BA’s best barrio bars
Don’t be seduced by the new hipster pop-ups. Chris Moss visits the corner bars that survive – just – in the barrios, serving up history, tango and real Buenos Aires life
Last month, as part of Buenos Aires’ annual Día del Café Notable, a twoday festival called Feca – backslang for “cafe” – saw tastings, barista training sessions and themed tours take over the capital’s bares notables. These corner bar-cafes are the quintessential Buenos Aires institution – anything from 50 to 160 years old, they have architectural value, and have been the sites of key cultural moments.
This year Feca paid tribute to Tortoni, which is celebrating its 160th birthday. Tortoni is a beauty, for sure, but it’s also mobbed by tourists, and I wanted to unearth some of the less famous cafes.
I took a bus to La Flor de Barracas, a beautiful, early 20th-century cafe just west of touristy San Telmo, to meet manager Carlos Cantini, an erudite coffee aficionado.
“I think the special thing about our bars is down to tango,” he explained. “This was a city once full of single men, mainly immigrants, sharing rooms. In the bar they could learn Spanish as well as lunfardo [the local slang], meet women, and dance.”
The bares notables are redoubts of authentic porteño (Buenos Aires) life, as well as nostalgia-perfumed spaces in which to reflect, people watch, fall in love. Visiting them will typically take you to barrios well away from the madeover honeypots of Palermo, Recoleta and downtown. Go on the bus, sample native aperitifs and digestifs like Amargo Obrero, Hesperidina and Legui, and chat to the owners. They’ll be delighted to meet you.
With its checkerboard floor, high 1 ceilings, and flowery fileteado signage (pictured below right), this is a beautiful corner cafe, formerly called the Trianon. Past punters include boxer José María “el Mono” Gatica and socialist politician Alfredo Palacios. Apparently, president Juan Perón used to drop by to pick up a turkey escabeche sandwich, the house speciality, still made to a secret recipe.
Boedo – both the barrio and street – have deep tango associations: Homero Manzi’s beautiful song Sur opens with the lines, “San Juan and Boedo, and the whole sky… the corner of the blacksmith, mud and pampa”. The bar’s current name, Margot – adopted in 1993 – honours a celebrated tango by Celedonio Flores, about a girl who sells her soul for the high life. The smaller back room has aircon and there’s a terraced area on the street. Local sights Sculpture trail at San Juan and Independencia; Boedo and San Juan – the corner mentioned in the song.
• Avenida Boedo 857, losnotables.com.ar
Foreign visitor numbers to Monte 2 Castro, a tranquil, low-slung, middle- class barrio 13km west of the city centre, must be no more than 10 a year. Cafe Olimpo, named after a football club that used to play on waste ground opposite – when BA was a tapestry of single-storey houses and fields – is an airy, brightly lit joint that pays homage not to tango or football, but to car mechanics. At least, its walls are adorned with old registration plates, gears, hubcaps and headlights. Owner-managers Gustavo and Horacio say they started doing food a couple of years ago to keep the place open. Tango turns twice a month and regular barbecues draw in locals, many of whom are fans of Vélez Sarsfield, a once-minor football club that now routinely wins leagues and cups. Local sights Vélez Sarsfield’s and All Boys’ football stadiums.
• Irigoyen 1491, on Facebook
La Flor de Barracas, Barracas 3 (est 1907)
Managed by cafe addict and academic Carlos Cantini and his family, this is a lovely spot in the neighbourhood that provided the moody backdrops for Pino Solanas’s magical-realism tango film Sur.
Food was always the strength of La Flor, and the pastas don’t disappoint. The shelves behind the bar heave with ancient brandy bottles and the patio is perfect for a private lunch or a smoke. Migrants from Haiti and Senegal live upstairs, making this the sort of milieu the bar’s earliest customers would recognise: it opened at the peak of mass immigration to Argentina.
Go to La Flor for a long lunch, or to enjoy one of its regular arts workshops. Local sights El Aguila coffee and chocolate warehouse, Calle Darquier (used in Solanas’s Sur), mosaics on houses in Calle Lanín, Chau Che Clú for tango milongas and live music.
• Suárez 2095, laflordebarracas.com
La Farmacia, Flores (est 1910)
This old pharmacy is the pride of 4 Flores, formerly a district where wealthy porteños built their summer houses, and the place where Jorge Mario Bergoglio – aka Pope Francis – was born and grew up. Turned into a bar in 2000, the interior is all old photos and dim lighting; among the medicine bottles is a decent stock of vermouths, digestifs and other tipples.
Local sights San Jose de Flores Basilica; 531 Membrillar, the house where the pope grew up; Huracán’s football stadium.
• Avenida Directorio 2400, on Facebook
El Federal, San Telmo (est 1864)
Thanks to its antiquity, central 5 location, imposing bar (with beautiful stained-glass arch) and joyously cluttered interior, this is one of the bares notables most visited by tourists as well as locals, who’ll enjoy a picada (a wooden platter of cheese and meats) with a jug of clericó (Argentinian punch). The venue has been a brothel, a dive bar for gauchos and a general store; excavations unearthed cadavers of those who died in yellow fever outbreaks in 1871-2. Among its many VIP clients was Roberto Goyeneche, arguably the greatest tango singer of the postwar era.
Local sights Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Plaza
Colectividades fiesta each spring; and the birthplace of national icon Lionel Messi. The colonial architecture, music scene and cafe culture make it a magnet for backpackers, and this friendly hostel has dorms in a turn-of-the-20th-century red brick house not far from the lively Paraná riverfront.
• Dorm beds from £8 B&B, on Facebook
Córdoba province in central Argentina is where people from Buenos Aires come to unwind, drawn by hikes in the wilderness of the Altas Sierras and the impressive colonial architecture of the provincial capital. This small boutique hotel is a stone’s throw from Córdoba’s historic district and city centre. With contemporary decor, a spa and rooftop swimming pool, the Azur Real is a steal in terms of comfort, and a handy base for exploring the high country.
hotel, and is decked out in the club’s blue and yellow, from the tiling in the indoor pool, to rugs and bicycles. Artwork and memorabilia feature key moments in Boca’s history and golden boy Diego Maradona is in a prominent position on the hotel’s doors. Doubles can sleep three.
• Double from £86 B&B, hotelbocajuniors.com
Hotel Saint George Puerto Iguazú
Tropical and ecological vibes align at this child-friendly resort-style hotel in the town of Puerto Iguazú, where guests are offered a chance to calculate the carbon footprint of their stay. It’s opposite the bus station, for easy low-impact trips to the famous waterfalls that straddle the border with Brazil. After a steamy day at these natural wonders of the world, guests can cool down in the outdoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi. There’s also a games room and dedicated family zone.
• Double from around £70 B&B, hotelsaintgeorge.com