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December 23, 2005


Friday, December 23, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina:

One of the things I like most about BsAs is the city's deep-seated cafe culture. Numerous grand, old, atmospheric, 19th-century spaces provide relaxing, ambient spots for reading, study, and meeting friends. Porteños think nothing of spending hours there and, as is typical in South America and Europe, there is no push to leave. In addition to the coffee, food, history, and aesthetic features, many cafes host shows and events, most notably but not limited to tango performances. With the dollar strong to the peso, you can treat yourself like virtual royalty in often opulent settings --- many on par with the famous cafes of Paris, which cost about 4 times as much --- for less than what a cup of Starbucks will set you back at home. [To answer the question of just how good the coffee actually is in comparison with the coffee in Italy, particuarly after my US-coffee-bashing-post a while back, I will be blunt: On the whole, not nearly as good; but you can order regular filter coffee without being treated like a pariah, then linger over it in a spacious, luxurious setting. You can't in Italy, so there is a trade-off and I'm happy enough with it, particularly since the Italian espresso will, over time, strip all the enamel off of your teeth.]

Here are a few notes on some favorite and/or notable spots. You can't go to Buenos Aires and not see the first, but for a feel of the city, trips to several more are essential as well. BsAs without cafes is not BsAs.

Cafe Tortoni: It might be somewhat cliche, as it is almost always packed with photo-snapping tourists and staffed (on the whole) by gruff, grim, ineffecient and seemingly depressed tuxedo-ed waiters who appear to be on the brink of either killing themselves or killing all their customers --- you can never be too sure. Nevertheless, the space --- dating to 1858 and claiming status as the oldest of its kind in BsAs --- is spectacular: mirrors, dark cherry wood panels, marble, massive dimly-lit chandeliers, and walls covered in paintings of all styles. Despite the noise at peak hours, I could practically live at Tortoni. I've been there enough (nearly every day) to gain reasonably pleasant treatment by the staff, as evidenced by the facts that (1) I can get served in less than 10 minutes and (2) they haven't killed me yet.

London City: Not my favorite but by no means bad, London City is at the foot of the central pedestrian street, Florida, on the corner with the famous Avenida de Mayo. The food and service are decent enough, even if the ambience is a bit plain. Famous Argentinian author Julio Cortazar is said to have written his first book here. I assume he was able to do it because of the general lack of visual distractions.

Richmond: The name says it all. Richmond on Florida smells like money. Its simple but immense dark-wood interior is filled with Porteños in power-suits, most of them older and flashing bills and gold watches. Fortunately the prices don't exceed those of most other top cafes --- by too much (exception: the more expensive Biela). You can still get a cafe con leche for less than US$2. Alcohol and food can be a bit pricier, but most everything the kitchen and bar turns out is at a high standard --- it might be the best of the famous cafes in terms of the quality of what is offered (not to mention the variety). Service is also quite good. Who knows if it was like this when Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina's most famous writer, often said to be the most talented author never to win a Nobel for his work --- and with good reason) was a regular. The downstairs features an impressive space for chess and pool.

La Biela: Stodgy but beautiful, aristocratic but very aristocratic, Biela, just off of the famous (and creepy) Recoleta Cemetary, brims with tourists and locals alike. A scene for intellectuals during the infamous (and far more than creepy) "Dirty War," it is said that a disproportionate number of its left-leaning clientelle were among those abducted, with never a trace of them to be found again. Today the cafe doesn't seem to offer any hint of a "left-leaning" tradition. Like Richmond it smacks of money and is priced accordingly. Coffee is still affordable, but the food usually isn't worth what you pay (twice as much or more as in any half-decent restaurant more than three blocks away from the tourist and high-society hot-bed that rings the cemetary). Nevertheless, it is a good place to people-watch and worth a trip before or after a visit to the cemetary and its opulent, often tacky monuments to the (egos of the) dead.

Bar Plaza Dorrego: With a small but atmospheric old interior, the main attraction of this cafe is its outside seats, on the perimeter of San Telmo's ever-active Plaza Dorrego. Although there are many other places you can also go for a table, this is the most authentic and the best for coffee or a 4 PM beer with a platito or two of ham, salami, olives and/or cheese cubes (also recommended is the lemonade). With shaky, ambivalent service (par for the course anywhere) but good food and drinks, this cafe is where I go when I want to sit outside and read or review my Spanish lessons on a warm, sunny day. Though I am often interrupted by somebody trying to sell me a knick-knack or give me religious reading materials, the upside is the ability to watch and listen to live musicians and tango dancers performing for donations (a peso or less --- not more than $.33, is a small price to pay for often excellent entertainment). On Sunday San Telmo becomes the scene of a famous and impressive antiques market. Plaza Dorrego is the epicenter. Don't even try to visit the cafe then.

Confiteria Ideal: Almost last but not least is this famous old tango venue. Classes and performances abound. With an immense, high-ceilinged interior, dark wood and mirror paneling, and a large stage against the length of the side wall, the place feels slightly shabby and run-down, when you look at the simple, dirty tables spread out haphazardly in such an otherwise grand environment. They seem lonely, almost neglected --- but while the service can be slow and impersonal, the atmosphere and history (it is nearing 90 years of age) still charm. A massive space upstairs is host to the myriad tango classes and milongas. You can hear the music and noise from the dance classes resonate from above while you have reasonably good coffee down below.

There are plenty of other places, some famous and historic, most of them not. In the latter category, I like:

Cafe Valerio: On the corner of pedestrian street Lavalle and Esmeralda, Valerio is modern, brightly-lit, rather expensive for what you get and nothing all that special. But it is open very late and the service is (at least to me) very friendly. If I want a meal or a coffee at 1, 2, 3, or 4 AM (and I usually don't, but in this Insomniac City where many bars and clubs don't even get going until 3:00 in the morning, the real "City That Never Sleeps", there are those times), Valerio is a great place. One of the waiters and I have an agreement whereby we are free to consult each other on language questions. Every time I enter he asks me something in the hopes of improving his ability to communicate in English with the many tourists who come through the doors each day. I often get a virtual pile of free cookies along with my coffee and, if a place lacks history, ambience, and fame, it can surely make up for many of these faults with free cookies.

Posted by Joshua on December 23, 2005 10:14 PM
Category: Back in Argentina

Happy-Whatever-You-Are- Celebrating. Having a steak and some Malbec for you in Argentina, where summer has officially arrived. Walking down the hot, humid, grid-locked, diesel-choked streets of the Microcenter at noon, I've seen something I never thought I would before: Men in full Santa-outfits mopping sweat off their heat-flushed, bushy-white faces.

Posted by: Josh on December 24, 2005 12:38 AM
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