Issue 39 – May 2006
With it’s broad avenues, classic European architecture, museums, theater, and arts, Buenos Aires easily deserves its moniker of “the Paris of South America.” Then again, it really deserves to stand on its own. The blend of European and native American tradition is unique in the city of more than 12 million people. While visually it may evoke much of Europe (Evita was filmed using Budapest as a backdrop!), the pace, sights, and sounds are rooted strongly in Latin America.
Restaurants, other than those catering specifically to tourists, tend to open mid to late evening – often not until 9 P.M. The range of cuisine available in Buenos Aires is vast, covering the world of food. This wasn’t true a few years ago, when the parrilla (grill, or steakhouse) or porteña (local style) restaurants were nearly all that you could find. While those certainly still dominate the scene (particularly in the central areas) it is not difficult to find food from around the globe. Locals have become far more adventurous in their dining tastes, and with the amazing exchange rate to the U.S. dollar or Euro, the demands of tourists and ex-pats for a more varied range has created a restaurant boom unlike anything in Buenos Aires since the early 20th century.
For dining well, Buenos Aires is one of the best bargain destinations in the world right now. It is easy to eat a very good meal (the equivalent of a two to three star restaurant) complete with decent wine, for $20 a person. There are many options below that price range in casual neighborhood venues and at many “ethnic” restaurants. It is also possible to splurge and spend double or triple that, but it will take some effort to do so.
Nothing is more internationally identified with Buenos Aires than tango. This sexy, sultry dance appears in films, on television, and is close to the heart of any local. If you’re going to spend time here, you need to experience it. The father of tango, in the sense that he brought it to the world, was Carlos Gardel. This eponymous restaurant is located in Once, the home of many tango schools, tango-related shopping, and also the center of inexpensive shopping for the city (think Lower East Side New York). The venue is the size of a theater, and that’s exactly what it is. You can go just for the show, or you can reserve for dinner and a show, which I highly recommend. You arrive between 8:30 and 9:30, earlier is slightly better as you’ll be less rushed to finish dinner before the 10 P.M. curtain time. The food is creative “international” style, and really quite good, especially considering that the half-dozen or so options for entrada, principale, y postre (appetizer, entrée, and dessert), are being served to several hundred people at the same time! The show is a wonderful mix of song and dance, primarily tango, some milonga (the even sexier “dance of the prostitutes”), and stretches for two to three hours. If you make a reservation through your hotel the restaurant even provides a shuttle service to and from (though given how inexpensive cabs are, you’re better off getting here on your own). You will spend a bit more than the average, but still, dinner (house wine included or you can bring your own) and show combined will only run you $60! Esquina Carlos Gardel, Carlos Gardel 3200, Once, 4867-6363. Reservations required. Open 7 days a week for dinner and show. www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar
LA FAR+CIA (LA FARMACIA)
For the gay tourist this is a must. Located in San Telmo, Buenos Aires’ antique shopping district, this delightful little restaurant is gay-operated, pretty much gay-staffed, and a large percentage of the clientele is gay as well. The lounge downstairs is comfortable for a drink while the dining room upstairs is casual and nicely decorated. In good weather, there is a beautiful roof deck with a great view of the district. The cuisine is eclectic, creative takes on “porteña” (porteño or -a is what locals call themselves, meaning “port dweller.”) In terms of food, that tends to mean an Italian-influenced mix of classic parrilla grilled dishes plus pastas. La Far+cia also offers some nice vegetarian options. Service is friendly, and for this city, quite efficient. You will also probably get out of here with a full dinner for not much over $10. La Far+cia, Bolivar 898, corner of Estados Unidos, San Telmo, 4300-6151. No reservations. OpenTuesday through Sunday, dinner only. www.lafarmaciarestobar.com.ar
In general when searching for restaurants in any given city, I avoid the center of tourism. For port city San Francisco it’s Fisherman’s Wharf, while in New York it’s the South Street Seaport. Here in Buenos Aires, it’s Puerto Madero, a multi-block stretch of gleaming new residences, hotels, offices, and dozens of restaurants. I don’t avoid these areas because of lack of quality, but because generally, tourism equates to inflated cost. That’s true in Puerto Madero, but nonetheless, it is a neighborhood that is worth walking through, and here and there you can find a true gem. Roque is one of my favorite Italian restaurants in the city. It’s quite large, seating well over a hundred people, but it’s extraordinarily comfortable. There’s a nice view of the port and plenty of people watching. The food is a mix of traditional and creative contemporary Italian. The staff are efficient, friendly, and multi-lingual. For visitors who want to relax and be taken care of, and be able to count on finding someone who can converse in English (not as common as you might think in a cosmopolitan city of this size), this is a great choice. It’s a little pricey (about $30 a person) but not outrageously so. Roque, Alicia Moreau de Justo 256, in Puerto Madero, 4315-6343. Reservations recommended at dinner, especially weekends. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. www.loderoque.com.ar
One of the things I love finding is a restaurant that just wows me from the moment I walk in. It can be a variety of things, and this place seems to have them all: it’s beautifully designed in a modern yet very warm style, and it’s got multiple levels for everything from hanging out at the bar, to dining, to a private dining room, to a lounge. My one criticism: the English translations on the menu could use a lot of work. It’s located in the heart of Recoleta, an area where most tourists tend to spend a lot of time for the museums and galleries, and, of course, the famous Recoleta Cemetery. After laying flowers in front of Evita’s tomb and snapping a dozen or so photos, you’re going to need somewhere nearby to recover your energy. 788 offers some of the most creative, interesting food in the city. It’s not particularly any one cuisine, instead taking elements from a wide range. It may be one of Buenos Aires’ few true “fusion” restaurants. The food is beautifully presented, the service is friendly and professional (not to mention attractive). The pricing is extraordinary for the quality of the food you get here. 788 Food Bar, Areneales 1877, in Recoleta, 4814-4788. Reservations recommended at dinner. Open for breakfast and lunch Monday – Friday, Saturday Brunch, and dinner Monday – Saturday. www.788foodbar.com.ar
Several local friends had asserted that this parrilla was a must, one or two even claimed it was likely the best parrilla in the city. Atmosphere-wise, it’s certainly the most energetic, exciting steakhouse I’ve visited. The style is modern industrial, with high vaulted ceilings and painted concrete walls. Decor is minimal, tables are large and comfortable, and one entire wall is dominated by an open kitchen. The staff is young, attractive, and multilingual as, for the most part, is the clientele. The quality of the food coming out of the kitchen is quite good. Is it the best steak in the city? No. But it’s certainly well above the norm. There’s a tendency to be a little arty with the plating, but that fits the venue. They’re also very accommodating when it comes to special requests. The desserts are fantastic. The pricing is quite reasonable for the quality. If you’re looking for a steakhouse that isn’t a stodgy, white-tablecloth venue with older, bored waiters, Miranda is, indeed, a must. Miranda, Costa Rica 5602, corner of Fitz Roy, in Palermo, 4771-4255. Reservations recommended at dinner. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.
Passport magazine is a relatively new, ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay travel magazine. My friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who have owned and run QSF magazine for many years, launched this publication recently. It has received industry accolades. They asked me to come along and write the occasional article for this venture as well.