There are two sides to Old San Juan’s nightlife. On the southern end near the cruise ship docks are the more commercial and chain establishments like Señor Frog’s. But the farther north you go toward Calle San Sebastián, the more authentic the offerings get.
Moon Recommends: Nuyorican Café
By far the best nightclub for live contemporary Latin music—from rock and jazz to salsa and merengue—is Nuyorican Café (312 Calle San Francisco, 787/977-1276, full bar). Don’t bother looking for a sign; there isn’t one. Just look for a gaggle of club-goers clustered around a side door down Capilla alley, which connects Calle San Francisco and Calle Fortaleza. Locals and tourists alike pack in, especially on weekends when the tiny dance floor gets jammed. The kitchen serves a limited menu of Puerto Rican cuisine until midnight. The music usually starts around 11 p.m. There’s no direct link between this café and New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café, which was and still is the epicenter of the Nuyorican movement, although the name is a nod to the club in NYC.
San Juan’s club scene revolves around techno and reggaetón, and there are any number of clubs devoted to the forms. Old San Juan’s veteran nightclub is Club Lazer (251 Calle de la Cruz, 787/725-7581). The three-level 1980s-era disco complete with a light show is popular with both gays and straights. The hottest DJs spin here, and Sunday is reggaetón night.
The Noise (203 Calle Tanca, 787/724-3739) is a white-hot club in a former house in Old San Juan, where reggaetón keeps the beat going until the wee hours. It’s popular with the 18–21 crowd.
Blend (309 Calle Fortaleza, 787/977-7777) is a chic restaurant and lounge centered around an indoor patio and dramatic wall fountain. Local and touring DJs spin all forms of techno.
Club Le Cirque (357 Calle San Francisco, 787/725-3246) is a gay bar and lounge serving lunch and dinner. Smoking is allowed on the patio.
Another popular late-night bar for the casual bohemian crowd is Galeria Candela (110 Calle San Sebastian, 787/594-5698 or 787/977-4305). The space is a hipster art gallery by day, but at night DJs spin into the wee hours.
If you need a place to rest your feet and just chill with a cool beverage, there is a wide variety of bars, both casual and upscale, where you can actually have a conversation, at least in the early part of the evening. The later it gets, though, the more crowded and louder it gets.
At El Farolito (277 Calle Sol, Old San Juan, no phone, daily noon–midnight or later) artwork by local artists hangs on the walls and a chess set sits on the tiny bar of this narrow drinking spot favored by locals. Not the place for fruity, frozen drinks. Your best option is to stick with beer and shots, such as the chichaito an anise- and coffee-flavored blast of booze.
If the painting outside of a monkey fallen into a martini glass doesn’t get your attention, the bright red hue of this place will do the trick. The Red Monkey (252 Calle Cruz, Old San Juan, 787/565-3181) is a great spot for drinks, to watch Monday night football, or to hear live music. The food, including salmon burgers and wings, isn’t bad either.
Although primarily an Indo-Latino fusion restaurant, Tantra (356 Calle Fortaleza, 787/977-8141, fax 787/977-4289) turns into a late-night party spot for the hip and trendy after-dinner crowd who flock here for the sophisticated ambiance, the creative martinis, and a toke or two on one of the many hookahs that line the bar. The kitchen serves a limited late-night menu.
For something completely different, frozen tropical drinks and old kitschy decor create the perfect place for a shopping break at María’s (204 Calle de la Cristo, no phone, daily 10:30 a.m.–3 a.m.). The tiny, pleasantly seedy bar primarily serves a variety of frozen drinks—piña colada, papaya frost, coconut blossom, and so on (with or without rum). Avoid the pedestrian tacos and nachos ($4–7) and check out the cheesy celebrity photos behind the bar. If the dark, narrow bar is full, there are a couple of tables in the back.
Looking for all the world like an old jail cell, El Batey (101 Calle Cristo, 787/725-1787) is a barren dive bar covered top to bottom with drunken-scrawled graffiti and illuminated by bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling. There’s one pool table and an interesting jukebox with lots of jazz mixed in with classic discs by the likes of Tom Waits, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone. If you order a martini, they’ll laugh at you. This is a beer and shots kind of place.
The barred windows and garish orange exterior don’t offer much of a welcome at Krugger (52 Calle San José, 787/723-2474), but the word is that this loud dive bar is the place to go for karaoke.
The Latin Roots (Galería Paseo Portuario, Calle Recinto Sur, 787/977-1877) offers salsa dance lessons and exhibitions during the day, and a smokin’ hot dance floor at night where you can strut your stuff. It also serves a full menu of Puerto Rican cuisine, including mofongo and roast pork.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.