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The Café Beat

A writer discovers the rhythm of Buenos Aires by going from café to café, from morning to night

In any one of the hundreds of cafés in Buenos Aires, you can order a cup of coffee and sit all day without anyone asking you to leave, or you can dance the sexiest tango with a perfect stranger without implying that you'll be spending the night together. There are residents of this city who spend most of their waking lives in cafés. Not long ago, I spent most of a waking day going from café to café and neighborhood to neighborhood to sample the life of a café denizen. I rubbed elbows with the most fashionable porteños, as the residents of this city are known, and I hung out in waterfront pasta-and-beer halls. In Buenos Aires, there's a café in every pocket of the city, and one for every pocketbook, too.

9:30a.m. Skip breakfast
Yes, it's the most important meal of the day, but since most porteños dine at around midnight and stay out until the early hours, breakfast is not a big deal. You can go to any café in the city for a good café au lait and croissant, although you might find yourself in the middle of a squadron of businessmen barking into cell phones.

Noon BarBaro, in La City
My first stop sees me diving into the hurly-burly of downtown Buenos Aires, known as La City. BarBaro, a café where every wall and even the ceiling is covered with art, was a hangout for the famous painters and poets of the Sixties; many still meet here every Saturday.

My guide this afternoon is Juliana López May, the talented young chef who presides over Patagonia Sur when chef-owner Francis Mallmann is away. "Order the special," she counsels. I order three dishes: tortilla española (a potato-and-chorizo frittata); vacío al horno, a fortifying beef stew made with eye of round, tomatoes and onions; and tripe with lentils and chickpeas, which shows that in this country, beef-rich as it is, nothing goes to waste.

Leaning over a swan-shaped water spigot at the bar, the taciturn bartender tells me, "Borges came here a lot. He was muy amigo mio." Every bartender I meet will tell me of his friendship with the well-lubricated Jorge Luis Borges, which may help explain why this novelist's work is so surreal.

2:00p.m. Café Tortoni, in Old Downtown
If Belle Epoque Buenos Aires had a main street, it was the Avenida de Mayo in Old Downtown. But times change, and so do neighborhoods. This one is no longer what it once was. Do not let this deter you from visiting Café Tortoni. It is as vibrant and polished as it was in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, when García Lorca, Borges (of course) and the great tango singer Carlos Gardel spent afternoons here.

López May and I order the cinnamon gelato, for which the original Café Tortoni in Paris was justly famous, and goblets of hard cider. I marvel at the animation of the two dice players at the next table. The smaller one throws his dice like a priest of the Inquisition casting out a devil during a difficult exorcism. His partner wears an expression that comes from 20 years of being beaten by the same guy.

3:30p.m. Confitería Ideal, in Old Downtown
Of all the cafés in the city, the Ideal is probably the most iconic. In the Thirties and Forties, the era of Evita Péron (she was an habitué), upward of a thousand people would congregate downstairs. They would get petits fours from one long case, Champagne from another or chocolates from a third, or they'd dig into a lucerito, a warm brioche with egg and ham that was a popular sandwich of the Fifties. Great tango artists would entertain from the balcony, which overlooks the main siting room. Back in the Thirties, when an all-female tango band was an institution at the Ideal, one essayist wrote that the musicians looked the way "the open heavens would appear to the souls of Purgatory." I take it he meant that they looked good.

López May and I sit on bentwood chairs at one of the small tables that ring the dance floor. A hundred tango lovers gracefully intertwine or clumsily tangle. Short old men and lithe young women, stiletto-slim experts,a group of eager and ungainly midwestern tourists and veteran porteño couples move around the floor to the music of love. I think of the tango as the blues with just a dash of hope.

5:00p.m.La Biela, in Barrio Recoleta
As the heat of the day begins to pass, I walk to the ultrafashionable area known as Barrio Recoleta, which shares its name with the fashionable cemetery where the rich and famous of Buenos Aires rest in marble mausoleums. In the middle of the neighborhood park, a giant rubber tree spreads its branches, and there, in the leafy coolness, cafés like La Biela have staked out a slice of shade with inviting tables.

There are more gorgeous people here showing off Karl Lagerfeld's latest collection than anywhere this side of Paris. I linger over a cheek-puckering fresh lemonade that I water down with seltzer. A man in a well-tailored suit purrs into his cell phone. Maybe he is calling the knockout two tables down and wheedling his way into a date. If I were single, I would. Something tells me that he isn't single either, but that doesn't seem to stop him.

7:30 p.m. La Perla, in La Boca
A 20-minute drive from Barrio Recoleta takes me to the raucous old neighborhood of La Boca, where the names of stores and businesses reveal its Italian heritage. López May drops me at La Perla, where I am drawn into conversation with Lalo Sussi, a self-described poet, journalist, essayist and actor. He recommends stagianata, an orecchiette-like pasta, which arrives in an oregano-rich marinara--good down-home Sicilian fare. "Bill Clinton came here," he tells me, "and Carlos Gardel. Borges used to drink here."

Where didn't he drink? I wonder.

9:30 p.m.Británico, in San Telmo
Adjoining La Boca is San Telmo, once the heart of Buenos Aires, but deserted by the upper class after a yellow-fever epidemic in the last century. With scores of cafés, tango bars and restaurants, it is very much alive again.

"You have to see San Telmo," Maita Barrenechea tells me. Barrenechea comes from an upper-class family, and I am surprised when she and her husband, Buby, take me into what could best be described as a joint. The 150-year-old Británico, one of the oldest cafés in the city, is a big room where musicians stack up their guitars against the bar. Student couples, poetry and science books open in front of them, sip coffee and gaze into each other's eyes. Way in the back a guy who looks like the original beatnik plays speed chess with an even older beatnik. I order a beer. Everyone has beer. Food is an afterthought.

Most of the patrons ignore the television, which is tuned to a crucial soccer match. Barrenechea is transfixed. "Goal," she screams when her team scores. No one looks up. No one else cares. Británico is a café for lovers, for musicians, for artists, for chess maniacs...but not for sports addicts.

It is only 11:00--much too early for a true Argentinean to have dinner. Barrenechea suggests Champagne at a local tango bar.

"A person could get used to this kind of life," I remark.

"A person does," she answers.

Buenos Aires Black Book
BarBaro 415 Tres Sargentos, La City; 011-54-11-4-311-6856
Británico corner of Calles Brasil and Defensa, across from Parque Lezama, San Telmo
Café Tortoni 825 Avenida de Mayo, Old Downtown; 011-54-11-4-342-4328
Confitería Ideal 384 Calle Suipacha, Old Downtown; 011-54-11-4-326-0521
La Biela 600 Avenida Quintana, Barrio Recoleta; 011-54-11-4-804-0449
La Perla 1899 Pedro de Mendoza, La Boca; 011-54-11-4-301-2985

Peter Kaminsky is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about food and fishing, two passions he pursues in Argentina every chance he gets.

Published May 1999
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