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Insider: Buenos Aires, Amigos

Call it what you will: buzz, spirit, or—borrowing, appropriately enough, from Borges—fervor. Some cities have it, other cities have it in a big way. Buenos Aires is definitely in the latter group. Mixing european style with latino passion, the argentine capital has a boldly romantic populace (porteños, they call themselves) and a slew of personality-rich cafés, nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants to match. Buenos Aires isn't the Paris of South America anymore. Paris, we hear, is the Buenos Aires of Europe.

eats

B.A. has always been intrigued by anything remotely exotic. In other words, beef is not all that's for dinner. • Baby-faced chef Rodrigo Sieiro turns out the best French food in the Southern Hemisphere at Nectarine (381 Avda. Estanislao López, Pilar; 54-2322/421-689; tasting menu for two $240). His training in the kitchens of Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse shows in pheasant with Malbec sauce and rib eye with rosemary sabayon. His lemon tart is a piece of petit-four perfection. A new location opens soon in central B.A. • Go East to Nina Wok (240 Calle Báez; 54-11/4770-9312; dinner for two $55), where China meets the Mediterranean, or to Pedro Fernández's pretty Khalu (2851 Calle Andrés Arguibel; 54-11/4777-4679; dinner for two $90), where ginger and wasabi meld with flavors from the Caribbean and Colombia. • Plain and simple Italian doesn't get any better than at Il Matterello (517 Calle Martín Rodríguez; 54-11/4307-0529; dinner for two $40). How much do Argentines love pizza?At Morelia (260 Calle Báez; 54-11/4772-0329; dinner for two $40), the pizza oven has been retired in favor of a parrilla, the grill typically used to prepare that famous beef.

and speaking of beef . . .

There's a reason why Argentina consistently sets records in per capita beef consumption (144 pounds last year, almost double that of the United States). Meat simply tastes better here, partly thanks to a skilled parrillero, or man at the grill. Hugo Echevarrieta of La Brigada (465 Calle Estados Unidos, 54-11/4361-5557; and 4534 Avda. del Libertador, 54-11/4773-1011; dinner for two $40) is a meat maestro; his monster 29-ounce steak is reason enough to buy a plane ticket. The one-room El Obrero (Avda. Cafrarena 64; 54-11/4362-9912, dinner for two $35) shines like a beacon under the highway. Great beef, fabulous fries, fresh seafood too.

buenos aires vino

Argentina is the fifth-largest wine-producing country in the world, a fact that is largely unknown because the Argentines tend to drink much of their wine themselves. The best place to steal a glass from the locals and sample great regional vintages is Gran Bar Danzón (1161 Calle Libertad; 54-11/4811-1108; wines by the glass $4-$10; dinner for two $60), a chicly distressed, often rowdy lounge-restaurant-wine bar that has nothing to do with the danzón, a Cuban-Mexican dance. The bar offers numerous wines (30 by the glass, more than 120 by the bottle), tunes spun by an in-house DJ, and a happy hour at its sushi bar. The staff is impossibly beautiful; so is the crowd. There's no sign outside — look for a candlelit staircase (Danzón is on the second floor) and listen for happy noises.

on the town

The nocturnal marathon that is B.A. nightlife involves pre-dinner cocktails, dinner (not before 11), and after-dinner drinks, followed by destination number one (about 3 a.m.), destination number two, and then post-sunrise "after-hours" parties (at 7 or 8 a.m.). You can join in at any stage. • A fashionable crowd lines up for deliciously potent cocktails at Voodoo (340 Calle Báez; 54-11/4772-2453) and hangs out at Milión (1048 Paraná; 54-11/4815-9925), a mansion and courtyard with little more than a bar and a throbbing sound system. • It's champagne by the glass at the sleek marble-and-silver Chandon Bar (152 Avda. Alicia Moreau de Justo; 54-11/4315-3533). • For something more low-key, head to the Placita de Serrano, a square in the heart of the Palermo Viejo barrio with a dozen establishments catering to bookish bohemians.

true to tango

Real tango is nothing like the flashy shows that pander to tourists — it should be a little gritty. Bar El Chino (3566 Calle Beazley; 54-11/4911-0215; show starts after midnight Friday and Saturday) is a ramshackle tanguera (mismatched tables and chairs, tattered posters of Carlos Gardel) in the ramshackle barrio of Pompeya. Jorge "Chino" Garcés and his ensemble have been singing for your supper (decent Argentine fare) for 56 years. Call ahead or you'll be listening from the sidewalk. Make sure your driver knows where he's going.

buenos aires hotels

Until now, hotels in B.A. were "expensive and worth it" or "expensive and not worth it." (Be prepared for a 21 percent room tax.) Breaking new ground is the modern, affordable Design Suites (1683 Avda. Marcelo T. Alvear; phone and fax 54-11/4814-8700; doubles $150), a 40-room hotel opposite Plaza Libertad where less is more. • In that first category: the 165-room Park Hyatt (1086 Calle Posadas; 54-11/4321-1234, fax 54-11/4321-1235; doubles from $270) in Recoleta. For a real indulgence, splurge on a rococo suite ($450-$3,500) in La Mansión, a Hyatt annex in a stunningly restored Belle Époque palace next door. • Open since 1932, the Alvear Palace Hotel (1891 Avda. Marcelo T. Alvear; 54-11/4808-2100, fax 54-11/4808-0034; doubles from $410) is the city's quintessential grand hotel, still shining in all its Louis XVI glory. La Bourgogne, its much lauded restaurant, has just been renovated; a rooftop pool is in the works.

buenos aires fast facts

Polo rules. Argentina has more players, clubs, and tournaments — and better ponies — than any other country. The 106-year-old Argentine Open, held every November, is the world's most prestigious polo event. • B.A. loves its statues. The city is studded with 123 individual figures, 59 groups of figures, 186 busts, 23 memorial stones, and 21 reliefs. The newest: a bronze Eva Perón in front of the Biblioteca Nacional. • The porteño antidote to city stress?An escape to an estancia, the ranch as neo-Palladian showpiece or French château. There are hundreds to choose from, so ask for help from Maita Barrenechea (657 Avda. Córdoba; 54-11/4314-3390), an agent who has been booking estancia trips for more than 20 years. • Ten new museums are to open this year, including the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano next month, with works by Frida Kahlo, Tarsila do Amaral, and Argentines Antonio Berni and Xul Solar. • A paseador de perros, or dog walker, earns $5 per dog, per day.

shopping

Among the mix of well-worn cantinas and high-tech lofts in Palermo Viejo are such shops as Laura O (1554 Calle Uriarte; 54-11/4832-8778), an eclectic store with everything from bed linens ($55-$110) to salt and pepper shakers ($5), and Valeria Leik (4702 Calle El Salvador; 54-11/4833-4242), the porteña's favorite shoe store. • Rapsodia (2899 Calle Andrés Arguibel; 54-11/4772-2716) is in Las Cañitas, a sleepy neighborhood that turns glamorous once night falls. Part fashion temple, part see-and-be-seen hot spot, the store sells brilliantly embroidered saris ($250) and butter-soft Argentine leather jackets ($400). • Flea-market aficionados will enjoy Sundays at the Feria de San Telmo, but they should come with good haggling skills (pity the bargainer with no grasp of the complex Argentine Spanish) and a healthy tolerance for crowds. Savvy antiquers avoid the mob and head for the 100-plus antiques shops within a four-block radius of Plaza Dorrego. A gold mine: Silvia Petroccia (1002 Calle Defensa; 54-11/4362-0156), a shop stuffed with such collectibles as a 17th-century Belgian tapestry and a working 1949 Hillman car.

you know you're in b.a. when:

Maradona has more star power than Madonna. • Your Spanish friend feels he's speaking a different language. • People use "golf sauce," a distant relative of Thousand Island dressing, with abandon. • Not looking both ways before crossing the street can be fatal. • The city empties out in January. • Forty-five minutes late is on time. • Dulce de leche is its own major food group.

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