Café culture is deeply embedded in the Argentine psyche, much more important than a quick caffeine injection, it represents a sacred break in the day; a moment of personal reflection, cultural enlightenment, or social interaction. Historically cafés have served as meeting points to plan revolutions, environs of collaboration for the greatest literary minds, and neutral grounds for encounters between politicians. Today the waiters at local cafés not only know the their regulars by name, but also have committed to memory their order, preferred table, and which newspaper they read.
Despite the rampant café culture throughout the city, Argentina does not produce coffee, rather importing from neighboring countries. Coffee purchased in grocery stores often has up to 10% added sugar. Subsequently the standards for quality are less staunch, as many locals mask the inferior beans by cutting it with milk and sugar. Hence the cortado (literally cut), a small espresso style coffee with a small drizzle of steamed milk, an ever popular order at cafés throughout Buenos Aires. The reverse of this order is the lagrima, a small cup of steamed milk with a ‘tear’ of coffee, the red-headed step child of beverage orders.
Espresso in most settings is larger than the typical European espresso, nearly double the size, and often much less caffeinated and robust. Cappuccino is pretty much what you would expect, this foamy classic was left unadulterated, while café con leche is the equivalent of a latte, always made with steamed milk and unless requested otherwise will be made about 50-50 milk to coffee ratio. If you are jonesin’ for an American style cup of joe, ask for a café doble, the cup will be smaller than that ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ mug that you are used to and it isn’t made by drip, but in most places this is the closest substitute. Lastly is the submarino, a non-caffeinated hot drink, is great for kids or anyone with a sweet tooth on a cold winter day. Submarino is a large cup of steamed milk served with a bar of milk chocolate, which you then drop to the bottom of the glass and stir to create your very own table-side hot chocolate!
Of course you can’t forget the facturas, sugary baked goods perfect for accompanying your brew of choice. The classics are the medialunas, sweet and buttery croissant impersonators that come in two varieties, de grasa and de manteca. De grasa, literally made with fat are buttery and flakey, while the alternative have a shiny sugar-coated veneer painted over the crispy golden exterior. The classic Porteño breakfast is a café con leche and two medialunas, and experienced eaters know the best way to consume the combo is dipping the pastry into the steamy cup of joe.
In Buenos Aires when you go to a café servers don’t hoard over you trying to turn and burn tables, instead ordering in a café essentially gives you the right to rent the table for the day. Because of this, you shouldn’t expect to be waited on your every beck and call as might happen elsewhere. After you have been brought your order it is rare for the server to so much as even check if you are enjoying everything. If you require anything further or need the bill, you will have to flag your waiter with a hand movement.
Now that you are up to snuff on the basics, here is a list of the best cafés in San Telmo, in no particular order:
Café notable is the denomination granted by city government to denote cafés of historical or cultural significance and this honor was bestowed upon La Poesia for it’s setting as a literary café. Many authors, poets, and musicians have chosen to wax poetic whilst sipping from the various libations on offer, hence the tables fitted with brass plaques to pay tribute to those literary greats who once graced the haunt. Outside the architecture is abound with corinthian columns, fleur-de-lis sculpted corbels and ornamental iron clad French balconies, while inside the atmosphere is bien Porteño with a long wooden bar covered with cured meats, cheeses, and barrels of beer, this place drips with the bohemian San Telmo vibe. Aside from café fare, La Poesía is also renowned for gracious portion sizes and sandwiches featuring cured meats, on homemade bread served with waffle fries.
Chile 502 (corner of Bolivar). Sun-Fri 8 am - 2 am; Sat 8 am - 4am. Website.
One of the most traditional cafés in the city, the building dates back to the 1860’s, which is situated conveniently in front of the plaza of the same name in the heart of San Telmo. The decor of this bar shows the decay that typifies the ups and downs of the barrio; worn checkered floor tiles, weathered photos of tango singers, and wooden furnishings scratched with graffitis. Originally built as a grocery store that housed a silversmith’s studio above, later turned into café it was once the meeting place of Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato, two of Argentina’s most important authors. The ambiance is enhanced by soft billowing tango music and the waiters’ pressed white formal uniforms. The bar also serves tables placed in the plaza as tango dancers perform and hippies sell handy crafts nearby. In such a classic institution I wouldn’t stray too far from the classics; café and facturas or a liter of Quilmes and basket of peanuts, don’t be afraid to litter the peanut shells all over the floor.
Defensa 1098 (corner of Humberto Primo). Mon - Sat 8 am - 3 am; Sun 8 am - 12 am.
Bar El Federal
When an establishment can remain open for more than 150 years, it means they are doing something right. When a business can do it in a country as turbulent as Argentina it means that they have had to find a way to forge their place in a community, thus giving reason for locals to return regularly despite constant recurring economic crisis. El Federal has done exactly that, opened in 1864, now an institution in San Telmo that has also earned its status a noteworthy café. The bar, carved intricately from dark mahogany and interlaid with stained glass mosaic is itself a piece of art, and the antique coffee percolator and period piece cash register give the joint an air of yesteryear. Along with the classic Porteño café fare, El Fed is also known for American style breakfasts and in the evening they make a mean Picada Federal (cured meat and cheese boards that can feed three people), which always goes great with a good wine or a craft brew.
Carlos Calvo 599 (corner of Perú). 8 am - 2 am everyday. Website.
Origen comes as San Telmo’s answer to Central Perk, a contemporary coffee house with plush couches, colorfully decorated planters, fast wifi, and friendly service. Inside the tables and booths offer a cozy place to read or get some work done, but if the weather is nice it is great to sit outside where locals often come to dine along with their furry, four-legged friends. Lunch items feature lighter options such as vegetarian wok stir-fry, sandwiches on whole grain breads, and whole wheat crust pizzas. On the liquid side of things, there are a variety of teas, the café con leche is enormous (practically served in a fish bowl) and if you are looking for something decaf the ginger lemonade is stellar.
Humberto Primo 599 (corner of Perú). Mon & Sat 8:30 am - 9 pm; Tue - Fri 8am - 10 pm; Sun 9 am - 9 pm. Website.
Amidst the stalls of dusty musical instruments, penguin-shaped decanters, and military fatigues inside the Mercado de San Telmo stands the city’s salute to the cup of joe. Coffee Town is the manifestation of Argentina’s own Center for Studies of Coffee selling different brews roasted in house from Guatemala, Colombia, Ethiopia, Sumatra, Kenya and just about anywhere coffee is produced. The java alchemists are more than just baristas, they are also professionals who study with the institute, and are quite capable of whipping up a great cup of whatever you fancy from french press to Chemex and of course the photo-worthy works of latte art. They also serve a great variety of baked goods, fresh juices, and licuados (smoothies).
Bolivar 976 (in the center of the Market, directly under the exposed iron roof). 8:30 am - 8 pm everyday. Website.
Also found within the Mercado de San Telmo is the relatively newcomer Merci. The French bakery/café serves many of the traditional coffee drinks, but really brings pastries to the forefront of the café scene. Here you won’t find medialunas, but rather beignets, pan ao chocolate and some of the best artisanal baguettes being baked in the city. The breads are made with wild yeast, a labor intensive technique that gives a crispy crust wrapped around a warm, bubbly crumb structure. Aside from traditional baguettes, they also feature brioche, varying flavored breads, and the bolla de nueces con pasas de uva (walnut raisin loaf). During the evenings an array of bread-based tapas go down smoothly with offering of wines by the glass or the bottle, giving us several reasons to say merci!
Carlos Calvo 459. Tue - Sun 8 am- 8:30 pm. CLOSED MONDAYS. Website.