Written by Cabell Belk
During the pre-Columbian era, the area that now makes up Mexico City’s Colonia Roma was a lakebed where the Aztecs cultivated maize and tomatoes on manmade islands.
In the 1920s, it was a fashionable suburb where prosperous Mexicans built elegant European-style residences at a comfortable remove from the center of town. By the mid ’80s, decades of decline—and one calamitous earthquake—had all but given the neighborhood over to squatters and prostitution. Now Roma is trending once again, and rather than well-to-do diplomats, an influx of innovative young artists, writers and entrepreneurs has protagonized its current upswing.
Today Roma’s Art Deco mansions, now interspersed with Eco-Bici stations and elaborately graffitied buildings, are home to enough cafés, galleries and boutiques to support a sophisticated urban ramble. Just be sure to pick up coffee and guava rolls at Panadería Rosetta before you take to the wide, shady streets.
La Valise Hotel
If there were ever a respectable reason to sleep through your sightseeing, it’s a rolling bed frame that swivels directly into the morning sunlight. Such whimsical design elements figure prominently in the three unique suites known collectively as La Valise, a micro-hotel occupying a discreet neo-colonial townhouse in the heart of Roma’s cultural efflorescence. Expats Yves Naman and Emmanuel Picault have outfitted the 1920s residence with hammocks, swings and even a recycled satellite dish turned statement revolving partition-screen. Period details coexist with geometric tile and contemporary art, and bathroom walls wear bougainvillea-pink.
Perhaps the hotel’s most surprising virtue, given its location in what seems to be the epicenter of the city’s restaurant scene, is the wonderful sense of space and peace. Waking up in the penthouse Terraza Suite, you’d never imagine it was rush hour in the western hemisphere’s most crowded metropolis. On its namesake terrace, large enough for a sun salutation or a small cocktail party, not to mention a king-size bed on rollers, the famously frenetic D.F. is all treetops and birdsong.
Instead of a lobby, the sidewalk level is home to the neighborhood’s most urbane boutique, conceptualized by five likeminded Mexican designers whose collections include hip, unisex necklaces and rings, architectural jumpsuits and avant-garde floral arrangements featuring foraged mushrooms.
The first thing you’ll notice about Contramar, particularly if it’s 3pm on a weekday, is the parade of chauffeured SUVs. The seafood standby opened in 1998 and is—refreshingly—still a scene. But the mood beneath its blue-and-white striped awning is hardly as buttoned up as the well-heeled lunch crowd and tuxedoed waitstaff might suggest.
Acquaintances spotted at neighboring tables are greeted energetically over mezcal margaritas, and no-smoking signs are openly ignored. Everything, from sopes to ceviches to salpicón, is served family-style, and everything seems to pair well with a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of house tomatillo salsa verde. Just about any meal that begins with Contramar’s chipotle aioli-smeared, crispy leek-topped tostada de atún is likely to be a satisfying one.
Finish with flan de queso and an aromatic Carajillo (espresso poured over citrusy, spice-infused Spanish liqueur). At some point in between, you’ll probably run into someone you know.
“Trivial” consumer artifacts hailing from as early as 1810 map the history of Mexican society at the charmingly idiosyncratic Museum of the “Purpose” of the Object, open since 2010 in the former home of founding collector and flea market enthusiast, Bruno Newman.
The museum’s 100,000-object collection, which ranges from mundane relics (shoe polish, bottle caps, insecticide powder) to more explicitly nostalgic collectibles (vintage toys and postcards), is presented via focused temporary exhibits with themes such as “Rock and Roll in Mexico: 1950-2010” and “175 Years of Photographic Objects: from the Daguerreotype to the Selfie”.
You might recognize the branding work they’ve done for notable neighbors like chef-entrepreneur Mónica Patiño (add Casa Virginia to your list), but graphics are just the beginning for the designers at trailblazing creative agency Savvy Studio, who’ve turned their business address into a multidisciplinary hub for lovers of all things art, fashion and print. In the spirit of fostering collaboration among Roma’s cultural movers and shakers, every cranny of the restored Porfirian mansion has been curated by a sartorial pop-up or a young galerista.
On the parlor floor, the salon-like Casa Bosques Librería stocks indie art titles next to its own line of designer chocolate bars (the latter produced in partnership with J. Llanderal, Mexico’s chocolatero par excellence). Just downstairs is cutting-edge menswear boutique Apartment 25, and tucked at the end of an interior hallway, the closet-sized showroom of e-retailer Naked Boutique feels like a secret trove of Mexican clothing and jewelry labels. When you’re done browsing, head around the corner to Puebla 109 for a cocktail finished with mole salt or green cactus vinegar. The on-site bar has become the de facto clubhouse for the neighborhood’s creative set. On the rare occasion that the Savvy team takes a break, this is where you’ll find them.
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Written by Cabell Belk