Buenos Aires offers world-class dining and cuisine at a variety of Argentine and international restaurants. While the bargains available in the wake of the collapse of the peso are long gone, restaurants in Argentina are still a great value compared to similar establishments in North America and Europe.
Buenos Aires's most fashionable eateries are in Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho, where fine dining and a bohemian atmosphere meet in small, renovated, turn-of-the-20th-century houses. Puerto Madero's docks are cluttered with excellent restaurants with water views. The Microcentro and Recoleta offer many outstanding restaurants and cafes, some of which have been on the map for decades. Calle Báez in Las Cañitas has one of the most happening restaurant scenes in the city, and restaurants and bars that serve food surround Plaza Serrano in Palermo Soho, with many good choices for the young and bargain-minded. Both of these neighborhoods have plenty of nearby places for after-dinner drinks and dancing, so you won't have to go all over for a night out.
Buenos Aires's cafe life, in which friends meet over coffee, is as sacred a ritual to Porteños as it is to Parisians. Excellent places to enjoy a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) include La Biela in Recoleta, across from the world-famous Recoleta Cemetery, and Café Tortoni, one of the city's most beautiful and traditional cafes, on Avenida de Mayo close to Plaza de Mayo. Both are among the city's protected cafés notables.
Porteños eat breakfast up until 10am, lunch between noon and 4pm, and dinner late -- usually after 9pm, though some restaurants open as early as 7pm. If you are an early diner in the North American and British style, look for restaurants in my listings that remain open between lunch and dinner. If you can make a reservation, I highly recommend doing so. If you do not want to commit, go to a restaurant at the typical 8pm opening time, when you will almost always arrive to find it nearly empty. By 9pm, however, virtually every table at the best restaurants will be full.
Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner, and some close completely on Sunday or Monday, or only serve dinner. In late December, January, and February, many restaurants have limited hours and service, or close entirely, as this is when Porteños flee the city for the beach resorts. Call ahead so you're not disappointed.
Executive lunch menus (usually fixed-price three-course meals) are served at many restaurants beginning at noon, but most dinner menus are a la carte. There is sometimes a small "cover" or "service" charge for bread and other items placed at the table, which can add a few dollars to a final bill. In restaurants that serve pasta, the pasta and its sauce are sometimes priced separately. Standard tipping is 10% in Buenos Aires, but you should leave more for exceptional service. When paying by credit card, you will often be expected to leave the propina (tip) in cash.
If you can't make up your mind, visit www.restaurant.com.ar, which has English-language and Spanish-language information on restaurants in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, searchable by neighborhood and cuisine. Check out www.guiaoleo.com.ar (Spanish only) and www.gastronomique.com.ar, which provides an overview of Argentine cuisine, and the Buenos Aires Herald, especially Dereck Foster's food and wine reviews. Once in Buenos Aires, look for the De Dios map company's excellent restaurant map in bookstores everywhere, or order it ahead of time at www.dediosonline.com. Many Palermo restaurants are on a special Palermo dining map available in Palermo businesses. A similar map exists for San Telmo.
I list exact prices for main courses and group restaurants into general price categories. Very Expensive restaurants have main courses costing about $25 and up. Expensive restaurants have main courses from about $15 to $25. Moderate restaurants have prices ranging from around $10 to $20. Inexpensive restaurants have main courses ranging from under $3 to about $15. Tips, drinks, desserts, other menu items, as well as table service and the unavoidable charge for bread and spreads, will add costs. While English is becoming more and more prevalent in Buenos Aires, less expensive restaurants have fewer English speakers.
Bares y Cafés Notables
If you want to dine in an atmosphere recalling the glory days of Buenos Aires's past, choose one of dozens of bares and cafés notables -- historic restaurants, cafes, and bars that have been specially protected by a law stating that their interiors cannot be changed. Known as Law No. 35, this special protection granted by the city of Buenos Aires was passed in 1998 and updated in 2002. I list many of these special establishments in this chapter, including Café Tortoni, La Biela, and Bar El Federal. Naturally, based on age, these notables cluster in Monserrat, Congreso, La Boca, and San Telmo, the city's oldest areas. Ask the tourism office for the map Bares y Cafés Notables de Buenos Aires, which lists them all and includes photographs of their interiors. If you really like the atmosphere in these unique spots, you can bring a part of them home with you in a coffee-table book with photos from these wonderful places that some of the venues sell.
Part of what makes meals in Buenos Aires so outstanding is the fine wine selection. Most Argentine wine comes from the Mendoza region, bordering the Andean mountains. If you know nothing about wine, you may want to take a wine-tasting class to make sense of the selections you'll encounter on your trip. One of the best is run by the Hotel Alvear's Cave de Vines (tel. 11/4805-3857; www.alvearpalace.com), which takes place Monday through Friday at 7pm and costs $78 per person. You'll get about 45 minutes with a sommelier who will explain the grape-growing process, the harvest, and how the wine is actually produced as you sample wine and appetizer pairings from various regions. You'll learn what to look for in every glass, how to pair wines with food, and how to hold a glass without damaging its contents with your hand's warmth.
The Palermo Viejo wine shop Lo De Joaquin Alberdi, Borges 1772 at Costa Rica (tel. 11/4832-5329; www.lodejoaquinalberdi.com.ar), offers tastings by appointment, which cost about $43 for four wines. In early 2010, the winery Fin del Mundo openediume the chic Experiencia Bodega Fin del Mundo in Palermo, Honduras 5673 between Fitzroy and Bonpland (tel. 11/4852-6661; www.bodegadelfindelmundo.com), offering a variety of wine-tasting options.
Puertas Cerradas: Closed-Door Dining in a Chef's Home
In the past few years, a trend has developed in Buenos Aires in which chefs invite small groups of diners into their homes. Ranging anywhere from 12 to 30 per group, participants dine together under the guidance of a chef who explains the several-course meal he or she has prepared. In a way, it's a little like a group blind date between you, your travel companions, and whomever else has booked that night.
More than 30 puertas cerradas operate in Buenos Aires. Some of the best include Casa Salt Shaker (www.casasaltshaker.com), started by the American chef Dan Perlman and his partner Henry Tapia; Cocina Sunae (tel. 11/15-4870-5506; www.cocinasunae.com), run by the American Christina Sunae Wiseman who uses Asian fusion in her cooking; and Casa Felix (tel. 11/4555-1882; www.diegofelix.com), run by the Argentine chef Diego Felix. Most dining sessions are on weekends, but chefs can arrange additional sessions for private groups, along with cooking classes. Most puertas cerradas are cash-only, but you can often arrange payment via PayPal. My experience has been that that dining this way allows you to witness interactions among locals, expats, and travelers from various countries, and often leads to a group night out exploring the city after the dinner is over.
Gelato in Buenos Aires
With such a rich Italian heritage, you'll find a lot of places in Buenos Aires to enjoy the Italian take on ice cream: gelato. Virtually every corner will have at least one of the many chain options, along with individually owned shops. Stop in and try some and then debate like a Porteño which is best. Each company's website will list some of their branches, but you'll easily find them on your own. Freddo (www.freddo.com.ar), Persicco (www.persicco.com), and the Patagonian company Abuela Goye (www.abuelagoye.com) are just a few.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.