Already heartbroken that Alberto’s Continental is closed and on the block, now I see a listing online that confirms the rumor: Flor de Santiago is for sale as well. I never actually went there: I couldn’t find anyone to actually recommend it. On our first trip, I saw it listed in my Frommer’s travel guide, but the guesthouse owners (who knew everything about Mérida) had never even heard of it. We walked by while actually looking for coffee, back in 2010, but the absence of customers appeared as a warning sign to us.
Open since the 1920s, it was billed as the oldest restaurant in Mérida, its distinctive facade facing Parque Santiago. Contradicting the faint praise from Frommer’s and other websites, Lonely Planet reported “Chiapas coffee is served in incongruous chipped willow-ware cups in this cafeteria-style eatery.” Then, at the end of 2011, Hammock Musing chronicled the last leg of its decline: powdered leche replaced milk and empty shelves replaced baked goods. But such pretty atmosphere!
Our last trip included two trips to Alberto’s, made specifically because their imminent demise was also making news. Sadly, our final meal there was after a heavy rain, so we couldn’t eat in the surreal beauty of the courtyard. (The first time I was there, I was amazed to look up and see stars. It felt like a snug little dining room.) We were guided to the formal old-Spain dining room and enjoyed a good dinner served by affable servers. And accompanied by stories from Alberto himself. He lived the advice he gave to other restaurateurs: Treat the dining room like it’s your own living room. He would bend our ears with plenty of tales, which I choose to believe are all 100 percent true. He had plenty of time to talk, too. The only other diners (who were also from Connecticut) had apparently only come to see the art that was for sale. Much of Alberto’s massive collection was already gone (although many old santos, wooden chests, and many old wooden furnishings are offered along with the property). The place to see and be seen up until about 20 years ago, the food there was uneven in recent years, and the resulting online reviews must have scared away diners. Last we saw Alberto, he was a guest at a cocktail party, and he had just shut the restaurant. Maybe it was just me, but he already appeared adrift and deflated. After 50 years, Alberto deserves a happy retirement; I just hope he can adjust.
The restaurant was housed in a grand 300-year-old palace, said to have been built on the base of an ancient pyramid. The property is close enough to the main square to be on the radar of property developers, and Alberto said corporations have been trying to buy it (for cheap) for years. Thankfully, he resisted. But today, it’s yours for $2 million US.
On TripAdvisor, someone wrote: “We can only hope that Alberto will get bored and re-open at some stage in the future, though he is now over 80 and may have really decided this time to retire. I will keep a lookout, just in case.” Wishful thinking, but we can always hope.
Like the Continental, Flor de Santiago could no longer lean on its looks to survive. Also swimming in old European atmosphere, Flor had plenty of character. But when we were slightly lost and the heat was making us slightly delirious, the Flor could have been an oasis. We poked our heads inside, and Paul (whose instincts for these things are pretty sharp) said we should keep going. Maybe the sight of bored waiters milling about put him off. Flor was clearly way past its prime, and not doing much to rebound.
Mérida is packed with places we have yet to explore, filled with character, as yet undiscovered by us. We passed on Flor, but wished we had gone there back “in the day” (which honestly could have been before we were born). Mérida is changing quickly, favoring modern and hip new places. Which is fine and all, but where should we go next to experience before it’s gone? Some of our worst meals (Portico del Peregrino, Café Peon Contreras) were in places that suckered us in by their beauty or charm. I’d even go back to Peregrino, because I also had a really good meal there once, so I’m actually batting 500. But my second meal, in which I unwisely chose the seafood, was so ridiculously bad, and the waiter was comically indifferent (the first waiter actually disappeared, letting his comrade finish the service). And yet I’d consider going back for the veal Milanese. Crazy, right? It’s the atmosphere, and the sense of tradition, that get me every time.