by Tim Dawe
Vibrant and stylish Buenos Aires is known for its sensual tango. But thanks to an influx of European migrants from the nineteenth century, it has a thriving coffee culture with a long tradition.
I’m at Plaza de Mayo, at the centre of the city and Argentina’s historic, political and cultural life. It’s also the stage of political dramas from the rallies of Juan and Evita Peron and their spell-bound crowds, to the present weekly ritual of Las Madres (mothers), maintaining their anger, and their grief, for their “disappeared” children.
Behind me the pink presidential palace (La Casa Rosada) faces the river port, the source of exports in the 1880s making Argentina’s per capita wealth one of the highest in the world – surpassing the United States.
Ahead of me I face Avenida de Mayo, a wide tree-lined boulevard of beautiful and imposing buildings of “la belle époque” style, running straight as an arrow through Argentine history to the monumental Congresso; the president at one end and the people’s representatives at the other. I set off for my morning coffee.
I cross all 16 lanes of Avenida 9 de Julio – the world’s widest street; so wide you can stroll around the massive fountains and picnic in the parks in the middle of the street. A few blocks along this historic boulevard I come to my destination – Gran Café Tortoni.
Cafés are integral to Buenos Aires’ culture and sense of identity. Café Tortoni is in the grand tradition inspired by the near obsession of 19th century porteños (BA’s port residents) to emulate the Parisian cityscape (and lifestyle), financed by the long economic boom of the time. On arrival I note the café’s trademark name like a Toulouse-Lautrec poster and the huge wooden frame around its three-metre doors, the glass lightly draped in the old-fashioned way.
If coffee is a religion, this place is a cathedral – it even has columns, high ceilings and stained glass. I stifle a gasp. Its sculptured height, quiet almost reverential activity and dark burnished atmosphere are unexpected in a café. A side bar dominates with massive wood features and glass. Waiters in dinner suits and long black aprons, theatrically balancing their head-high trays, slalom around small marble-topped tables. And high above, large stained-glass panels cut into the ceiling give the illusion of sunlight. This carved wood space, inlaid with mirrors and paintings, dissolves into the distance.
In the middle of that distant wall, where swirling black aprons veer sharply left and disappear into who-knows-what, is a magnificent stained-glass partition in a carved wooden frame. This wine bar-type, door-less entry leads to Tortoni’s museum where history and memorabilia are lovingly displayed in heavy wooden cabinets lining the walls. In between, guests enjoy a game of billiards or dominoes in a club atmosphere seemingly untouched for centuries. The basement is an institution within an institution. It has a small stage with regular exhibitions of tango dancing for the packaged tourist. For the regulars there are (late night) tango shows, jazz and poetry.
Tortoni was started in 1858 by Frenchman Jean Touan whose intention was to bring the panache of Parisian café society to Buenos Aires – he even pinched the name from a leading establishment in Paris. In 1880 it moved here to Av. de Mayo, to the former Scottish Temple and was an instant hit; the right place, the right time for the right customers.
Tortoni is not only jaw-dropping for its scale and grand historic fittings, but is also the place for name-dropping. The crème de la crème of Buenos Aires artistic society has made the café its home away from home. Names abound such as Jose Ortega y Gasset, Molina Campos, Alfonsina Storni, and perhaps better known, author Jorge Luis Borge and tango singer Carlos Gardel. Next to the museum entrance is the spotlighted bust of Gardel in a wall niche, an icon of the revered secular saint of tango. In the corner is a life-size model of Borge and friends, at table, deep in discussion.
I order my usual café con leche y medialunas. The waiter arrives with a little silver tray with my coffee, milk, a glass of water, small biscuits and three half-moon shaped sweet pastries. I could have ordered cafecito (small espresso), a café cortado (espresso “cut” with milk), a churros y chocolate (thick hot chocolate with stick pastries) or, like the elderly matrons two tables away, English-style tea and cake. The coffee is pricey but I put it down to a one-off ticket to the theatre.
I ask my young waiter his opinion of the tourists rushing about with flashing cameras. He shrugs and replies in excellent American English: “They bring in the money that pays our wages and keeps this place going.”
He’s right. What I see as gauche behaviour is studiously ignored by determined habitués of Café Tortoni. A little further away I spot an elderly, well-dressed gentleman, with the long greased-back hair of his generation, furiously scribbling on paper napkins. I hope the tradition goes on and it’s a sonnet and not his laundry list.
Gran Café Tortoni may be the epitome of historic cafés with cultural heritage, and yes, an icon, but it remains just one of many in Buenos Aires. What appeals is how these cafés mirror their distinctive barrios or neighbourhoods: working class La Boca, arty San Telmo, trendy Palermo Viejo and establishment Recoleta.
The Gran Café Tortoni is definitely worth a visit to savour the atmosphere of Buenos Aires. It’s a club to pose and to be seen, as well as to hide away and be quietly creative. It’s a place to discuss everything and nothing, to argue ideas and to plot and intrigue. It’s a stage to indulge one’s passion, to imbibe the sensuality of the tango and its music, to embrace un-touchingly, and for the soul to weep. It’s a shrine for some and a curiosity for others.
But if the bussed tourists, that loud-shirted (and loud) Californian and incessant camera flashes explode the ambiance, you can retreat to those nearby other worthy institutions, La Puerto Rico or Richmond, for a more contemporary café experience in gran style.