Walter Meyenberg: creating a better bar future

Walter Meyenberg’s raison d’être is to create cultural connections through creative concepts in Mexico. To date, he has eight such ventures and explains to Oli Dodd how he got this far.

Time spent with Walter Meyenberg in Mexico is time spent well. And given the serial hospitality entrepreneur’s commitment to opening his arms to the global bar industry, there will be a not insignificant number of readers nodding in agreement with that claim.

“The biggest prize of the past two years has been the family we built,” he tells me as we walk along one of the tree-lined avenues in Mexico City’s Condesa neighbourhood. “Travelling around, meeting people and becoming their link to people in my world it’s how we create family connections.”

Mexico City has become a hugely influential global food and drink destination, in no small part due to its government’s decision to implement an open-borders policy throughout the Covid pandemic. Meyenberg’s venues, Hanky Panky and Brujas, adopted a similar approach, opening their doors for takeovers and guest shifts by friends around the world whose bars had been forced to temporarily shut. From The Clumsies to the Connaught, Himkok to Paradiso, Mexico City had become a revolving door for the global bar industry’s best talent, and that practice has continued since.

“The pandemic helped the city a lot,” he explains. “We were fully opened while the world was in silence. What Hanky and [Licorería] Limantour did, and continue to do, is create a global spotlight on the city.

“I think now Mexico is the new global centre for cocktails. It was Asia, then Spain, and now it’s Mexico and Latin America. There are tons of bars opening, and the bars that were already opened are now striving to be the best. It’s interesting to see it develop. I’ve been in hospitality for 17 years, so it’s been a long time working constantly and developing ideas to get to where we are now.”

Influential career

Meyenberg’s career has had such an influence in shaping his city, but hospitality arrived as a happy accident.

“I used to be a musician for a long time,” he says. “I studied in Cuba and then Berklee in Boston, but after a while of being on tour with a record label I was getting tired of feeding on tuna and crackers. Then, at a wedding in Oaxaca, after getting smashed on mezcal, the next day I felt so good, and I realised that it was the spirit of the future. That was 20 years ago, then I opened the first mezcal bar in Mexico City, called La Botica. No one knew about mezcal in the city then and everyone who did thought it was a spirit for poor people and construction guys, so it took a little bit of time, but eventually me and my partners opened 10 of these bars and there was no turning back for me.

“When I opened the first mezcal bar, it got robbed every single week. Roma and Juarez are trendy now, but 10 years ago these places were completely different. When I opened Hanky eight years ago, people wouldn’t walk down that street and I was told I was an idiot for trying to open something there. But that’s a different way of seeing hospitality. It’s not opening a bar and serving cool drinks, it’s creating spaces and developing ideas where no one else will.

“When we opened, my selling point to landlords was that I was adding value. The Hanky site was a restaurant that had burnt down and been abandoned for 30 years. All the wood at Hanky is the colour is from the fire and the fridge which is now at the front, was lying in the middle, completely destroyed.”

Being ahead of the curve in the cultural development of Mexico City has been one of Meyenberg’s great strengths, but where before it was a matter of breathing life into forgotten parts of the city, the success of his and his peers’ work has created the conditions for a new threat to the city – gentrification.

“Now there is massive gentrification and a lot of foreigners coming to the city and of course I’m worried. Prices will change, standards will change and become stricter and better, but in the industry we’re in I think it’s a good opportunity to develop – but if we’re disrespectful, we can destroy neighbourhoods. At my places there’s no valet parking, no loud music, I rescue the facades of the buildings I open concepts in because I want to take care of our surroundings. But it’s difficult because when foreigners, who don’t have the same connections to the neighbourhoods, start opening places, it could be a real mess.”

Hospitality entrepreneur

Meyenberg currently owns eight different concepts that include European-style bistros, trendy brunch spots, tiki bars as well as Hanky Panky and the all-female Brujas, which are both on the 50 Best Bars list. Palapa Cantina was recently opened in partnership with Alberto Gonzales, co-founder of Limantour, with whom Meyenberg also collaborates for The Liquid Show bar show.

“I never considered myself a bartender or a public figure attached to a single bar like Tato [Giovannoni] at Florería Atlántico or Jean [Trinh] at Alquímico, I see myself as an entrepreneur who enjoys hospitality and creating beautiful concepts, that’s how I fulfil my need for creativity. When I left music, there was a hole in my soul. It was very difficult to go from an intense life of creativity – on tour, composing, recording albums – to working in an office. My creative process is now developing different concepts and every time a concept is settled, I can move on and develop something new.

“All of the concepts I design to be places where I want to go – places where I spend time and take my friends. Hanky Panky was never meant to be a speakeasy like it is now, it was meant to be only for friends, like a members’ only club where everyone brought bottles. But friends started to bring their friends, and so I came up with the idea of selling memberships, but we ended up selling 3,000 and members couldn’t get in even though they had memberships, so it became a speakeasy. But it was always supposed to be secret, it was never intended to be the success that it is now.”

There’s a clarity to the way Meyenberg sees hospitality concepts. His latest venture, Palapa Cantina, went from an empty car park and an idea to a finished venue in six months. No doubt there have been countless stresses and sleepless nights on his end, but there’s a grace and natural magnetism to the projects he creates – if he builds it, they will come.

“The way I see it, I have a beautiful opportunity to make people happy, that’s the most important thing, and I think I’m good at it.”