The History of the Mexican Cantina

You might have noticed a skyrocket in Mexican restaurants and cantinas in the past 5-10 years, but have you ever wondered what exactly a “cantina” is? Mexican Cantinas, Ixtapa Mexican Grill & Cantina, MASome people, especially from the northeastern United States, may not have even heard of a cantina before. By definition, a cantina is simply a bar. The word comes, surprisingly, from Italy, and entered into the French language in the late nineteenth century through the word “canteen.” Sound familiar? A canteen is something you drink from when you are thirsty, and a cantina is somewhere you go when you are thirsty… for a margarita!

Where Did the Cantina Originate?

Actual cantinas have been popular in Italy, Spain, and Mexico for centuries. However, they are a little different in each country. Italian cantinas predominantly serve traditional Italian foods with wines. Spanish cantinas traditionally have been located in train stations or situated close to a workplace for a site of relaxation for employees post-work. In Mexico, cantinas have been traditionally seen as a place to drink and relax for men; where they can drink, eat botanas (appetizers), and play board and card games. While cantinas in Mexico currently allow women, it is still typically seen as a man’s domain. When cantinas started to pop up in the United States in the 1890s, they began as simple bars.

How are Cantinas Different Today?

Today, cantinas are more often than not contained inside family restaurants. The cantina portion would be the bar situated inside the establishment. In the United States, Mexican cantinas are the most popular. They consist of traditional Mexican food and drinks, such as tacos, chimichangas, enchiladas, and margaritas—(or anything with a little tequila). They use traditional Mexican décor, including geometric shapes, vibrant colors, and anything made of wood and clay. Sombreros are typically featured as well.

What Makes a Great Cantina?

So with all of these cantinas popping up, how can you tell that the one you are going to is any good? Right off the bat, when you walk into a cantina, the atmosphere should feel like a genuine Mexican cantina. The décor (as mentioned above) should look authentic, not cheesy. The cheese should be incorporated into the most important part: the food! Having staff that knows their stuff certainly helps, whether they be Mexican natives or professionally trained chefs. Fresh ingredients in every dish are a necessity. Finally, a fully stocked bar with professional, friendly bartenders will bring a great cantina full circle. A cantina’s signature drink? The margarita, of course!

Ixtapa Mexican Restaurant and Cantina includes all of these traditional fixtures, food, and qualities at their family restaurant and cantina, especially the tequila! We invite you to come visit one of our locations in Groton, Lextington, Lunenburg, and Woburn, Massachusetts.

What is your favorite drink to have at a “cantina”?