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Argentina is about much more than good steak, better wine and a touch of political instability. For a taste of true porteño identity, pay a visit to Buenos Aires’ historic cafés – bares notables – for a shot of tradition alongside your coffee.
In 1998, the city’s government passed a law to protect old-school coffeehouses, bars and billiard halls that sing with history, architecture and interest. Twenty years later more than 70 such establishments serve as a window into Argentina’s rich culture. Bares notables are places where conversation, ideas and artistry flow as freely as the negronis during aperitivo. These are some of the best.
A popular downtown meeting spot since the early 20th century, Los Galgos attracts an eclectic crowd of businessmen, younger groups and 80 year-olds reading the newspaper. After 90 years in business the bar suddenly closed, but in 2015 Julián Díaz and Florencia Capella, creators of the famed 878 Bar, brought it back to life. After a painstaking, sympathetic renovation, Los Galgos now feels like it never closed its doors. The old family safe – too heavy to move – remains behind the counter. Visit around 10am for an “early” porteño breakfast, taking advantage of the traditional-meets-gourmet coffee menu by local roasters Puerto Blest. Alternatively, come during aperitivo around 5pm when the vermouth and negronis are on tap.
El Viejo Buzón
This Caballito café is not your typical tourist destination. Having served as a bakery for the best part of 100 years, El Viejo Buzón was transformed into a bar and restaurant in 1987, and today is a gathering spot for fans – and players – of local football club Ferro Carril Oeste. Football memorabilia covers the walls; traditional folk music plays overhead. The café’s name, meaning The Old Postbox, comes from the British-style red letterbox that sits outside – when city officials tried to remove the in 1999, they were forced to return it 13 days later thanks to strong protests by locals. Inside the café, the menu features no-frills classics. Come here for a real feel of Buenos Aires or, if you’re brave enough, visit on a Sunday after the full-time whistle blows.
On the intersection of Avenue Directorio and Rivera Indarte street, La Farmacia is a testament to the history and hard work of the Vidal family. In 2000, Lucas Vidal decided to reincarnate his grandfather’s defunct local pharmacy as a café-bar. With the help of his architect father, he transformed this corner establishment, which originally opened in 1910. Walls are adorned with old pharmacy bottles, pill boxes and mystery concoctions, and the original farmacia sign sits proudly behind the bar. It’s a charming spot to reflect and people-watch in the Flores neighbourhood, an area popular among the porteño elite and where Jorge Mario Bergoglio – perhaps better known as Pope Francis – was born and raised.
Bar de Cao
A classic fixture in the San Cristóbal neighbourhood for over 100 years, Bar de Cao is like a time capsule. Step inside be transported to a time of tango and conviviality, when the Cao brothers lived upstairs and celebrated their family milestones in the bar. Patrons will likely regale you of a time when a beloved local delinquent – known as “el Mingo” – would sit at the bar and share a pitcher of sidra with racing driver Onofre Marimón. Visit early evening and savour the Picada Gran Cao, a charcuterie board featuring a bounty of locally sourced ingredients. It’s best washed down with Hesperidina, a classic Argentine aperitif of bitter-sweet orange peels – order it on ice or with soda water and lemon, the porteño way.
Saunter through the tango-loving Boedo neighbourhood and you’ll be drawn by Café Margot’s intricate sign, an example of the long-lost art of fileteado. Originally created by European immigrants, this botanical style of drawing and lettering is an emblem of Argentina. It comes as small surprise, then, that Café Margot, which opened in 1904, offers a window into the country’s culture – it even counts president Juan Perón as one of its former patrons. Order the signature turkey escabeche sandwich, made to a closely guarded recipe.
Bar Mar Azul
Mostly frequented by lawyers and law students due to its proximity to the City’s Tribunal Court and the El Salvador University School of Law, this bar is an insight into the Buenos Aires of the Forties, with its traditional windows that open up to greet summer breeze. This no-frills café and bar is the perfect stop for an afternoon pick-me-up of strong espresso and pastafrola, a jam-filled shortcrust pastry. You’ll likely be served by waiter Carlos – say hi; he’s been part of the Bar Mar Azul family for more than 20 years.
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