image of the bar

Authentic Establishment

An obscure travel article published in The Guardian in 2008 called my own home district of Barranco “a real antidote to the soulless business districts and slum areas of the rest of Lima.” This intrepid travel writer might have felt sick at the mere sight of a shabby shopping centre, but thankfully he managed to find his much-needed respite in “brightly painted art deco houses” and “atmospheric bars”. You will find many such ‘compliments’ about Barranco are common currency amongst its tourist visitors, and the descriptors “bohemian”, “hip”, and “authentic” abound.

There are few establishments that feature so prominently in similar articles which speak of “gathering places for poets and bohemians” and “local authenticity” as Juanito de Barranco, a bar which is justly considered a neighbourhood institution. It was established on 7th June 1937, as I was told by a proud Cesar Antonio Casusol Zegarra, the youngest son of the founder Juanito. The venerable age of their establishment might be dwarfed by the countless British pubs which are multiple centuries old, although for Peru, 1937 may as well be 1537.

I arrived before noon, perhaps too early to spot the bohemians which are so fabled to haunt this place in the evening, but early enough to get a seat at a table. The bar itself is like a long corridor, flanked on either side by long shelves fully stocked with old bottles of liquor behind glass displays. As you enter, you will invariably see one of the burly heirs of Juanito cleaving into unreasonably large cuts of cured pork; their staple is a ham sandwich packed with a slaw of raw onion and lime.

The bar itself is like a long corridor, flanked on either side by long shelves fully stocked with old bottles of liquor behind glass displays.

Soon enough, Cesar joined me at the table, and he had much to say about changing with the times: “Now ladies can come in too, it was only in the seventies that we started letting them in, you know.” Of course, he said, changing is a delicate matter, “you have to sew with a fine thread.” Obviously, in his view allowing in ‘dames’ had not tipped the balance, but what of the tourists who frequently come searching for a taste of pisco sour in the charming old Barranco they read about on the internet?

He replied: “I think that they will find what they are looking for so long as we take care of our 5 Bs.” I asked him what he meant: “Un bar, bueno, bonito, y barato en Barranco.” (A good bar that’s nice and cheap in Barranco) Cesar also explained that he, personally, had not felt any radical change brought in by his many foreign patrons: “I stay behind the bar and try to keep our tradition of good service.” “I’m seventy years old now, it’s up to the next generation of our family to keep up with the change.”

In the nearest corner by the door, there was a small table of Belgian tourists enjoying tall glasses of dark beer and pork sandwiches. I approached them before I left the establishment. They were on an organised bike tour of the neighbourhood including several stops for “local” food along the way, their guide explained. I asked them what they thought of the place and their response was unanimous: “It is very authentic. Yes, authentic. That’s how we like it, authentic. Don’t change anything!”

Image credit: Enrique Normand Velarde