Situated on a quiet corner in Almagro, Café El Banderin evokes an earlier era in Buenos Aires, when the city’s culture was largely defined by the hoards of Italian and Spanish immigrants that flooded la capital during the last century. The cafe’s high ceilings, dim lighting, yellowing and cracked plaster walls, and a dozen or so wooden tables nicked and scratched by decades of customers give it a decidedly old world feel, justifying its place on the list of 54 historic bars in the city.
The largely porteño clientele adds to this vibe as well, making it hard to believe that El Banderin exists in the same city as the swanky boliches and trendy gringo bars that dominate nearby Palermo. The reining style for men is dark, wooly sweaters, worn-in suit jackets, and scraggly beards, while the women sport the obligatory back-length chestnut hair and jangly collections of silver bracelets.
Café El Banderin originally opened in 1923 as El Asturiano, a corner store selling staples such as sugar, coffee, and tea to the Italian and Spanish immigrants who had come to work in nearby Abasto.
When Mario Riesco took over from his Spanish father in 1958, he decided to convert it into a café for football aficionados. He began to decorate the walls with the flags of different clubs from around the country and the world, and the storefront soon became Café El Banderin, which means “the pennant” in Spanish. Riesco has been running it ever since, and still shows up every night to greet the patrons and work the bar.
“[Customers come] for the service,” Riesco said, wearing a ribbed mustard sweater and gray wool pants, with a gigantic wooden cross dangling from his neck. “It’s a place where you can meet your friends. Here, the clients feel like they’re in their home. Here, the client is a friend.”
On an otherwise quiet Wednesday evening, every table in the café is full, occupied by porteños who chat through the night over drinks and picadas. A trio of portly, mustached men laugh over glasses of whiskey and plates of salami, cheese, and bread. A young couple drinks beer and munches on potato chips at the next table over. Four 30-something men in suits share a bottle of wine or two. Riesco himself emerges from behind the bar to talk with the customers, make sure everyone’s drinks are topped off, and take out the trash.
The café has had its share of notable clientele as well, including Carlos Gardel, Juan Carlos Godoy, and Daniel Passarella (footballer from Riesco’s favourite team, River).
But El Banderin has not been kept completely secret from the city’s expats. During the World Cup, groups of Europeans and North Americans showed up to watch matches on the café’s conspicuous flat screen TV. Riesco attributed the increase in foreigners this year to the Internet, which he said allowed people to discover his bar and organize groups to watch their home countries’ games.
But now that the World Cup is over, those looking for a genuinely porteño vibe will not be disappointed. Come during the day for coffee and facturas, and at night for the extensive but cheap whiskey menu and an assortment of sandwiches and picadas.
Just make sure to bring your conversation starters – El Banderin seems perfectly designed to encourage the kind of café philosophizing that leads two otherwise rational people to get into a contentious debate about Foucault after a bottle of wine on an empty stomach.
And if the discussion ever does die, you can pass the time admiring the hundreds of club football pennants that adorn the walls. Try and spot the cafe’s oldest, the flag from the 1950 Camion de Futbol Infantil Evita.
North Americans should not bother searching for their home team’s pennant, however. Riesco said that while he would like to hang them, they take up “five times” as much room as the other flags and he just does not have the space.