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The cafe culture of Buenos Aires

There’s a café in Buenos Aires where I meet my friend every Thursday afternoon. You probably won’t notice the place while walking down Las Heras Avenue; between the plazas, bustling shops, and busses and taxis jockeying for position, there is already a lot to absorb. But if you do find it, you’ll notice that it doesn’t seem to be looking for customers anyhow. The painted walls and dented old metal awning all blend into a washed out white exterior, and the name of the place is faded, if legible at all.

Britanico, now closed due to rising rent

When you step through the large open entrance, you might start to wonder if the drab façade was intentionally hiding a small piece of history. A large mirror, tarnished by the years, hangs on a wall over the counter with photos tucked along its side revealing birthdays, weddings and friends going back over 70 years. Above the counter you’ll find the extravagantly carved oak extension of the bar: glasses of all shapes and sizes hang upside down from slots beneath the solid piece of wood and an old, stopped clock sits embedded in the middle where it arches to a point.
Despite the seeming importance of the place created by the high ceilings and intricate details of the décor, it’s not a tourist mob scene like some of the more renowned places you’ll visit. The few other customers will look up for a brief moment as you enter, and quickly return to their newspapers, cigarettes, sandwiches and conversations. Take a seat near a window at any of the cafeteria-style tables. Take a moment to scan the soccer insignias plastered along the wall and people-watch out onto the park across the street. Soon enough, the waiter will stroll over. Despite his more than 50 years in the country, he will ask you what you want in a still discernible Spanish accent (as opposed to the sing-songy, Italian influenced Argentine accent). If you look over to the glass display cases atop the counter, you may not find any options. But if you ask for a recommendation, you’ll realize he has already decided for you as he heads to the kitchen behind the curtain in the back to get started on your m eal. It may be a lomo sandwich (completo, of course), or a milanesa napolitana, or just a couple of empanadas. Whatever he gives you, remember to ask for the café cortado when you’re done. “Es una maravilla,” – a beauty – he likes to say. And he’s right.

Tortoni, Jorges Luis Borges’ hangout

I’m not going to tell you where this place is, or what it’s called. I apologize if you find this spiteful or selfish; it’s just that I like it exactly the way it is, trapped in a time when tens of thousands of Spaniards, Italians, and others came to this city at the end of the earth to find a better life. And if you, and many other readers come, it won’t be that way anymore. But I’ll let you in on a little secret about this city: there’s a place like this café in every neighborhood, probably within blocks of where you’ll be, and I’m sure they would love to have you.

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