Reviving Old Traditions in the Bares Notables of Buenos Aires
In my estimation, nearly everything that’s charming about Buenos Aires is on display at a singular destination: the bar notable, or historic café. The city has 73 of them, largely populated by older gentlemen reading the paper at rustic wooden tables, old-fashioned waiters serving cortados and medialunas, a little tango music on the radio, towering shelves stacked with bottles of wine and jars of olives.
But this delightfully old-fashioned institution is under threat. One of the better-known bares, the antique billiards hall and café 36 Billares, recently shuttered; another downtown venue, Café Richmond, once a favorite of literary great Jorge Luis Borges, remains closed indefinitely. But the future of these old-fashioned cafés is not all doom and gloom: five of the bares notables have banded together to form Los Notables, a cultural organization devoted to revitalizing five classic corner spaces by offering dynamic events and thematic menus that evoke the past.
Since I’m already quite familiar with two of Los Notables’ cafés – popular Bar El Federal and Café La Poesía, both located around the corner from my old apartment in San Telmo – I decided to stop by two of the group’s lesser-known venues to try out the latest initiative, ‘Recuperemos al vermú’ (bring back the vermouth). This special menu revives an old porteño vermouth ritual of the 1950s and 60s, when Argentines stopped into their local cafe for a vermouth and picadas, or savory snacks similar to Spanish tapas.
First up: Celta Bar in the barrio of San Nicolás. Dating from 1941, the building was used as a warehouse, then a café, and later as a performance space for jazz music, poetry, and theatre. In March 2012, with full restorations complete, the classic bar reopened to a literary crowd, offering ongoing cycles of art exhibitions and concerts.
We ask for the vermouth menu and order a couple of drinks: the old-school options include Campari with orange, Cynar with grapefruit, and Cinzano Rosso served with a siphon of soda. The vermouth arrives with twelve tiny metal dishes filled with classic tapas, keeping with the ritual: homemade cheese, pastrami, green and black olives, salami, peanuts, to name a few.
A few days later, it’s off to another of the Los Notables, the exquisite Café Margot (est. 1904) in Boedo, a south-central barrio long associated with the working class and the development of tango. Again we order from the vermouth menu (I notice with appreciation that here they mix the drinks with fresh-squeezed grapefruit and orange juices as opposed to flavored sodas) and as we wait for the tapas to come out, I look around the crowded bar.
The afternoon crowd represents all walks of life: a pair of older women conversing over cappuccino, a college-age boy typing on his Macbook and sipping from a cold mug of the housemade beer, a father treating his two little sons to licuados (smoothies) made from fresh peaches. It’s a classic neighborhood scene, the very reason I love bares notables.
Bring back the vermouth, indeed, bring back the tradition – let’s keep Buenos Aires’ historic bars alive.
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