There is no excuse to be lethargic in Buenos Aires. Some of the strongest and best coffee this side of the Atlantic resides in the many thousands of cafes that dot this sophisticated, world-class city. As a visitor, one of the best ways to explore the different neighborhoods and capture the pulse of this captivating metropolis is to visit one of its many cafés “notables.” Noted for their historical and architectural importance, 60 of the city’s bars and cafes are recognized officially as part of the state’s cultural patrimony.
Café Tortoni’s service is gruff, but always impeccable. You won’t mind that your waiter is not trying to chat you up after ordering the piping-hot churros and chocolate. Waiters expertly serve rich hot chocolate from still richer-looking copper kettles and matching cups. You will need the accompanying milk to relax the thick, lava-like chocolate. After dipping a warm, sugar-coated churro in your hot chocolate, you will feel the guilt that comes with such decadence, but not enough to deter you from dipping again and again.
If you need a jolt after the soporific chocolate indulgence, order a cortado, or espresso, to get your mettle back. Then, take a peak behind the velvet curtains to take in one of the café’s tango shows or head to the back to shoot some pool. Undoubtedly, after such an elegant experience and a look around at the walls of Café Tortoni, you will leave with a better history of the city and understanding of its people.
The décor is classic 1920’s with old chandeliers casting a warm glow over the long, meandering room. There are places still where a heavy haze of smoke just seems right. Café Richmond is one of them. Although smoking was banned in indoor bars and cafés a few years ago here in Buenos Aires, there are a few loopholes to get around the law. For this and to appease many of its clientele that have been frequenting the café for years, there is a smoking solarium toward the back. The bathrooms of the café are equally impressive in their décor and are worth a gander (seriously) when you patronize the place. Hang out at The Richmond long enough and you might begin to channel the writing voices of two of its leading habitués – Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges.Update: Café Richmond has closed, sadly. Worse yet, it will be replaced by a Nike store, although Nike Argentina promises it will “preserve the façade.”
Café La Biela
Patrons of La Biela have the fortune of enjoying their café con leche alfresco. Outside, one can enjoy a favorite Porteno pastime, people-watching. Indulge your curiosities and pass judgment on (or pretend to be totally indifferent to) the many tourists taking in impromptu tango shows, snapping photos of Recoleta Cemetery or admiring the bright white Nuestra Senora de Pilar Catholic church. In cooler months, this is a great place to warm yourself in the afternoon sun; during summer, cool off in the shade if you can snag a table underneath the great limbs of the famed ombu trees with their Wizard of Oz-like appearance.Inside, experience the opulence and splendor one would expect from a café situated just a block away from the Alvear Palace Hotel, the city’s oldest and finest. The room is simple, yet elegant in its fillings. Notably, visitors will see photographs of the connecting rods used in racing cars that the café is named after, along with the famous drivers that put them to the test. Service here is superb and you will be made to feel every bit as sophisticated as the company you are in.
Enter through the gold-plated revolving door on Avenida Rivadavia and you will think you’ve entered a café built by Willy Wonka – the 1920’s version. The first thing you’ll notice are the magnificent glass cases filled with every type of sweet pastry your heart could desire: giant alfajores – mini shortbread cakes filled with dulce de leche and coated with sugar – and their baby offspring, fruit cakes, medialunas, cherry danishes, chocolate pastries, cakes and éclairs.
Like many other cafes of its time that sadly no longer exist, Las Violetas is enormous, having enough space to seat 200 guests at one time. Ceilings flaunting gold chandeliers rise 30 feet above finely-crafted Italian marble floors. The café was made more European during the 1920′s by the addition of French stained glass windows, giving it a bright, airy and open feeling. Female or not, one must head upstairs where the ladies’ restroom is located to take a gander at the café in all of its glory.
In a nod to Arthur Guinness, Las Violetas serves its coffee black as oil and thick as mud with a white, frothy, bubbling top. If tea is more your cup, then look no further than the Maria Cala tea service – an over-the-top spread of scones, finger sandwiches, cakes and pastries, meant for three, but large enough for six!The city’s thriving café culture should come as no surprise. It was, in no small part, instituted by the city’s coffee-adoring Spanish and Italian immigrants many years ago. While Buenos Aires is not impregnable to Starbucks – they have opened 5 locations since 2006 – the pervasive feeling among the local Portenos is that expediency is not nearly as precious as good company and strong coffee. Whether it’s to discuss the latest futbol standings, wildly escalating ice cream prices or simply gossip, Buenos Aires’s denizens will continue to get together to “tomar un café”, and with that, continue one of the world’s finest café cultures.