BREEZY, COOL AND COLOURFUL, THE ARGENTINIAN CAPITAL IS RIGHTLY KNOWN AS THE PARIS OF SOUTH AMERICA. BUT HEAD UNDERGROUND TO FIND HIDDEN WONDERS THAT WERE, UNTIL NOW, FOR LOCALS ONLY.
Specifcally, the city’s happening underground cultural scene.
Wander past Arévalo 1443, in Buenos Aires’ stylish Palermo barrio, and the likelihood is you wouldn’t give it a second glance. After all, the only thing visible is a nondescript telephone booth. But next to that booth sometimes stands a burly man wearing sunglasses at night. And if you whisper ‘Steven Tyler’ into his ear he might just nod and suggest dialling fve. If you’re lucky, that telephone booth could buzz open like a trick door and transport you to a 1920s-style speakeasy called Frank’s, where men don snap-tight suspenders while assembling cocktails like chemists in a laboratory. Of course, that telephone booth might not open. But if you can’t secure a spot at Frank’s there’s always The Harrison Speakeasy (sequestered behind Nicky NY Sushi), Florería Atlántico (hidden within the forist of the same name), or Victoria Brown (on the far side of a fake door in the Victoria Brown Coffee Shop). Hideaway bars may be a jaded approach elsewhere, but in Argentina’s capital they serve as a familiar gateway for urbanites who’ve heard whispers of an alternative cultural playground thriving beneath the city’s surface. The trend for this exciting game of adult hide-and-seek isn’t built on an obtuse desire for, or attachment to, cool (unlike, say, similar labyrinthine offerings in Melbourne and Sydney). No, in Buenos Aires, such clandestine establishments are largely built on necessity – driven underground by a forceful cocktail of volatile economy, rampant infation and lax government oversight regarding freewheeling entrepreneurs. Still, for those in the know, there’s nothing a few advance emails can’t do in granting access into this rabbit hole. Fancy a fve-course meal served in the home of a top chef? Puerta cerrada (closed-door) restaurants are, similar to the speakeasies, hidden behind unmarked entryways and rank among the city’s top culinary adventures. Each pairs the atmosphere of a small dinner party with the quality
and service of a top restaurant, with many promising the added bonus of face time with the chef. The best of the city’s 45-odd gastronomic hideaways include Casa Salt shaker (Latin comfort food in Recoleta), Casa Felix (farm-to-table pescetarian dishes in Chacarita), and Paladar (a meat-heavy freside date in Villa Crespo). To get directions simply make a reservation online, after checking to ensure the prix fxe menu for the evening suits your palate (it will). Most dinners come with optional beverage pairings, but for those keen to dig deeper into the terroir of Argentina’s disparate wine regions, book a secret afterhours tasting at wine shop, Le Bon Vin, in Palermo. Owner Diego Kostic takes drinkers on a tour beyond the fruit-forward Malbecs of Mendoza to the coolclimate pinot noirs of Patagonia and the full-bodied whites of high-altitude Salta, where lesser-known varietals like Torrontés and Bonarda thrive. The closed-door antics of the city also reach beyond food and drink, with numerous private fashion showrooms boasting anything from leather jackets to decent derby shoes and a three-piece suit. Vanessa Bell, founder of trend hunting and shopping service Creme de la Creme, takes clients to appointment-only showrooms such as Salvador Homme (modern menswear) and Bastardo (leather goods), as well as a bespoke tailor who operates in secrecy (unless you go through Bell) out of the iconic Palacio Barolo, a 22-storey building near Plaza del Congreso that was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Bell says Buenos Aires has always enjoyed “this sort of cheeky backstreet culture”. And more than simply a passing trend, she feels the latest crop of incognito experiences are a happy accident resulting from unhappy circumstances, including skyrocketing rents, crippling taxes and the sheer infeasibility of making a small business proftable in a city with high overheads. Consequently, many young designers display debut collections in their apartments, or hire small showrooms on Palermo’s periphery, near the Botanical Gardens, where rents are affordable. Similarly, there are artists, like Ricardo Roux, who open their ateliers for private viewings and direct purchases, effectively cutting out the middleman and the hefty commissions of agents (Natalia Margiotta offers a fantastic ‘Artists’ Atelier Tour’ that takes in some of the best). Again, these more obscure outposts are the type of invaluable fnds that deliver a truer, more insightful sample of the city and its people – an appreciation far removed from that found by sticking to well-worn streets. As for places to rest, even some of the city’s top hotels come concealed from obvious view, disguised beneath vine-covered gates or by unmarked entryways. One such affair is the 11-suite hotel Hub Porteño. An art nouveau-style boutique, it’s a luxurious wonder with a Belle Époque interior and a leafy rooftop terrace, none of which is on show until you’ve slipped behind the plain-looking facade of a residential building in ritzy Recoleta. Other peekaboo accommodation options, untraceable in the pages of most city guides, include Miravida Soho, found behind unmarked double-doors on a quiet, cobblestoned street in nearby Palermo, and Le Petit Palais, which boasts Mad Men- esque collections of mid-century modern furnishings likely plucked from the antique markets of San Telmo. While fnding these underground alternatives requires patience, Bell says they ultimately deliver a local’s vision of the colourful town. “I get frustrated with the Buenos Aires that’s portrayed to tourists. It’s shown as a place of Malbec, polo and tango. But most Argentinians have never seen a gaucho, or danced tango – that’s not their reality.” This city, once one of the richest in the world, is riddled with lavish surprises undiscovered on any of the standard steak-and-tango tours. Some, like the bookstore strung along the former balconies of the Gran Splendid Theatre, are well known. Others, like the free screenings of rare flms at ENERC, less so. There’s no map pinpointing the treasures hidden at every turn, but for the discerning visitor, the secret life of Buenos Aires is a prize worthy of pursuit. n
A ROOFTOP VIEW OF THE CITY; THE INFAMOUS LA BOCA NEIGHBOURHOOD.
COBBLED STREETS OF THE SAN TELMO DISTRICT.