Illinois Redux: The Lincoln Stays Mid-Century Modern
I enter through heavy wooden doors, kept perfectly varnished, just as I had 25 years ago. I settle into one of the banquettes, nicely padded with coffee colored naugahide. I'm the only customer and the quiet's disconcerting. M. has not arrived, so I order lemonade and pretend to text. A portly bow-tied waiter--of the old school--brings me a newspaper - how civilized, I think.
Then arrives a plate of raw vegetables with lime wedges. This is how it was back in the good old days of 20 years ago. Dining (not eating) out in Mexico. The new world hadn’t turned its back on the old. When nice restaurants looked to Madrid and not Tribeca for inspiration. When music was Mantovani and not head-pounding house.
The Restaurante Lincoln (the eponymous president’s visage appears in the logo) opened its doors in 1947. Just a few blocks from the Alameda, it quickly became a hangout for artists, politicians, and all sorts of VIPs, and remained so for decades. During its heyday, Agustin Lara serenaded crowds at the nearby Regis’ Capri Lounge, while the tres chic Hotel del Prado hosted the likes of Amalia Rodrigues and Edith Piaf - and they no doubt supped at the Lincoln. First run movies premiered at the massive Cine Alameda or the Palacio Chino, while those of a few months before continued their runs at the Odeon across the street. By the ‘70’s, when I arrived on the scene, the centro was well on its way down the path to decline. The 1985 earthquake nailed the coffin, which stayed shut for 20 years.
Less than a year after that horrific terremoto, I arrived to this once bustling center of cultural life on a Saturday evening. A disquieting pall had befallen the Alameda. I saw the Prado, crushed upon itself, as if King Kong had stepped right on it's middle. The flattened Regis had already been swept away. Rubble spilled from sidewalks onto the streets. After 11 p.m. the whole area was deserted.
But the Alameda has been gussied up. New hotels, offices and apartment buildings have sprung up, and the 'ole Lincoln, God bless it, has managed to hang on. It continues to provide old-time comidas to lawyers and politicos. The décor remains colonial Illinois, '40's updated in the '70's: sepia line-drawing murals, a la Ludwig Bemelmans adorn the walls with nostalgic scenes of life from Mexico, Argentina and the American mid-west. A shiny baby grand rests patiently by the empty carpeted bar for boleros to be plucked out on it.
A few other tables start to fill up, but half the house is dark. M. arrives and we order from the Euro/Anglo/Mexican menu. He, going the anglo-retro route, chooses pechuga Cordon Bleu, a dish ubiquitous in 1947 but now practically extinct, except, perhaps, in cheap mid-west diners. The pounded chicken is plain, but crispy and melty-cheesy, as it should be. I opt for euro-mex and pick a daily special, ossobucco en salsa de pasilla. My hunk of bone, a refined version of the local chamorro, is surround by falling-apart veal in a rich, fragrant and earthy sauce. The tortillas are hand-done, yellow and chewy. The kitchen produces satisfying renditions of traditional dishes, classics of bourgeoise Mexican cookery.
A sopa de flor de calabaza is perfumy and hearty. Chilpachole, the heady, picante Veracruz crab soup is done correctly; sopa de tortilla is just like mama used to make. A pipian verde I’ve sampled leaves no spice out and the pork is tender. And fish are smartly not overcooked and subtly flavored: worth trying is huachinango (red snapper) al cilantro.
Standard, full-bodied Mexican breakfasts are offered although, as in the old style, dinner is not.Prices are moderate-high - a full meal with drink or two will be $300-400 although you can do it for less. M. and I leave sated, grateful for a heartening trip back to a time when it was ‘hip to be hep’ (or is it visa versa). Keep the candelabras lit.
Revillagigedo No. 24, near Juárez, south of the Alameda, Centro
Metro: Bellas Artes, Juárez, Hidalgo
Open Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.- 7 p.m., closed Sunday