A guide to Buenos Aires’ buzzing café culture

Flight Centre , November 2014

A Guide To Buenos Aires’ Buzzing Cafe Culture

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By day Buenos Aires is a fast-paced metropolis but come 5pm in the Argentinian capital, time slows down.
Come 5pm, the port city reveals its true European flair as the cafés scattered generously along the wide streets and narrow laneways of every barrio, or neighborhood, begin to buzz.
It’s a time to linger, it’s a time to chat and to people watch. It’s time to delight in Buenos Aires’ rich and unhurried café culture at its best. A city of Italian immigrants, the café scene is one of the most prominent and distinctive characteristics of Buenos Aires. And the inhabitants know all too well how coffee is best enjoyed. There’s no charm or pleasure in rushing through the streets, take-away in hand, or grabbing a caffeine hit from a hole-in-the-wall. You’ll often find the locals or Porteños (people of the port) sitting for hours over a single cup.
Out on the streets, a place to soak up the authentic barrio spirit, the pavement is lined with quaint wooden chairs and tables, facing outwards for observing the passing world. Men wear trench coats and relaxed crossed-legged with the day’s paper while women chat animatedly about everything from fashion to politics.
Inside, the spaces are airy, the lights are low and the settings are luxurious. Suited waiters service white-clothed tables and leatherette booths in these Parisian-style hybrid coffee shop restaurants that are frequented by friends, artists, students, lovers and business colleagues.
And in true European style, a coffee at this time of day - especially when ordered solo (black) - rarely comes unaccompanied. This is no time to be calorie-conscious.
During la merienda or the afternoon meal, which lasts until 8pm, Italian, French and traditional Argentinian fare fuse in an array of toasts, cakes, biscuits and crispy Argentinian croissants called medialuna dipped in the coffee of your choice. And that’s without even a glance at a café menu.
If you ever wonder how the Argentinians don’t starve before their 10pm dinner? This is why.
These stylish eateries serve an assortment of sandwiches, empanadas and pastries as well as breaded and fried cutlets of either veal or chicken, called milanesas. The menus are vast and the prices are cheap so it’s tempting to order more than one option.
But if you’re only after a drink, don’t worry. You’ll never find yourself feeling pressured to order something extra in an Argentinian café and the bill doesn’t arrive until you’ve asked for it so stay as long as you want.
As for the coffee, you will be hard pressed to find filtered coffee here, suitably referred to as café Americano by the locals. No, a Buenos Aires barista prides himself on creating delicious Italian-style coffee with an Argentinian twist.
To feel like a true Porteño, order un café con crema (a shot of espresso with a spoonful of whipped cream) or una lagrima (steamed milk and foam with just a drop of coffee).
Served in miniscule cups that make you wonder how the locals manage to nurse one for hours, the ‘café’ is brought out with copious amounts of sugar. Don’t give yourself away as a tourist by waving it away - Argentinians love their sweets and coffee is no exception. If it’s too late in the day for a caffeine high, you might discover un submarine. It’s not a coffee drink but a deconstructed hot chocolate. The waiter will bring you a glass of warm milk and a chocolate bar, which you can dip in at your leisure and watch the creamy colours blend together before stirring and sipping.
So in a city with such an abundance of cafés it’s helpful to know where to go, not just what to order.
You’ll pay a little extra to drink on Plaza de Mayo, the central plaza, but it might be worth it for the people watching opportunities. To experience Buenos Aries’ culture and history visit the country’s oldest café, the famous Café Tortoni. This ornate 1800s building may be a tourist trap but it is still a special place, cozy and archaic.
Head to Palermo for the always-buzzing Plaza Serrano, venture into San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego and watch the tango dancers into the evening or visit Plaza Francia near the beautiful and ghostly cemetery in Recoleta where you can mix with the country’s elite who have been shopping nearbyon Avenida Alvear.
And despite the many charming family-run cafés, don’t pass up on the chains. Havanna, Bonafide, Café Martinez are the locally-owned coffee shop chains in the city. Havanna, boasting the invention of the alfajores biscuits, is dotted all around the city and has a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
You could spend days soaking up Buenos Aries rich and relaxing café culture but at the very least spend hours in your favourite one - just remember to ask for the check or it may never come.

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