On the Line / Bar & Nightclub / What is a Cantina?

What is a Cantina?

A cantina is a bar with a Mexican or Southwestern theme, serving popular Mexican alcoholic drinks like margaritas and cervezas along with other cocktails and beers.

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DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.

1. What is a cantina?

A cantina is a bar with a Mexican or Southwestern theme, serving popular Mexican alcoholic drinks like margaritas and cervezas along with other cocktails and beers. 

The food is inspired by the bold flavors of Mexico and tends toward Americanized bar favorites like nachos, quesadillas, jalapeño poppers, tacos, and burritos. Cantinas are loved for their long list of unpretentious appetizers that soak up the alcohol. 

The atmosphere is festive and fun, sometimes transporting diners to Mexico with bold colors and south-of-the-border artwork and décor. There’s usually a mix of bar seating and tables indoors and out, and sometimes a small stage for live music and entertainment.

2. What is the history of cantinas?

The cantina dates to the mid-1800s in Mexico and was a men’s social club where regulars went for drinks and snacks, often playing cards or dominoes. One of the oldest cantinas, Hussong’s in Baja, California, is believed to be where the margarita was invented in 1941. 

No one knows for sure when the first cantina opened in the American Southwest, but by the 1900s, the word was used in the U.S. to refer to a bar room or saloon. Those old cantinas were vastly different from the Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex affairs that sprung up in the 1980s, evoking images of cowboys and the Wild West with kitschy decor. 

One thing is for sure, the tradition of drinking and eating delicious Mexican-American fare lives on in the cantinas of today.

3. What is typically on a cantina menu?

Cantinas celebrate comfort food and plenty of it, staying far away from culinary fads and trends. Americanized Mexican dishes make up most of the menu, with entrees like cheesy enchiladas, tacos, sizzling fajitas, chimichangas, chili verde, and sometimes burgers and sandwiches. 

Chips, salsa, and guacamole kick off extensive offerings of old-school shareable bar appetizers like wings and nachos. Giant fish-bowl-sized margaritas are practically required, although cantinas have full bars and serve up a wide variety of alcoholic drinks. An extensive beer selection of draft and bottled beer is a must, and many cantinas also offer wines.

4. How do you start a cantina?

Cantinas are multi-purpose establishments: part bar, restaurant, and often part entertainment venue. For this reason, finding the exact right location, with enough space and parking, will be a top priority. 

Conducting a thorough market analysis is essential since you’re not just competing with bars in the region but also Mexican restaurants and live music venues. 

Another special consideration is your cooking equipment. Margarita machines, margarita glasses, tortilla grills, taco holders, fajita skillets, and sizzling platters are all items unique to Mexican and Southwestern food.

5. How much does it cost to start a cantina?

Data from FreshBooks puts the cost of opening a restaurant between $100 and $800 per square foot, with a median of $450 per square foot, but many factors are at play. 

The actual cost varies depending on the location, the size of your cantina, the materials and equipment needed, and whether you’re buying the space or leasing/renting. 

For instance, buying a pre-existing restaurant or bar will be considerably less expensive than building from the ground up. 

Utilities average $1000 to $1,200 monthly for a 4000-4500 square foot space. Building Journal says interior finishes average around $160 a square foot, including permits, build-out, equipment, and design.

6. Most popular types of cantinas

People choose cantinas over other bars when they get a hankering for Mexican comfort food and a margarita, so the classic recipes and flavors need to be on point. 

That said, cantinas that offer a few unique items are the most popular. Whether it’s a daily special, an incredible happy hour, or interesting live music, the most popular cantinas have a hook that draws in customers. 

Many cantinas offer interesting takes on a signature dish or drink, specialize in one thing (say nachos or margaritas), and go overboard with options and flavors. 

But above all, cantinas should promote an inviting party atmosphere where people can eat and drink for a reasonable price.

 Mexican food is the second most popular food in the U.S. (only behind American), accounting for 11 percent of all restaurants. Although American palates have come a long way, it’s hard to beat a fruity margarita and a classic combo plate at a cantina.

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