Before the cafés of Buenos Aires became the "historic" cafés of Buenos Aires, they were simply places where people would gather to eat, drink, read the papers, and gossip. Gradually, those venues that survived the ravages of time, rent hikes and changing lifestyles acquired layers of myth, and those ordinary punters morphed into poets, exiles, deserters, absinthe-sodden bohemians and, inevitably, friends of Jorge Luis Borges.
To which I say, bravo. I love Starbucks and its clones, squishy sofas, reliable Wi-Fi and all, but I'm pretty sure Buenos Aires could spit out those places just as easily as it has swallowed them. On the other hand, the city could ill afford to lose its traditional cafés, with their wood paneling, non-ironic kitsch, wonky tables and Dickensian waiters for whom a measure of whisky is whatever can be poured in five seconds.
A complete list of bars and cafés designated “notable” by the Buenos Aires city government can be found on the latter’s website (in Spanish, but easy to navigate.)
Gran Café Tortoni
Founded in 1858, the Tortoni is an urban gem that continues to sparkle. It is easier to list the literary and political luminaries from Argentina’s late Victorian golden age who never sipped coffee around the marble tables here, than it is to list the ones who did. Admire the columns, boiserie and stained glass skylights over hot chocolate and churros.
This art nouveau landmark opened in 1884, the year Oscar Wilde got hitched. It isn’t hard to picture the great Irishman in here, admiring the stained glass windows, amusing the well-coiffed habituées, flirting surreptitiously with the white-jacketed waiters and nibbling on a crustless sandwich. Long queues can form on weekends.
El Gato Negro
With its nod to Poe’s spine-tingler, fine ash and oak cabinets lined with jars of exotic spices and wizened 105-year-old shopkeep (that last is a lie, sadly), The Black Cat would be equally at home in Diagon Alley as on Avenida Corrientes. Drop in for a pot of Earl Grey or a cup of cardamom-infused coffee and soak up the magic.
Ground zero for people-watching in Buenos Aires is the terrace at this Parisian-style café and bar. Here, shaded by one of the city’s grandest rubber trees, Recoleta’s monied classes complain about the government, plan shopping trips to Miami, praise their psychoanalysts, and curse their divorce lawyers. Food and drink are nothing special and almost beside the point.
Once upon a time, this strip- and neon-lit café was where your wannabe existentialist could smoke her way through a pack of Gauloises while dreaming of the revolution. Smoke free these days, La Giralda continues to draw an owlish clientele. It’s a great place to skim through a (left-leaning) newspaper while sipping a submarino (chocolate bar submerged and dissolved in a tall glass of hot milk).