El Fénix is Montevideo’s Coolest Retro Hangout (Because It Feels Like Your Friend’s House in 1989)

A bar owner in Uruguay’s capital recreates his childhood for customers to taste and experience

(photo: Briana Chazaro)

The fact that Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America doesn’t stop its people from doing cool shit, like inventing time machines. For example, in Montevideo — where 50% of the entire country’s population resides — you can find a time capsule hidden on a dark, graffiti-covered corner in the Cuidad Vieja neighborhood.

It’s not a DeLorean from Back to the Future, though it’s an equally time-warping experience that you can’t find anywhere else in the country: a restaurant that serves local food and drinks with the accompaniment of an arcade, a life-sized E.T. sitting at the bar, Darth Vader’s helmet, a Nintendo 64, a jukebox with 80s and 90s music, comic books, toys, mom’s recipes, and other quirky relics from previous eras — all from the owner’s childhood.

Federico is an Uruguayan native who moved to New Jersey as a boy, growing up like any American kid from the late-80s through the 2000s — addicted to Playstation, trading cards, and Star Wars. After studying Restaurant Management at a community college, he returned back to his home country, carrying big dreams and a nostalgic hunger for the past.

Today, Federico runs El Fénix — located on the edgy outskirts of Plaza Independencia — which originally opened in 2012, and which he bought in 2015. “I used to live in the apartment upstairs, until one day it was going out of business, so I just decided to buy it,” he explained to me over Fernet and coke (a national cocktail favorite). The joint used to be a punk rock hangout with an unwelcoming environment. He wanted to change that and decided to rebrand the restaurant in a way that locals and tourists alike could come to and feel the comforts of childhood and home cooking.

“I wanted to do something different to create community. In Uruguay we are respectful and humble, and I wanted to bring that here by providing a space where everyone comes together to hang out, eat, and play games. I wanted to make it like everyone’s home. I even use my mom’s recipe for the pizza dough. You should try it.”

(photo: Briana Chazaro)

The restaurant catches your attention with Super Mario Bros-inspired signage outside promoting cheap drinks. After walking in, you see an old school coin-operated Tekken 2 arcade. You sit at the bar, decorated with VHS tapes of classics like Home Alone, then order drinks and food to keep you feeling fuzzy for the rest of the night. It’s a win-win for any millennial, and an unexpected gem in an otherwise sketchy part of the city.

This sort of offering may not seem like much to the average U.S. citizen living in a bustling area, but to find a spot like this in one of the southern-most countries of the world, so far from the usual comforts and aesthetics you’d find at home, makes El Fénix more of a sanctuary than an ordinary restaurant. As the name suggests, it resurrects the aesthetics and pleasures from a long-ago buried time in our lives, when having fun and hanging out at a friend’s house playing video games and eating pizza was what you did. It’s a simple but necessary concept, and one that I’ve rarely found done authentically.

“All the toys you see are actually what I used to play with. My mom sent me a box from our house and I just used them to decorate,” Federico told me, pointing out limited-release Batman and X-Men action figures next to our table. On the other side of the small downstairs space, a collage of Spanish-edition DC Comics are plastered along the wall. It all feels charmingly haphazard in a very Latin American way, while maintaining an authentic Americana vibe, giving it a unique feeling that I didn’t find elsewhere — the best of both worlds.

While there, you can order a delicious chivito — Uruguay’s national sandwich, which is “a slice of juicy beef, some bacon, ham, cheese, sauce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, olives, I don’t know why, and a fried egg” — while Alanis Morrisette or Nirvana grooves in the background, as you’re surrounded by a diverse crowd of laughing regulars.

In all, Uruguay was full of small surprises — like a hidden track on an album you’ve recently discovered — but none was more welcome than a restaurant that feels like your 12th birthday party in a foreign country. El Fénix is indeed a rebirth of everything that we leave behind in our lives as adolescents in order to remix a better future, and it tastes like the best pizza and chivitos your friend’s mom can make.

(photo: Briana Chazaro)

Bay Area writer, blogger, teacher. Books: Piñata Theory (2020); This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019). Twitter + IG: @alan_chazaro

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