By SAM DILLON
MEXICO CITY --
It's 3:30 p.m. and the Mexico City state's attorney, Samuel del Villar,
seated at a conference table in a meeting with a dozen subordinates. Nobody has eaten since
breakfast, if then. Stomachs are growling.
It's time to
go out to a restaurant for lunch. Instead, del Villar says, "Let's just
eat here." Aides ferry
in a tray of BLT sandwiches, and the city's top prosecutors lick bacon drippings from their fingers
through a meeting that continues past 5.
improvised meal one recent afternoon might seem routine to Americans, but
here it was a
sign of a dramatic cultural shift. Mexico City's leisurely lunch, which may wander for three hours or
more, from an opening tequila through several courses and plenty of conversation, has been as
characteristic of this capital and its way of life as evening tapas are of Madrid and the late-night
churrasco dinner of Buenos Aires.
But many Mexico
City residents are giving up the once-sacrosanct tradition because, like
they have grown too busy, or because they now follow an international corporate schedule, or
because they consider fast-food dining more efficient. Many working-class Mexicans simply can no
longer afford the slightest culinary extravagance.
an enormous change," said Guillaume Martin, who for 15 years has managed
Estoril restaurant, an elegant eatery in the Polanco neighborhood frequented by executives and
government officials. "When I started in this business, people would fill our tables at 3, and many
would still be seated at 7 or 8 p.m. drinking cognac. Now by 5, practically everyone's left. Lunches
are getting earlier and shorter."
The meal is called
la comida in Spanish, which is usually translated as "lunch." But don't
comida with el almuerzo, which also translates as lunch but is something quite different, a mere
late-morning snack, often a tamale purchased on the street and gobbled on the run.
La comida is
the main culinary event of the day in a capital city whose biorhythms have
the singular schedule of the vast government bureaucracy. Most middle or senior government
officials work from 9 or 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., break for lunch until 6 p.m., and return to work until
late evening, often until 10 or 11 p.m., even midnight.
Within this peculiar
schedule, officials or business people with a generous expense account
the years made the afternoon meal a long feast. In its classic expression a few decades back, senior
functionaries would regularly begin with a plate of tacos, graze their way through a rich soup, a
steak, and a rice dish or baked potato, and wash it all down with a few whiskys. Many would only
wobble back to work after sipping a cognac with espresso.
Some social historians
trace the meal's origin to Spain, where public offices also shut down in
afternoon. But it has been classically Mexican in its languorous pace and voluptuous quantities.
"This long meal
has been a form of compensation, a special retribution for the suffering
that you go
through as a public servant, ready to serve at any moment of day or night if the boss calls," said
Javier Gonzalez Rubio, who transferred to the private sector recently after working for several years
in the Mexican White House, known as Los Pinos, as an aide to President Ernesto Zedillo.
Mexico has passed
through years of economic crisis, and only the most senior officials can
afford the long lunch in its classic form. Lower and mid-level officials still keep the same hours but
eat simple food.
Marquez, the press coordinator to the borough president of Mexico City's
Cuauhtemoc section, keeps a typical schedule and eats like thousands of other government
employees. Breakfast is minimal, and he is at his desk before 9 a.m.
One hectic recent
afternoon he could not break away for lunch until 4:30, when at an open-air
corner eatery he ordered a peppery tripe soup with tortillas, followed by a dessert of fried bananas.
He was back on the job by 6, worked until 10, and once at home, ate a few tacos before bed.
"Many days, we're poorly fed," Becerra said.
to the lavish lunch has been the abbreviated breakfast. A 1997 study commissioned
McDonald's, which now has 52 restaurants in the Mexican capital, found that "many people here
didn't eat breakfast at all," said Manuel Juarez Torres, a company spokesman here. Seeing an
opportunity, McDonald's has been marketing a Mexicanized form of its McMuffin breakfasts with a
slogan that attacks Mexico City's long-lunch habit head on: "Breakfast is the most important meal of
die hard, Juarez said. Most Mexico City residents still plan their day
albeit one that is considerably shorter than it was in its classic period, which most food experts trace
to the 1950s. The president then was Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, an enthusiastic gourmand who made it
his pattern to loiter at table following the afternoon meal, calling for a set of dominoes and playing a
few rounds with his friends.
aides to Zedillo count on one hand the times he has spent the afternoon
at a restaurant.
A frugal man, Zedillo instead almost always lunches in private at the presidential residence. He has
explained this as a preference for spending time with his family. But his pattern seems to fit the
national mood, in which many Mexicans who live outside the capital view Mexico City's long lunches
as a sign of profligacy they associate with government waste. People in Monterrey, Mexico's
northern business capital, are particularly critical.
"This long lunch
originated with Mexico City's government bureaucracy," said a business
who is a Monterrey native but now spends part of each week in Mexico City. "Monterrey has a
business culture. Time is money. When you go to lunch, you arrive, you order food and you talk
business. Once that's over, you can chat about other things."
"In Mexico City,
the point is to build relationships with influential people who can do
favors for you,
so you spend time telling jokes and gossiping," he continued. "You start lunch by chatting about
many topics other than the business at hand, then you eat, and only at the end will anybody tell you
what they really wanted to talk to you about."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company