by Tim Dawe
In Buenos Aires there is a bar called Café Los Galgos that opened in 1930. And nothing much has changed since then.
The address is Callao y Lavalle, near Tribunales subte, the metro running underneath the Supreme Court of Argentina.
I enter from Avenida Lavalle, marginally less frenetic on road and footpath than its bigger, bisecting street. Stepping through the swing doors I get a snapshot of history; a forgotten, fading, family photograph. It’s brown.
My gaze settles on the tan Formica bar cluttered with plates of sensible food – croissants, fruit and sandwiches – and an ancient cash register. It also props up the brooding figure of the proprietor looking at me enter. The bar is enlarged by the mirror-backed glass shelving behind, holding various coloured bottles and collected (or just left) memorabilia. Centre stage, and pride of place, is a pair of porcelain greyhounds, one black, one white – the namesake of this café: Los Galgos or the greyhounds.
About 25 modest wooden tables-for-two are lined up, schoolroom fashion; most are uncovered, all are brown. The floor is light brown. Even the walls are sepia-brown. Or its hue has changed over the decades from thousands of smoked cigarettes.
It’s not a museum, nor a mirage; it’s a near empty bar/café. It is 11am so I order a café con leche and those crescent-shaped media lunas. Café Los Galgos may not be fashionably busy but it is officially one of 60 “notable” bars recognised by the BA authorities for its cultural value.
It was opened for business in 1930 as a grocery store and bar, on a site once used by missionary Jesuits and Singer sewing machines. The Spanish owner raced greyhounds. In 1948 he sold the bar to Jose Ramos leaving behind his china greyhounds. Jose retained the name…and the dogs. Incredibly, perhaps fittingly, the café remains in the Ramos family with a son, ninety-year-old Horacio, the current proprietor behind the bar.
Surveying the five middle-aged customers amid these empty tables it’s hard to visualise its heyday when the café opened 24 hours a day to students and workers and to artists, intellectuals and politicians such as Enrique Santos Discepolo, Arturo Frondizi and more recently, President Carlos Menem.
My coffee arrives and is served by a character straight out of central casting. It seems Martin has been acting this role since 1930 – but in fact, only 35 years. He must be 80, with a small wreath of white hair. He’s immaculately dressed in a starched white jacket with large silver buttons, stooped with age (and servitude?), but with the orchestrated elegance of the professional waiter. He does not walk, rather he swishes between table and bar – and remarkably swiftly.
We have a brief encounter of sorts, neither of us comprehending the other’s words but understanding their sentiment. It arises from the numerous newspaper articles and photographs of Martin that line the wall, and a drawing that captures his swift swish perfectly.
The coffee is good and plentiful. I take in all the photos and objects around the walls and then I see on the bar the glistening bronze water tap shaped as an arched swan’s neck. Somewhat gauche (rather than gaucho), I rush to photograph it alongside an autographed poster of tango sensation Carlos Gardel and an ancient wooden radio (brown), whilst beckoning Horacio into frame. I get a very glum response. He’s seen it all before.
No expense is spared in holding back time, progress or modernity, including the, er, water closet. It retains its 1930s specifications complete with concrete cistern and lavatory chain.
From the outside this is a drab, lacklustre café that you could easily miss rushing past in busy Buenos Aires – and probably would. But it has historic character and cultural charm. It should be cherished, and it’s pleasing to see that it is.
Café Los Galgos was a chance discovery whilst looking for my train – the sort of thing that gives meaning to exploring a large city in a foreign land.