I went to this bar hoping not to use phrases like “typical”, “oak panelling” and “original period charm” but the fact is that Plaza Bar Dorrego, with its graffitied oak panelling, typical selection of Argentine bar food and original fittings is absolutely charming and there’s little I can do to change that.
First opened at the end of the 19th century as an almacen and despacho de bebidas – the bar has seen tourists and locals passing though San Telmo for over 130 years. Faded photographs proudly chronicle some of the more famous faces – including the Clintons, Bobby De Niro, Eric Clapton and Robert Duval as well as Carlos Gardel and Borges.
Carlos, the head waitor, who has worked here for over twenty years says that nothing much has changed apart from a shiny 80-year old coffee maker being consigned to the dusty shelves along with elderly bottles of ginebra, anis and cognac.
“San Telmo is the oldest of the 100 neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires and this bar has kept the feeling of that time – so people like to come here and feel like it is the authentic Argentine experience,” he says as people read their morning papers and drink their coffees before sloping to work.
Defensa, along which the antique dealers, artisans and jumble sellers unfold their tables and unpack their treasures for the Sunday market every week, seems the perfect place for this relic of a bar to scoop up travellers after a long afternoon bartering and watching their backs for sneakthieves. Plaza Dorrego, opposite, with its live music and mini craft fair is a daily tourist honey-trap.
In the bar, the tables, scored with etching and love messages are made from reclaimed wood and look like they might have been borrowed from a turn of the century boys’ boarding school – which, indeed, they may have been.
Tango music, which has permeated San Telmo and seeps out of every mouse-hole and cobble-stone as barflies gossip over mournful accordion music under the watchful eyes of famous musicians and singers painted on the walls.
An electric blue Christmas tree, festooned with gaudy baubles and silver tinsel only serves to make the original cash register and cracked wooden spice drawers behind the bar look more like a portal to the past.
Unfortunately the price of authenticity is an exorbitant menu. Intriguingly the Dorrego Salad costs $48: given that it’s comprised of tomato, lettuce, onion, egg and – national favourite – ham and cheese – I imagine it must be a rather a special lettuce.
Coffee and three medialunas – a good benchmark for affordability – will set you back $17 and round tostados $22. Carlos recommends the lomitos, which are available from around $50.
Cider, always a scarce commodity in the city, is available for $16 a chopp and the bar also offers draught beers and stout although a stiff whiskey and a saucer of monkey nuts seems more appropriate.
This bar is deservedly on the list of bares notables but while it’s worth a visit it might be worth saving your pennies for souveniers and steaks elsewhere.