Known to Tijuanenses as “La Revu,” Avenida Revolución is a thoroughfare with one of the most colorful histories in the world. It’s best known for its days of yore, when it served as a type of grown up Disneyland for border-skipping Americans looking to indulge in the more unsavory aspects of having fun. Tijuana is a young city; founded in 1889, it hit its stride in the 1920s when, not coincidentally, the United States was embroiled in a Prohibition experiment. Before Prohibition’s reversal, Tijuana was able to cement its reputation as the capital of vice, offering booze, prostitution and — as the story goes — Caesar salads, which were invented at Restaurante Caesar’s.
Enthusiasm for Tijuana’s seedy side continued unabated through the rest of the century, ending rather abruptly just after September 11th. Not only were Americans less enthusiastic to travel, but the border became significantly less permeable, and this meant an near-instant evaporation of the tourist dollars being spent in Tijuana. Increased narco violence didn’t help the city’s reputation and kept even the most brave adventurers away. However, over the last five years, Tijuana’s reputation has gone through something of a makeover, and travelers have started to return. It was during that low tourism period that Tijuanenses seized on opportunity and reintroduced Tijuana on their own terms, ushering in a golden age of food, drink, design and art to sustain the city. That effort has paid off; Tijuana has been rediscovered.
Much of Tijuana’s shiny, new buzz has centered on or near La Revu. At its epicenter is OneBunk Tijuana, the city’s first boutique hotel, which opens its doors to guests beginning in March, 2017. This cross-border hospitality concept books through AirBnB and only features nine rooms, some with bunk beds, others with queen-sized beds. There’s a rooftop space, which offers stunning views of the city, Tijuana’s iconic arch and the United States. Concept store Object MX, showcasing solely Mexican designers, has a pop up in the lobby. There’s also a self-serve bar, featuring local Tijuana microbrews and mezcal. The design is minimalist, masculine and tasteful, fitting right into the city’s industrial-chic setting.
Almost directly across the street is Cine Tonalá, the art-house movie theater chain with other locations in Mexico City and Bogota, Colombia. Its 2016 opening signaled a cultural arrival of sorts as it’s the first movie theater of its kind in the city. The rooftop bar and restaurant is the place to be with a menu designed by Diego Hernandez of Corazon de Tierra, currently sitting pretty at #39 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list and located just 90 minutes to the south in Valle de Guadalupe. From this perch, diners and drinkers can view the bustling La Revu below and the iconic neon Jai Alai sign on the opposite corner.
Adjacent is another recent addition, Casa Duhagon. A temple to cutting-edge interior design, it’s also a one-stop shop for Mexican art and furniture, most of which is designed by the store’s principal, Mexicali native Mariana Postlethwaite. She carries everything from four-post beds, fashioned out of recycled wood to pillows using material sourced from the hill tribes of northern Vietnam. While her loyalty is distinctly Mexican, Postlethwaite has a global aesthetic worldview and incorporates that in her design vision.
Art is a focal points of visitors and natives alike, with several gallerists opening spaces along La Revu. Set within small pasajes like Rodriguez and Gomez are several show spaces featuring local artists. These narrow, partially enclosed alleyways, dotted with small businesses, reveal a vibrant world that is hidden from Tijuana’s main drag. Street art is at a premium in the pasajes where murals dot the walls, and compact, sleek coffee shops and breweries seem to have sprung up en masse for liquid pairings. El Grafógrafo is a favorite spot for morning espresso. For happy hour, head up homegrown brewer Cerveceria Mamut.
Cross La Revu once more for the Teorema/Lúdica Co. tasting room, the latest arrival in a massive wave of Baja-born craft breweries to open in the last few years. This is a dual tasting room, the only in Tijuana, featuring two breweries: Teorema, which operates in the back of the tasting room and Lúdica, which has a brewery nearby. The atmosphere is relaxed and the stark white interior echoes the rest of the city’s industrial vibe. While Tijuana isn’t exactly a pretty city, it certainly has found its heart. Designers, it seems, have picked up on this, and moved away from the nuevo colonial interiors visitors find elsewhere in Mexico. Even the names of the beers, like Trigonometria and Elemental, signal a getting back to basics so emblematic of Tijuana’s current incarnation. The name of the breweries themselves suggest another duality of Tijuana: the city’s serious side (teorema, or theorem), juxtaposed with its fun side (lúdica, or playful).
Alongside the brews, Tijuana’s food scene has some serious chops. Known for its street food, piping hot, fresh tacos can be had along most all of La Revu, but nearby Telefonica Gastropark is to eaters what the Vatican is to parishioners: hallowed ground, a true heaven on earth. A food-truck-wonderland serving grub that’s far beyond typical truck eats, you can munch on classic French bistro fare, seared fish salads, tostadas, tortas, and, of course…ramen at Top Chef Mexico contender Adria Marina’s Don Ramen.
Next to OneBunk is another local favorite, La Justina, which bills itself as a “gastro bar.” Known for killer mixology, La Justina is also churning out cutting edge Baja cuisine, which translates to perfectly roasted meats and fresh seafood. The pozole tostada is a deconstructed version of the much-loved Mexican stew, with fierce hominy and accompanying condiments piled high onto a crispy tortilla. Raw seafood lovers will also do well at La Justina, where shrimp ceviche, tuna tiradito and Baja-fresh oysters are featured in regular rotation.
Tijuana has come a long way but, like most great cities in the world, its story is far from written. La Revu is merely the moment’s metaphor. Caesar’s will still pump out its beloved salads, the infamous donkeys (painted like zebras) will still aimlessly wander the avenue looking for drunk Americans with a hankering for Instagram, and red light district inhabitants will continue to serve a steady clientele, but both Avenida Revolución and Tijuana are in flux, evolving and recreating themselves. Just a stone’s throw away, across the border, is the United States, and while Tijuana’s neighbor to the north will always have a large influence on the city’s economic past, present and future, it will be Mexicans who will determine its inner soul.