Los 36 Billares, one of the 54 historic bars of Buenos Aires, was founded in 1894 and, although it underwent a revamp in 2005, the look and feel of this cafe-bar is still of a time long since over. Situated on the elegant and tree lined Avenida de Mayo, the bar has a central location in Buenos Aires. I expected to find a place filled with tourists, but was pleasantly surprised to discover the bar has retained a local feel. The porteño customers were abundant, the majority in their latter years, enjoying a quiet coffee in the afternoon, but there were also families and a sprinkling of tourists.
The exterior of Los 36 Billares is wood panelled, a theme which is continued inside. The interior decor is simple with a smattering of interesting looking paintings and a distinctive Movado clock hangs from the ceiling close to the bar. As in many restobares around Argentina a television is always on during the day, broadcasting news and sports images to the customers while a radio behind the bar blares out the continual chat of a radio presenter. The staff are friendly and laidback and I got the impression you could quietly slip inside, grab a coffee and wile away hours without being disturbed.
The menu is simple but effective and there is currently a bicentenary-themed daily menu for $45, which includes a main of the day, a dessert and drink. If you are tired of medialunas for breakfast you can get an ‘American’ breakfast for $24 which includes tea, coffee, toast, jams, ham and orange juice. There is also a selection of billiard themed meals, a hint to what the bar is really all about.
Although during the day there is a lack of music, this is made up for in the evening when there is a daily tango show, which you can enjoy for free or whilst eating dinner for $60 (includes a drink). The show is performed from a large raised platform in the middle, opposite the bar, whose empty presence during the day is hard to miss. The tango show is a new addition to Los 36 Billares as the stage and daily shows were added when the bar was renovated in 2005. This was a conscious move to expand the appeal of the place and add a cultural dynamic to a venue famed for a very different side to Argentine culture.
This other side to Los 36 Billares is one which I’m sure many customers have no idea is going on – and may completely miss. The more observant clientele might notice a steady stream of patrons entering and then disappearing into hidden parts. Whilst quietly drinking my coffee a constant flow of men in leather coats, sunglasses and slick-backed hair walked in from Avenida de Mayo immediately making their way to the back of the room. Another collection of men carrying small bags entered the bar and walked straight down some stairs to the left of the main entrance. Following them down the stairs you enter another world, for Los 36 Billares (as you might have guessed from the name) is famous for its billiards hall. It is here, in 1926, that the Argentine Billiards Association was born and the bar continues to host anything from a friendly game to an international billiards competition (the very best in the country come here to play). As a woman I immediately felt I was walking into a very male dominated world. Of the 80 or so people amongst the billiards tables, not one was female.
The hall is dark, with mottled colours, in contrast to the bright warm bar upstairs. There are around 20 tables, half of which are traditional billiards and half for ‘casino’, a game similar to billiards which has no pockets. The tables have antique lights hanging over them and the equipment looks as ancient as the bar. Surrounding some of the tables are rows of grey raised chairs for spectators. You can imagine the intense atmosphere during a competition; hours and days being lost to players as they pursue glory in this basement room with no windows.
When Los Billares first opened in 1894, many bars in Buenos Aires would have had billiards tables, but Los 36 Billares was always one of the main venues for the sport and continues to be at the centre of the Argentine billiards world today. While other bars have ditched the game for more restaurant space, billiards is still at the heart of this bar. Not only do they have a bar and restaurant manager, but a sports manager is hired to manage all the action downstairs.
As I walked to the end of the billiards hall, the men in leather coats were still nowhere to be seen. It was not until I walked up some different stairs, back into the main bar, that I noticed another area tucked away from the view of customers in the restaurant. Whilst the billiards room had a quiet intensity, here in the games room, there was far more noise and banter, the atmosphere more playful. Here, another 60 men were playing cards, dominoes and chess.
First impressions suggest that Los 36 Billares is no different from many of the bars and restaurants around Buenos Aires. The menu is quirky, but not fine dining; the tango show is popular, but it is not an historic dance hall and the interior decor is pleasant, but nothing out-of-the-ordinary. However, the billiards room is really very special. Just a few steps from the bustling Avenida de Mayo you can experience a slice of underground Buenos Aires.