When I first started visiting Puerto Vallarta, Mexico ten years ago, I read about a Mexican style “alternative” cantina in one of the gay guides. I made it there as fast as I could. I knew I had to find it. I didn’t come to Mexico to sit in fancy bars that reminded me of Miami or Chicago or elsewhere. I wanted something different.
I found it. Sitting past the main clump of gay bars and alongside a row of taco stands outside the Farmacia Guadalajara was the original location of Frida’s. A steady stream of hungry locals, just leaving their waiter job or finishing up their stripper gig at a local club, would stand in line for a taco and venture across the street to Fridas for a beer before going home or hitting the discos for more fun. My first night there I will never forget. A Shakira song (she had just started out) was playing on the jukebox behind me and a sexy Mexican bartender was in front of me. Working alongside him was a friendly and quite beautiful woman named Sandra, who was a fixture at Bar Frida for many years before she opened her own bar. (Owner Tom wanted a few women bartenders, he told me years later. To keep the “straight” men happy. One of them, Blanca, is still employed.) They made the best margaritas I’d ever tasted with ‘on the spot’ fresh squeezed lime and Controy, the Mexican orange liquor that I would later rush out to buy for myself.
I didn’t know them at the time, but sitting at the first table by the door, was the owner, Tom Finley and his partner, Luis. Tom had recently moved to Mexico from Vancouver after visiting for 20 years. Luis, a medical doctor from Merida, had moved to Vallarta to be with Tom. Together, they make a great team. They sat with a group of regulars that I came to recognize eventually each time I entered. Tom, a successful business man and former florist, bought bar Frida from two women who were running it as a lesbian bar in 2001. He kept the name, as he had always admired Frida Kahlo, and started to add to the collection of Frida art that the ladies had left behind. Each year, new pieces are added, mostly from gifts customers leave. It seems everyone wants to contribute something.
I felt so at home there my first night. Why? Yes, the jukebox was cheap, so was the beer. But there was a certain something else. There were no dancing go-go boys. No fancy lounge chairs or dance floor. No ninety peso martinis. Beers were around 10 pesos and cocktails about 25. It was pretty predictable most nights as conversations hummed from most of the tables and the bar. A taco stand employeee (even the Grandmother, who owned the stand and made the fresh tortillas by hand each night) would stop in, greet Tom and Luis and head to the bathroom. They thanked Tom on the way out. I have seen Federales stop at the doorway waiting for Tom to say, “Come on in, guys.” They appreciated a place where they could stop to use the restroom and grab a coke to go (on the house of course). Tourists shared tips about where to go later in the night. Not too much else happened at Bar Frida but there was never a dull moment. The crowd was a mix of locals and expats and tourists. The decor was all Frida Kahlo, a Mexican Folk heroine that I knew very little about at the time. The walls were cement painted red and classic “Frida” blue. The place was tiny, but perfect. Cozy. I hadn’t even seen Salma Hayek’s movie about Frida’s life yet. Years later, after visiting Frida’s home in Coyoacan, south of Mexico City, and reading about her life, I would fall in love with her the way millions of Mexicans had. The musical selections from the Frida movie soundtrack played nightly in the jukebox at Bar Frida. One song, Paloma Negra, featured an 80 year old Mexican songstress, Chavela Vargas, that Tom told me all about once I was finally invited to sit at his table by the door on a slow Tuesday in August circa 2004 or so.
“I thought you’d never invite me over,” I told Tom.
“Why? Everyone’s welcome to sit and chat with us anytime. We love meeting people.”
Since that night, I’ve rarely missed sitting at the table with Tom and Luis when I visit Frida’s. And I have met some of the most wonderful people in the world sitting there. I’ve even fallen asleep (they took embarrassing photos to prove it) there a few nights, under the painting of Frida Kahlo that graces the exit of the new bar Frida location at Insurgentes and Carranza in Puerto Vallarta’s zona romantica. We were worried that Frida’s would lose some of its appeal or mystique when Tom told us they were moving. It didn’t happen. Tom’s explanation: Bar Frida is about the people, not the place. He was right, I realized.
Bars come and go in Vallarta but Fridas has always drawn a nice crowd with a consistant, logical marketing plan: keep the prices affordable to all and the ambiance friendly and Mexican and greet each new customer with a free shot of famous house tequila. Equally important is that you know you’ll always see Tom and Luis there, ready to greet you at the door. That’s why people come….to say hello to old friends and meet new ones.
I asked Tom one time if he ever gets tired of running bar Frida. He shook his head no and said that the bar is where he meets his friends and considers them family. It is where he learns of the day’s events and keeps in touch with what’s going on. It is where they’ve held many a memorial for friends lost over the years (too many this year alone). It is where birthdays are celebrated and two years ago, a wedding reception was held for previous bartender, Abner and his partner from Tepic. It is where a group of (mostly) straight folks play cards each Sunday afternoon. It is where we’ve cheered a 15 piece Mariachi band at Tom’s Birthday Party each February for as long as I can remember. It is one of those bars that tourists really miss when they have to head back home after a much needed vacation. It is home for many expats who have made lasting friendships there. It is a place where Mexicans and foreigners, whether gay, straight, closeted, out or not, can come in and feel comfortable. It is also where new bar owners come if they want some advice on how to attract customers. Seems everyone wants to know Tom’s secret. Tom always insists, though, that it is the customer’s who make the bar special.
It is difficult to visit Frida’s without being effected by the warmth of the people and space. Many nights, we’ve felt like Frida was there with us. A few nights, we’ve seen a barstool move on its own or some other strange happening and turn to Tom and before we can speak he’ll say, “Frida is here, partying with us again.” We love that she would. Bar Frida celebrates 10 years on June 1, 2011. It will be packed that night. I hope I can get a seat next to Tom and Luis.