Buenos Aires’ best cafes

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

The Argentine capital is a city of coffee connoisseurs. Our man in BA, Kaye Holland, has the low-down on the can’t miss cafes

Buenos Aires is arguably best known its superlative steak, sultry tango (“How do you fill your time if you don’t tango?”, is a question I have been asked on more than one occasion by a perplexed Porteño, since arriving in town) and futbol (soccer).

But Buenos Aires has another great and enduring obsession: coffee. Caffeine runs in the blood of Portenos bringing them out of their homes and onto the streets, in search of a coffee house. Life happens here in these historic cafes (which, with their unique, elegant stained glass windows, are a million miles from the identikit Costa coffee shops that plague the high street at home) so expect to see Portenos eating, drinking, posing, people watching, fighting, kissing and laughing until late into the night.

Which cafe serves the best Argentine cortado (essentially a shot of espresso, with an equal amount of steamed milk)? Ask five different Portenos and chances are you’ll get six answers but, below, you’ll find a few of my own personal favourites…

Regardless of which cafe you frequent, you can look forward to quite a show. Cortados, Cafe con leche (coffee with milk), Cafe chico (espresso) and Lagrima (milk with a couple of drops of coffee) come accompanied by a glass of sparkling water and some small, moist biscuits  – all included in the price.

Lastly, be prepared to linger: Portenos will easily spend the best part of a morning nursing a single cafe cortado and, as the old adage goes, when in Rome…

La Biela
Buenos Aires answer to New York’s Upper East Side is Recoleta – an upmarket neighbourhood that’s home to the landmark La Biela. This historic cafe house has been serving Buenos Aires’ elite for over 70 years. On a sunny afternoon, the best tables to bag are those on the al fresco front terrace, but be warned: you will pay 20 per cent more for the privilege. However if you’re looking for a picturesque place to restore energy before checking out Recoleta’s biggest draw – the cemetery of same name where Evita was buried, along with generations of Argentina’s elite – La Biela can’t be beaten.

Los 36 Billares
Established in 1894, Los 36 Billards is perhaps the most traditional bar in Buenos Aires. Located on the lower half of Avenue de Mayo (aka the heart and soul of BA), Los 36 Billares – as its name suggests – boasts 11 billiard tables in addition to six pool table and a snooker table that has,hosted world snooker champions.
Want to join them? Los 36 Billares operates a billiard and pool school for those who want to learn how to play. Billiards aside, follow in the footsteps of famous past guests like Michaelangelo Bavio Esquii, Abelardo Arias and the beloved Frederico Garcia Lorca and order a alfajore – a melt in the mouth cookie guaranteed to make you close your eyes with happiness.

Cafe Tortoni
Ah Cafe Tortoni…. The classic Cafe Tortoni is arguably the Rolls Royce of cafes and only a stone’s throw from Plaza de Mayo, the site of La Casa Rosada where Argentina’s famous footballing son, Diego Maradona, greeted crowds from the balcony after he helped his country lift the 1986 World Cup. La Casa Rosada is also where that other Argentine icon Evita addressed her legion of fans. But I digress…
No trip to BA is complete without stopping off at Baires’ oldest and most famous cafe for a couple of churros (fried pastry dough) washed down with a hot chocolate. Yes it’s overpriced and invariably packed with gringas (foreigners) but the high ceilings, wooden walls and crystal chandeliers combine to ensure that coffee here remains an endlessly elegant affair.

Bar Plaza Dorrego
Stepping into this traditional San Telmo jaunt is akin to stepping back in time. Unless you like a queue, avoid Sundays (when San Telmo’s iconic market takes place) and visit during the week. Grab a seat by a picturesque window and watch the professional tango dancers strut their stuff in the adjacent Plaza Dorrego, while surly (that’s half their charm) suited waiters serve small plates of biscuits and steaming cortados against a backdrop of graffitied walls, antique bottles and authentic tango music. Disfrutar! (Enjoy!)
Bar Plaza Dorrego, Defensa 1098 y Humberto Primo

London City
Want to sip your java at the spot where Julio Cortazar wrote his first novel, Los Premios (The Prizes)? Look to London Cafe – another classy Avenue de Mayo joint. But the real reason I love London City, with its attractive dark green awning, is for its ability to serve fab, fresh coffee. It’s the perfect place to read the papers and welcome the day. Weather permitting, grab a table on the street and watch the stylish (only professional athletes and tourists ever wear shorts in BA, even in the height of summer) Portenos slink by on their way to work.
London City, Avenue de Mayo 599

La Poesia
The ramshackle barrio of San Telmo – long a favourite with Buenos Aires’ artists owing to its (historically) low rents – is popular with Portenos and tourists alike. Why? Step forward the legendary Sunday market on Calle Defensa – and La Poseia. Coffee lovers can indulge their cravings at this San Telmo spot, whose old world atmosphere only adds to the appeal. Come for the coffee – stay for the chat. It’s the kind of place you pop in for a quick pick me up and three hours later, you’re still there – as I kind testify.

Las Violetas
Last, but by no means least, there’s Las Violetas, a French style 1884 pâtisserie and café that’s located over in Buenos Aires’ Almagro neighborhood. Picking my favourite BA coffee house is like asking a Mother to choose a favourite child. Since you ask however, Las Violetas – declared a Buenos Aires’ Heritage Site back in 1998 – gets my vote. Here, the cortado is served on silver platters by waiters in white jackets, in stunning surroundings (think black-and-white tiled floors, stained glass windows and marble columns). This special spot offers more than merely a cup of Joe: it guarantees a slick slice of middle-class Porteño life.
Las Violetas, Av. Rivadavia 3899

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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