The hidden restaurants, the speakeasies that are secreted away and the bars that require a password to enter...
In the heart of Plaza de las Naciones Unidas, on one of Buenos Aires’ major thoroughfares, Avenida Figueroa Alcorta, stands a flower the height of a seven-storey building. Its enormous petals, made of gleaming stainless steel, are designed to unfurl during the day and fold up at night. “But it doesn’t always work that way,” says local Dan Korngold. “Sometimes the flower remains closed during the day and sometimes it’s wide open at night.” Shrugging, he adds, “You can never predict it.”
That’s pretty much the gist of Buenos Aires. The sultry Argentine capital serves up surprises at every turn.
Plan to spend a day strolling wide boulevards flanked by Spanish Baroque architecture and instead you’ll stumble upon neighbourhoods with narrow cobblestoned lanes and houses painted in vivid blues, flaming yellows and searing reds. Soak up the quiet on leafy suburban streets by day then watch them spring to life at night at a speakeasy tucked behind a sushi joint, say, or one where you need a password to enter. Find the ultimate parrilla (traditional Argentine grill), only to have someone tip you off about the city’s restaurantes a puertas cerradas (closed-door restaurants) – private residences where renowned chefs entertain locals. It’s kind of like turning up at Heston Blumenthal’s home for dinner.
The unpredictability can be intoxicating and challenging in equal measure. In a pulsating metropolis where few people speak English, how do you unravel its secrets? Well, like that flower – a sculpture by late Argentine architect Eduardo Catalano – Buenos Aires will eventually open its heart.
Eat at a traditional Argentine grill (parrilla)
Porteños (Buenos Aires locals) are passionate about two things – meat and football – both of which converge at La Brigada, a parrilla in the San Telmo neighbourhood. Housed in a traditional three-storey casa with multiple dining rooms, it’s owned by Hugo Echevarrieta – a short, stout, moustachioed and somewhat brusque local icon – who personally receives everyone at the door.
The walls and ceilings are covered with soccer paraphernalia – jerseys, posters, flags, banners, emblems, trophies, caps – and just when you think you’ve hit the peak of Argentine fervour, the menu arrives, featuring every imaginable cut of meat from the grill plus some daredevil options (beef testicles, anyone?). But it’s not all about meat. The glossy eggplant entrée, smothered in olive oil and oregano, makes a trip to this uproarious institution more than worth it.
There are queues even on weeknights and the crowd is eclectic: paunchy taxi drivers relax with a chilled beer, couples whisper to each other in the corner and boisterous families celebrate special occasions, with the cacophony blending into one happy hum.
Find the finest dining
Two of the city’s top eateries are in its best hotels. Book a table at the Philippe Starck- designed Bistro Sur at Faena, the hotel that has transformed the once-derelict port neighbourhood of Puerto Madero into one of Buenos Aires’ most stylish quarters. The gorgeous all-white restaurant, which is decorated with crystal chandeliers and wall-mounted unicorn heads, serves a spectacular pork belly – butter-soft meat with the nest layer of crackling.
Also check out Elena, the two-storey courtyard restaurant at Four Seasons hotel in La Recoleta. It has a spiral staircase in the centre, an open kitchen with a wall of hanging charcuterie and a sophisticated crowd wearing cocktail dresses and crisp cufflinked shirts. Elena is ranked 31 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list – one bite of its hearty prawn-and-squid paella and you’ll see why.
Drink at the most well-hidden and exclusive speakeasies
"The problem with porteños is, as soon as they find out about a cool place, they all want to be there,” laments Andrés Rolando, Buenos Aires’ answer to Sydney bar tsar Justin Hemmes. “Hundreds of people turn up at the door each night and the place is no longer exclusive.” So when Rolando wanted to open an exclusive cocktail bar, he had to do something drastic, like hide it behind a nondescript Japanese joint.
Few guests at Nicky NY Sushi, an intimate U-shaped dining room in the suburb of Palermo Soho, have any idea what’s going on behind the frosted glass door at the back. But ask your waiter to take you to the other side and you’ll be escorted to a small cellar with hundreds of wines and a set of Narnia-like closet doors. Inside is The Harrison Speakeasy, a 1930s New York-style bar with dark leather booths and low-slung antique lamps. The dimly lit den is for locals only – and members at that. “But we let foreigners in,” says waiter Steve Tardy, “as long as they book a table at the restaurant, don’t wear shorts and ask us to show them the ‘wine cellar’.”
Just a short taxi ride away, in Palermo Hollywood, is Frank’s (Arévalo 1445; +54 11 4777 6541), where you’ll need a password to enter. It was “Agatha Christie” in our case but it changes regularly so ask your concierge to find out the current one. Say the password and you’ll be given a code and led to a phone booth; punch in the digits and a wall opens (feeling like James Bond yet?) to reveal a vast warehouse that’s been transformed into a sexy split-level lair with a long glowing bar and inventive cocktail menu. The Iced Hurricane highball comes with a sprig of rosemary on top, set ablaze “so the aroma stays while you drink it”, says bartender Rodrigo Pascual Tubert.
Discover the closed-door restaurants
Tegui is currently Argentina’s highest-ranking eatery on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list but you could walk past it without ever knowing it’s there. Hidden behind a heavily grafftied wall on a quiet suburban street in Palermo Hollywood, it’s a textbook example of the city’s much-hyped closed-door-restaurant scene, where the concept of walk-ins is unheard of. You have to book several weeks ahead to snag a table in this elegant dining room, which is bookended by a wall of wines and an open kitchen. Argentine celebrity chef Germán Martitegui is the force behind this 45-seat establishment that offers diners unexpected combinations such as duck breast with treacle and oysters with aloe granita.
There’s a more intimate and relaxed experience to be had at Casa Felix, chef Diego Felix’s house in Palermo Hollywood. A communal table runs the length of the central patio, sharing the space with snaking vines, fig trees and fairy lights. The informal house-party-style evening kicks o at 9.30pm with cocktails and canapés then evolves into a six-course pescetarian menu as the clock nears midnight. Yes, what they say about Argentines dining late is entirely true.
Watch soccer in La Boca
No trip to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to its oldest neighbourhood, La Boca, with its brightly coloured, ramshackle houses, cobblestoned roads and tango dancers. But expect tourists – lots of them. To sidestep them and experience the area like a porteño, watch the local soccer team, Boca Juniors, in full swing at Estadio Alberto J. Armando – especially if they’re playing arch rivals River Plate.
“There’s nothing like it in Argentina: a stadium packed with 50,000 Boca Juniors fans, all of them screaming and supporting their team,” says Gilda Georges of Abercrombie & Kent, which offers guided tours of the city. But make sure you wear the home team’s yellow- and-blue jersey or plain clothes. “Riots have erupted between fans of different teams so now security doesn’t allow people in if they’re wearing rival jerseys.” Wise move.
Shop in Palermo Soho
Image credit: Yadid Levy
Palermo Soho is the trendiest part of Buenos Aires, where stately casas have been transformed into fashion boutiques and restaurants, many with rooftop seating. The main shopping hub, which is brimming with local labels (there’s not a Zara in sight), is around Plaza Inmigrantes de Armenia. For womenswear, make a beeline for nearby stores Jazmin Chebar, Bendito Pie and Veronica Far: think day dresses in eclectic prints and slinky evening gowns. Or hit Airborn, El Burgués and Los Blanco to stock up on menswear, including expertly cut silk shirts and slim-fit trousers, as well as the bright swim shorts you see dotted all over Argentina’s beaches.
When it’s time to refuel, enjoy a pizza at La Popular del Soho (Guatemala 4701; +54 11 4831 3658). For something more substantial, Don Julio – the parrilla ranked 21 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list – is just across the road.
Do the tango
Locals don’t really watch tango performances; they frequent milongas (tango bars) like Maldita Milonga, where you can learn a few steps and, accompanied by a band, practise your moves until the early hours. But to truly experience the dance, watch the masters at work. Faena hotel’s Rojo Tango, for example, has a modern cabaret/burlesque twist.
Better still,make your way to the old part of town, where, in the early 19th century, tango was born – the flamboyant child of visiting Spanish soldiers and gregarious local prostitutes.
There are many shows in La Boca and San Telmo but the most traditional, according to Esperanza Coarasa, Alvear Palace Hotel’s concierge for almost 20 years, is the one at El Viejo Almacén in San Telmo. The dark split-level venue is an intimate space with a small stage upon which three couples can perform at the one time, their faces stern and upper bodies erect, their footwork vigorous and precise. Even if you don’t like dance, the stirring music from the five-piece band will move you.
Stay in a boutique hotel
Alvear Palace Hotel may be the grande dame of Buenos Aires but her younger sister, Alvear Art Hotel, is the one turning heads. Located in the centre of the CBD, this Leading Hotels of the World property is glossier and cooler, its rooms featuring dark timber panelling, leather bedheads and twin-sink bathrooms.
Guestrooms on the upper floors offer some of the best views in town. Check in to Studio Premier No. 1207 and observe the Obelisco de Buenos Aires from your bed or go to the top-floor pool to see all the way to the waters of the Río de la Plata. The hotel is within walking distance of some of the city’s top attractions, such as the Teatro Colón (one of the world’s grandest opera houses) and the Casa Rosada (pink- hued headquarters of the president). It’s also a short taxi ride to La Recoleta Cemetery. Among the jungle of mausoleums – some as elaborate as cathedrals – is the resting place of Evita, Argentina’s revered Eva Perón.