Just about anywhere you go, especially in the Caribbean, you’re bound to find one or two bars that exemplify the soul of each destination. Generally, these bars are old, dark and gritty, like the old Moonraker Bar in Christiansted. They’re places with strong character that often attract strange characters with strong drinks, like the amazing Painkillers they used to serve at the Sundowner in Frederiksted. Catering in no special way to no specific group in particular, but somehow welcoming to all, these are my kinds of bars.
In tiny Old San Juan, the bar that best fits this bill is Maria’s.
I first wandered into Maria’s back in 1996. I was in Puerto Rico to assist a TV production crew from the BBC in putting together a travel show on the island. My assignment: babysit the star, actress Amanda Redman.
Now, she’s not stopping traffic over here in the U.S., but on the other side of the pond, Amanda’s a big star. According to the BBC producer I was working with at the time, she was also VERY HIGH MAINTENANCE. I sort of remember him and the rest of the crew laughing as they left me to deal with her while they went out to scout locations for the next day’s shoot.
Yeah, I was terrified.
Our first couple hours together shopping and sightseeing around Old San Juan were like torture. Amanda wasn’t quite the diva the producer made her out to be, but she was mostly quiet and aloof in a way that suggested to me that she might explode and bite my head off for no particular reason at any moment. To cut the tension, I suggested we grab a drink. Maria’s happened to be the closest bar, so in we went.
Despite the midday sun, Maria’s was dark, cramped and gritty in the way I like, but a diva would not. We sat at the end of the bar and asked the bartender to hook us up with the specialty drink of the house. I can still remember his wry smile as he asked us if we were sure we wanted to do that.
You see, the specialty drink at Maria’s is a lethal concoction known as La Nota. Our bartender that day called it Prozac. If you like your drinks strong and sweet, you’ll call it heaven.
That is, if you remember drinking ’em. The bartender warned us that not many patrons ever finish a glass of Prozac/La Nota on their own. He was overplaying the danger, of course, but the rest of the afternoon and evening did turn out to be a blissful drunken blur. The only things I’m sure of are that we each had more than a couple Nota’s and soon became good friends.
Maria, who invented La Nota during the course of owning and running her bar for the past 42 years, remembered my mid-90’s visit when I stopped in at the bar this past September. “La rubia” she called Amanda, and started to laugh at the memory of our hazy afternoon. Amanda isn’t the only celebrity to pull up a stool and throw back a few at Maria’s. The wall behind the bar is filled with signed portraits from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Steven Seagal, Benicio del Toro, Brooke Shields, Kurt Russell and the list goes on and on.
The humble bar has also been popular with politicians over the years, Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy among them.
“All of the Governors (of Puerto Rico) have come in to try La Nota… except one,” Maria told me. The lone exception, current Governor, Luis Fortuño. Considering Maria’s is located on Cristo Street, just around the corner from the Governor’s Mansion, I’m sure Fortuño will rectify this soon enough.
Next time you’re in Old San Juan, I highly recommend you stop in too. Ask for Maria, as everyone does, and order up a Nota or two. You may not remember all that happens next, but you’re sure to have a great time.
Maria’s is located at 204 Cristo Street, just up the street from the Capilla del Cristo Chapel. They open every day at 11am and generally close around 3am, depending on the crowd.