Don’t be deceived. It’s not a bar. Or at least not the sort of bar where you can just pop in and have a drink. But it is a tango cafe and if a tango show is what you’re looking for, it’s a good place to go.
At the age of 24, Bar Sur’s creator Ricardo Montesino told his mother: “I’m going to open a spot where people from all over the world will want to visit.” And that’s what he did. He opened the bar on the corner, tucked away at the end of Calle Independencia because he liked the neglected, bohemian feel of San Telmo. He also liked the sense of privacy that could be enjoyed at that time by being located on a hidden corner.
Around that time, in the late sixties, old houses were being demolished and decorations from them would be auctioned around Buenos Aires. Montesino started to collect bits and pieces from these auctions to furnish his bar. The design of the bar hasn’t changed since then. The interior is still adorned with the same things from the Slovenian oak fixtures to the curtains. The only thing that really seems like a recent addition is a small framed still from Wong Kar Wai’s film, Happy Together, that was filmed in Bar Sur.
The bar opened in 1967 and used to be the location for a variety of artistic endeavours, from underground theatre to literary workshops. As time went by and Calle Independencia expanded, tango shows were incorporated into their cultural activities. This evolved into the traditional tango show that Bar Sur offers today.
The bar is closed during the day and to enter at night, you have to pay to see the show. There is also the option to have dinner. The menu for this is fixed and the night that I was there, it included a picada of hams and cheeses, empanadas, meat casserole and ice cream. There is also an option for vegetarians. It costs $180 just to see the show and $250 to have dinner included. The bar also had a selection 2005 to 2007 Rutini family wines. You can choose from cabernet sauvignon, malbec and gewürztraminer.
When you enter the bar, it is much smaller than it appears in photos. There are about ten small tables lining the walls and the space in the middle is reserved for the performers. It is an intimate space and we had to peer through the twinkling candlelight to make out Montesino’s framed memories on the walls and small details, such as a string of pearls hanging off the banisters and a trilby perched atop the mirror behind the bar.
The show rotated between a small band (featuring an accordionist, a pianist and a bassist), a male singer with an accordion, a female singer and a couple dancing.
The band played classics such as Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango and took some requests, so if you have a tango song you’re particularly impartial to, make sure you make a note of it before going. As no-one was dancing to them, they pushed the rubato and improvised over everything. It was all overwhelmingly romantic, as we sat there that tiny bar with the beat of the music pushing and pulling and the pianists hands running wild up and down the keyboard.
The female singer had a voice designed to tug at the heartstrings and carried on the romance with well known classics such as El Choclo. She chatted to guests in between songs and played the part of compere. She also finished our evening with a storming Spanish rendition of La Foule that would have made Edith Piaf proud.
The male singer was our Carlos Gardel for the night. With his accordion resting on a leg propped up by a chair and his fedora tipped over it, he sang Por Una Cabeza and poured his heart out to us through his music.
In between all this, the dancers added some drama and nifty footwork. I’ve seen my fair share of tango, but I was still mightily impressed by this couple. If you think you might have a problem with feet flicking over your food, try to get a table on the elevated floor – the footwork really is quite fancy and the ladies calves might have a close brush with your casserole.
It might have been my impartiality to accordion music or just the heat coming off the candles, but when this couple danced, I too wanted to be thrown dramatically, yet stylishly, over someone’s dinner by a man wearing an oversized smoking jacket.
Luckily, I had that opportunity. As it’s a participatory show, the dancers would invite guests to dance with them after each dance. I wouldn’t say my visions of flashing an alluring amount of thigh and being thrown backwards (with a rose in my mouth…) came true. In fact, for him, it was probably more akin to shuffling a large pot plant around the room, but again, the heat and the music did its magic: when the chequered floor stop swirling and I stopped treading on his feet, I scampered off back to my table feeling like a child at Disneyland.
So yes, romance is the theme of the night.
Montesino, it would seem, has fulfilled his aim as Bar Sur is often a must-see tango stop for tourists from all over the world. When I asked him whether being one of the 54 bares notables affected how he ran the place, he said it didn’t: “It is an honour to be part of this group and share this space with excellent colleagues. Bar Sur has never changed and never will. We were chosen for what we are, not what they want us to be, so we are our own bosses.” He does not have the same issue that other bar owners have had with complying to government expectations of how a bar notable should be because he has never wanted to change his bar.
He described the essence of Bar Sur as “poetic and bohemian” and that sounds about right. That said, it is a particular type of poeticism that Bar Sur exudes. It’s intimate in the sense that you are invited to take part in the show and to chat with the staff, but don’t expect intimate moments for two. It is difficult to have a conversation over the music and as all the chairs and tables face in towards the show, it’s not really about your dinner either.
It’s the sort of poeticism encountered in a musical. You just have to let go and embrace it. Take your other half, pretend you’re sexual, tango-dancing beasts for the night, pretend you live in a black and white movie and lose yourselves to musical drama for the night.