No se qué is a phrase in English probably translated best as je ne sais quoi. It’s also the phrase most used to describe Buenos Aires’ quirky collection of cafes and bars. So distinctive is the atmosphere of porteño bars that we cannot even describe them in our native tongue. There seems to be something about Café Tortoni, El Federal, Cafe Margot and the like which just leaves visitors to the Argentine capital speechless.
These are the 54 Buenos Aires bars which have been enshrined by the government as ‘bares notables’. They are so defined according to a number of criteria : unusual architectural features, because they occupy a special place in the neighbourhood’s hearts and minds or most importantly because they have a sense of history about them, with square wooden tables which have been graced by some of Argentina’s greatest historical figures.
The initiative began in 1998 when the Buenos Aires government legislated the official designation of ‘bares notables’ in order to do justice to the city’s unique drinking history. This is a useful award on many levels as not only does it commemorate the bar’s place in society, on a practical score it means that the buildings receive subsidies from the government for conservation programmes.
Furthermore, in an economic climate which doesn’t exactly favour the luxury of eating and drinking out, the businesses receive a welcome boost. The selected cafes, bars, billiard halls and confectionaries are now permitted to sport a sticker with the title ‘bar notable’ advertising their special status, which provides a huge draw for residents and visitors alike. These porteño institutions currently total at the magic number 54, although this is a flexible figure which expands annually as more and more establishments are examined for inclusion on the prestigious list.
Indeed, there are thousands of bars to choose from in Buenos Aires. The city’s cafe culture is something of an unusual feature for a Latin American city. It owes its strength to Argentina’s significant influx of European immigrants, who brought their love for filling plazas and pavements with low tables and coffee cups to Buenos Aires. This is visible in their architecture which is often either a direct copy of or at least faintly inspired by European designs. El Federal, one of the bars which exemplifies this best, is filled with a faded old world elegance.
Although the trademark Buenos Aires cafe design has its roots in the turn of the century, that’s not to say that the cult of the coffee bean does not live on today, nor that has not become a truly Argentine passion. Porteños are famed for the love of whiling entire afternoons away chatting sport, politics, art or perhaps most frequently just analysing each other’s personal lives over a cortado or two.
Perhaps the most internationally famous of the 54 is Café Tortoni, the city’s oldest cafe, which celebrated its 150th birthday in 2008. Legend has it that the cafe was founded by French immigrant Jean Touan, who hoped to baptise his new world experience with a replica of the Parisian Tortoni, a meeting point for the French aristocracy in Boulevard des Italiens. It is an establishment which has been beloved by both the dedicated followers of guidebooks along with tango star Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s foremost intellectual novelist Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca and artist Benito Quinquela Martin.
Tortoni is not the only cafe however to testify to literary connotations. Many wear them on their sleeves, sporting photos of Jorge Luis Borges,Ernesto Sabato and the like dawdling over white china cups. London City goes one further and boasts that Julio Cortázar wrote The Prizes bent over a table in its hallowed halls. Nowadays, although you may be more likely to encounter a foreigner writing the next great South American novel than one of Argentina’s literary greats, nevertheless these are bars which preserve an enchanting aura of times past.
That’s not to say that the beating heart of Buenos Aires society is not still to be found in many of these venerable establishments. If at times there are some which are over-stylised in representation of the glorified good old days, others retain an authentic feel, dangling local sausages over the counters and offering traditional Argentine recipes to a clientele of diehard barrio fans. Café Margot, pride and joy of up and coming neighbourhood Boedo, exhibits local artists’ work on its exposed brick walls just as Café de García shows its sporting allegiance by pinning with pride a Boca Juniors t-shirt signed by Diego Maradona onto a wall.
The cultural contribution made by the 54 extends to all aspects of Buenos Aires’ colourful society. It wouldn’t be Buenos Aires if the city’s iconic dance didn’t feature. It comes in various guises, perhaps the most respected of which lies in the antiquated halls of Confíteria la Ideal. Beamed to houses round the world courtesy of the film Evita, it offers regular popular milongas frequented by an eclectic yet dedicated crowd. Equally, many other bars have elected to put on regular tango shows, in part to boost numbers of foreign visitors, in part to illustrate the extent to which their existence is woven into the very fabric of porteño society.
Over the course of the next year, The Argentina Independent is going to risk death by cortado to review each and every one of Buenos Aires’ 54 notable bars. No cafe con leche will go unsampled, every picada will be picked at and the newspaper will be powered by a permanant caffeine high. Keep checking the website for the latest reviews of the greatest drinking holes. Who knows, perhaps the writing team will achieve the unachieveable and do justice in words to the elusive no sé que of a Buenos Aires bar.
See www.bue.gov.ar for the full list of addresses for the bares notables. Reviews will appear weekly on the Argentina Independent website in the The Consumer section.