!” section of the drinks menu, where they’ve combined the tiki cocktail tradition of flamboyant drinks with Mexico’s native spirit. Try the twist on a Zombie cocktail - called the Zombrero - made with three types of Cazadores tequila, passion fruit, lemon, lime and pineapple... and an overproof float. It might be delicious, but you’ll want to nurse that one.
The Pink Chihuahua
Run by bar industry legend Dick Bradsell, this dimly lit basement den sits under El Camion, a Mexican restaurant in bustling Soho. Open until 3am from Tuesday to Saturday, be prepared for a wild, fun time, whichever day of the week you visit. Boasting a Margarita menu of six variations, not to mention a comprehensive menu of different tequilas and mezcals (tequila’s smoky cousin), there’s plenty to sample here.
Note that Bradsell and his team don’t serve tequila shots with salt and lime, but rather with an accompanying shot of Sangrita, which translates as “little blood” - a traditional Mexican accompaniment to tequila that is made with pomegranate juice and hot spices.
Covent Garden, London
Established in 1982 and still going strong, buzzing, friendly Cafe Pacifico is the perfect place to grab a group of friends and have some delicious, reasonably priced Mexican food. Make sure to order the jalapeño poppers - breaded jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, served with a chilli dipping sauce. Alternatively pull up a stool at the bar, marvel at the vast array of tequila on show, order a bar food platter and allow the bar staff to guide you through their favourite drops. Brilliant.
Follow the neon red crucifix to find Maya and cross over to the other side. Located beneath Mexican cantina Lucha Libre, Maya is perhaps the most apt place to celebrate Día de los Muertos, seeing as the bar’s concept is based upon the festival itself.
Descend into the gloomy crypt-like space - where private booths are hidden behind bars and the bar stools are saddles - and take in a well thought out drinks list that includes bottled cocktails to share and Cheladas, or beer cocktails, which is a popular category of mixed drinks in Mexico. They’re bizarrely celebrating on Thursday 31, of all dates, but we’ll forgive them, seeing as every day is a journey across the River Stix for the intrepid team behind this bar.
Leeds and Manchester
“Music is our passion and Joe Strummer is at our heart,” declares Sandinista!, which is named after The Clash’s fourth studio album... which was in turn named after a group of Nicaraguan left-wing revolutionaries who brought down oppressive dictator Anastazio Somosa in 1979.
With this in mind, the bars pump out an eclectic mix of rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, soul and new wave music, while drawing on a central American theme. The drinks menu takes inspiration from all four corners of the globe, but there’s a strong showing on the Margarita/tequila side. Fancy a beer instead? Order the Negro Modelo, the best beer to be made in Mexico, which is perfect for washing down the tapas dishes also on offer here.
Various London locations - see website for more details
Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers has been an important champion of both tequila and mezcal, doing much to promote customer’s awareness of the two spirits of Mexico in recent years. Each bar in the Wahaca chain is slightly different, and perhaps the best is the stylish Mezcaleria at the Charlotte Street branch, which boasts one of the widest selections of the wonderfully smoky mezcal spirit in the country, and some slick Zapotec-inspired design.
To get in the spirit of Day of the Dead, each Wahaca restaurant is set to have face-painting artists on Friday 1 November, while all customers will receive a free shot of Olmeca Altos tequila on Friday and Saturday. At the Charlotte Street branch, Jose Cuervo will also a host a series of free workshops led by skull artist Lauren Baker.
Artesian at The Langham
Having just been named the best bar in the world by Drinks International for the second year in a row, Artesian may not be a dedicated tequila bar per se, but the team here certainly know how to have fun, and they've been getting into the Day of the Dead spirit with plenty of Mexican wrestling masks and skulls decorating their colourful back bar. Order the delicious The Great Escape, a long and refreshing mix of Ocho Reposado tequila, Cocchi Americano, passionfruit and apple juice.
Billed as a “bar, kitchen and teasmiths”, the modern, airy Papajis may usually focus on serving tea by itself or as part of a cocktail, but Friday 1 November sees tequila taking over as the bar throws a Day of the Dead party, complete with spooky music and fun decorations. Offering special cocktails based on the spirit for a very reasonable £4, try the Chupacabra, a twist on the Tommy’s Margarita, which has raspberry puree added to the tequila, lime juice and agave syrup.