While I was in Puerto Rico last week, I was fortunate enough to come across a great dive bar in Old San Juan: El Batey. This discovery pretty much was what assured I had a great time in San Juan. After all, while I love fine cocktails, at heart I’m an East Village dive bar guy. I’ve always loved going someplace where the beers are cheap, the shots are strong, and there’s a great juke box and pool table to keep you entertained. El Batey had all of these things in spades.
We found El Batey on our first night in Old San Juan. On our way to dinner at a somewhat upscale restaurant, we’d passed a rum and cigar bar. It looked swank and like it was the sort of place where we could sit with some other tourists and enjoy a number of overpriced sipping rums. After dinner we went back to that bar, whose name escapes me. Looking in, it seemed bland and uninteresting. We looked across the street and saw what could only be described as an obvious dive.
El Batey is immediately distinguished by its walls. Almost every inch of the walls, from floor to ceiling, were covered in graffiti, tags, and impromptu art. Its well-worn bar looked inviting, so we said screw to the fancy rum bar and pulled up to the stick in El Batey, where we were promptly greeted by one of the friendliest and most outgoing bartenders I’ve ever met, a guy named Mario.
Mario quickly explained to us the history of El Batey. It was bought in the mid sixties by the current owner, a man named Davey Jones. We questioned whether this was really his names, but Mario assured us it was and that he was still around busting heads to keep the place in order. When Davey bought the bar, he worked hard to keep the walls clean, frequently repainting any graffiti added by sailors and other passers by. By the late sixties, he gave up on that Sisyphean effort and let come what may. The result was a bar with more Sharpie ink than whitewash visible to the eye. It gave the bar an intimate, lived-in feeling. You knew it was a spot that plenty of other people had chilled in for many, many nights in the San Juan heat.
The drink of choice at El Batey through our three visits was Medalla Light, Puerto Rico’s main local beer. Even though it’s a light beer, it’s actually a nice lager on par with the likes of Red Stripe or Bo. It was actually pretty phenomenal and it’s a shame that it isn’t exported, as I could easily see it remaining my go-to cheap beer if it was available for me here in DC. At $2.75 per can, the price was right. Beyond Medalla, most other patrons at El Batey were drinking (primarily DonQ) rum highballs and shots. The bar was simple, like all good dive bars, and there certainly wasn’t a blender whipping up pina coladas taking up space in the bar.
Another cool feature of El Batey was the two large lamps that hung over the bar. Taped around the lamps were strings of business cards left by past visitors to El Batey. When the strings get too long, the take them down, leave the newest one, and start again. There’s no raffle or free crap associated with leaving cards behind – just a cool piece of public, organic art that gives the bar even more character.
The music selection was great. The mix was primarily blues, soul, and classic rock and roll, though later in the nights bartenders’ iPods would occasionally mix in reggaeton and ska. The music fit the bar well and like the rest of the scene, made me feel like I was hanging out in an East Village dive bar relocated to the Caribbean. Beyond the juke box, the bar also had a pool table and a bumper pool table.
The crowd at El Batey was a mix between locals, US ex pats, and tourists. Not too many other tourists came in and stayed for the long haul. The regulars were friendly (though a guy dressed up like a pirate and carrying a parrot was a little too friendly – but hey, bar with a pirate!).
El Batey was my kind of bar, top to bottom. I’m looking forward to visiting it again down the line if I’m back in Old San Juan. If you’re in Puerto Rico, I definitely recommend stopping by and asking for a Medalla from Mario.