So I suppose one could trace the origins of my objection to the kind of processed chic embodied by Bistro Cinq to my having grown up in this most over-branded of cities. It's also one of the most over-priced, and one always has the suspicion that a substantial portion of what one is being asked to pay for is the cost of manufacturing and maintaining an image.
Looking around Antigua for further examples of ersatz eateries, one might quickly come to a halt outside a certain Mexican restaurant close to the Arco de Santa Catalina.
Superficially at least, Frida's in Antigua might appear to offer as frabricated an environment as the aforementioned purveyors of generic froggy nosh — with the additional defect that food served in there is truly undistinguished — but it has in fact put down substantial roots in the local soil — not least as one of the main hubs of the gay and lesbian scene — whilst maintaining its appeal to anyone in search of a soggy plate of nachos and a mediocre margarita. Which is why, on most friday nights, Frida's is packed while Bistro Cinq isn't.
Food quality aside, I think the problem I have with Frida's is that I can't look at it without being reminded of the most excutiating and largely incomprehensible monologue that I have ever been subjected to here in Guatemala — about the merits of Mexico's most mustachioed female artist.
Anyway, along with standardised fare such as enchiladas and fajitas, Mexican restaurants all over the world — even in Mexico — have this inclination to send out signals comprising both truths and falsehoods. The boilerplate might be pure kitsch, but it is usually open to a degree of co-creation with the culture it inhabits. One of the more self-confident examples I can recall is The Pink Taco in Phoenix, but even the tackier kind of joints one finds in the UK have come some way to meet the expectations of the people that I hope I can refer to as 'the natives', without sounding like Nick Griffin!
Similarly, Indian restaurants on UK high streets are as much a British phenomenon as they are an Indian one. With a soundtrack that sounds like a mosquito buzzing in your ear, and an attempt of variable ambition and meretriciousness to suggest another location halfway round the globe, smiling waiters help you pick dishes from an essentially syncretic menu, whilst pouring Cobra beer into tall glasses — an 'Indian' lager brewed exclusively in Fulham, London.
It would be churlish to describe these places as inauthentic. Not so, sadly, Antigua's very own Palacio de las Indias, which lacks the key ingredient of Indian management, as well as a regular clientele of lagered-up office workers. (See "It wouldn't be a Friday night if we didn't go for an English" below...)
There are certainly several more valid locations for enjoying 'ethnic' food in Antigua. Korea House for example, is not only run by Koreans, it is usually reassuringly replete with Koreans too. The Chinese restaurants (such as La Gran Muralla) may not be packed out with Chinese diners, but you do have a sense that the family behind the swing doors are tucking into the same stuff that they serve to their customers— and if there's a lantern hanging from the ceiling and a few faded prints depicting ancient Cantonese ways on the walls, you can rest assured they weren't put there by a chichi interior designer.
However, the 'small plate' formula belongs to a uniquely Iberian set of eating habits, so I suspect that tapas will always be that much harder to successfully transcribe, without more formal diners being left feeling short-changed. (V undoubtedly felt fully ripped off when she was served croquetas de pollo at La Cocina de Lola which were all papa and no pollo.)
One of the first, and still one of the best examples of authentic, locally-adapted, international cafe-restaurants in Antigua is Quesos y Vino, now in its third incarnation (fourth if you include the extra sucursal which briefly flourished beside Las Capuchinas). Its Italian owner was smart to eschew the word pizza in his choice of name, opting instead for two old-world delicacies which were then comparatively hard to find here. The result was a rustic, very personable place for a snack, which somehow felt properly situated in Antigua in spite of its foreign inspiration.
V was a little disappointed when she went without me last year to the new, larger version, in part she claimed because the service was slower and the food seemingly prepared with less loving care, but perhaps the real problem is the nostalgic glow adorning our memories of the original Quesos y Vino on the east side of the Calle del Arco — where, six days of the week, one could sit on a stool at the counter and enjoy a simple, unpretentious meal of made-to-order panini with a glass of wine. Cafe society? Almost.
I'll have the gammon steak...