"The original sign was stolen." Painted on a bland, pale yellow wall, it was the only evidence this place existed. Big brown doors cling to hinges, sagging from the weight of history. Floor tiles announce you've arrived at Antiguo Bar Ingles.
It feels like I stepped into a Hemmingway novel. Like I can see Neruda and Mistral laughing in the corner, over cigarettes and today's news. The waitresses look as if they've been here since then, the Sixties. Nothing's organized, this isn't a well oil restaurant turning tables. It's an organism.
Picture a run down Morton's Steakhouse. It's that. Faded photos hang crookedly from the walls, mismatched white linens draw your attention away from chairs, that also don't match. The kitchen is the size of a studio apartment in Manhattan. The manager beams with a toothless smile, laughing, he slaps my hand and ushers an English speaking waitress my way. I speak Spanish. This is why your here, it's honest and unapologetic. It knows what it is. And so do the patrons. It's packed.
Behind the bar, through a broken flat screen TV, a soccer game streams. Below, the bartender shuffles, his belt cinched halfway to his chest, a double chin drapes down from inflamed red cheeks. He crafts a pisco sour cocktail like a sculptor carves his subject from stone. Each motion articulated and deliberate.
The guy I thought was a manager, was not. He's a busser, or bar-back, I can't tell. He beams with self awareness, clearly comfortable in his position. But it seems that role is more of a court jester, laughing and joking at nothing and everyone, blindly picking things up and wiping them down. He's tolerated, until he is not, and then with his toothless smile he flutters away, like a butterfly. He's landed by me again, this time with a sheet of paper, describing the history of the bar.
The bar's history mirrors that of the city itself. A series of ups and downs would see name changes, disaster (a fire), and a slew of new owners, but somehow it survived, in some form or fashion, since 1936. What's left today was pulled from the depths of ruin, and closure, when heroically in 1978 a group of Porteños (citizens of Valparaiso) financed it's revival, preserving it for themselves and the community.
Honestly, it looks close to ruin again. Styrofoam squares patch a large whole in the ceiling, and well, I've described the rest. But as I look around, no one cares. That's not why they're here. As history reveals, this relationship is truly symbiotic. Porteños can not survive without Bar Ingles, and Bar Ingles, can not survive without them. This is cultural obligate symbiosis. And it's beautiful, in all it's perfect imperfection.