FOOD & TRAVEL
Emerging from the subte at la Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires, you step into a historical playground. All around is grandiose Italian and French style architecture, homages to the immigrants that built this modern city.
The nearby Metropolitan Cathedral, museums, and university campuses make this cosmopolitan center a well-tread place. While strolling this area during lunch means encountering crowds of porteños, or dwellers of Buenos Aires, you can escape the hustle by taking a seat at Café Tortoni, the oldest known café in Argentina, and arguably South America.
Built in 1858 by a French immigrant named Touan, Café Tortoni has a long and complicated history. This storefront is a piece of history to both see and to taste. Constructed to mimic street cafés in France and named for a café frequented by Parisian elites, the building is intricately adorned with sleek molding, marble tabletops, and a 1.4 million dollar Tiffany glass ceiling! Walking inside, framed artwork and historical images hug the walls, embodying a visual timeline of the café’s past.
At the turn of the 20th century, another Frenchman, Don Celestino Curutchet, bought the café. While he was owner, a group of painters, writers, musicians, and journalists who frequented the café formed the “Agrupación de Gente de Artes y Letras” (“The Association of Arts and Letters”).
The group of regulars met habitually in the basement. It was around this time the basement was used for various events, from group meetings to poetry readings to tango shows. Even today, the basement is still a popular venue for jazz, tango, and poetry readings. If venturing into an old basement isn’t your thing, then just head to the back where there is a designated area for playing billiards, dominoes, and dice. Classy, right?
Just as Paris coffee shops are known as popular meeting spots for prominent artists over the course of history, Café Tortoni has a fine list of famous former patrons, Albert Einstein, the king of Spain, tango singer Carlos Gardel, and writer Jorge Luis Borges to name a few. Today, the table that Borges regularly sat in is even adorned with a wax sculpture of the famous Argentinean writer!
While the visual aesthetic of Café Tortoni is enough to make it worth the visit, one must not forget the overall focus of this establishment: coffee!
Just as most Buenos Aires architecture imitates European buildings, the café culture stems from the Italian and French cultures of immigrants that call the city home. In Buenos Aires, meeting somebody at a café to catch-up or stopping by for a mid-morning coffee break is common practice.
In Argentine culture, it is custom to meet your friends around 5 or 6pm for coffee and pastries (called la merienda), which provides you with a caffeine boost to fuel the rest of the night’s activities, including dinner. That’s right-- even on weekdays, Argentineans typical dinner time is around 9pm!
In traditional Argentinean cafés. there are various options of tasty, caffeinated drinks to choose from. A common pick is café con leche, which is simply coffee with steamed milk. Almost all cafés offer a deal of café con leche con medialunas, which translates to “half moons,” which are croissants.
There are other coffee drinks: café (shot of espresso), cortado (same as macchiato: espresso with milk to cut bitterness), lagrima (steamed milk with a drop of espresso) and on occasion, capuchino (cappuccino). It’s good to note that when ordering any of these beverages, especially a simple café, it will never be served alone. Expect some form of cookies or small snack served on the tea dish, along with a small cup of sparkling water and sometimes orange juice on the side. It is good to remember the direct translation of coffee in Spanish is café, and ordering this will get you espresso, not a plain cup of Joe.
Generally, café fare varies widely. Pastries of many sorts are always available, and some places even serve full lunch and dinner. Going to a café will always be a sit-down affair. Anticipate decent-sized menus at most locations—they want you to stick around and enjoy yourself! If you are at Café Tortoni specifically, the chocolate con churros is famous and unique. It’s sipping chocolate served with 3 small churros that are filled with an Argentinean classic, dulce de leche!
The French influence here is quite obvious, and you can generally choose from savory or sweet treats. Another cultural favorite is the submarino, which is steaming hot milk served with a bar of milk chocolate that you melt into the glass cup yourself and drink like a hot chocolate. If you have kids, or maybe just a sweet tooth, this is definitely the perfect order!
While new stores like Starbucks have made their way into Argentinean cities, the longstanding café culture will always exist, and is a small piece of culture that represents Argentina’s roots. Places like Café Tortoni, which has witnessed almost 160 years of Buenos Aires history, are a testament to the strength of the café tradition. While the country has been through difficult, tumultuous times, the café culture remains a major aspect of every day porteño life.