Buenos Aires’ Café Culture: Sip, Listen & Watch!

Time seems to slow down, and patrons are encouraged to linger and chat as part of the café culture.

Buenos Aires cafe
PHOTO Zosia Dunn

Argentine cuisine is perhaps best known for its beef, but Buenos Aires’ quaint cafés rival the parillas, Argentine steakhouses, for the defining culinary experience of the country. Stroll through nearly any barrio, or neighborhood, of the city, and one will find a café (or two or three) on nearly every block. The term café, which might imply any kind of casual dining setting, has a much more specific meaning here. A café is different from a restaurant, and is something of a hybrid between a coffee shop and a more formal dining spot that offers multiple course meals. However, the setting is often elegant and luxurious. White tablecloths and suited waiters preside at even the cheaper places, and the space tends to be large and open, even in “hole in the wall” spots.

Buenos Aires cafe
PHOTO Zosia Dunn

Nearly every café offers a variation on the same basic menu, great for those who seek to find “the best” of any one dish. I’ve been gravitating towards ham and cheese sandwiches, but the seemingly limitless combinations of this basic sandwich (crudo vs. cocina, prosciutto vs. cooked deli ham, pan negro vs. tostada, wheat bread vs. toasted pita-style) have prevented me from developing any fair comparisons. Each café has some selection of sandwiches, milanesas (breaded and pan-fried cutlets, usually of veal but also of chicken, soy, pumpkin, even eggplant), empanadas, pastries, desserts and usually omelets. The menus are vast, and it is difficult to choose just one dish. The prices are generally cheaper than one would pay for their equivalents in the US, so it is especially tempting to order combinations.

First and foremost on every menu is espresso, literally café. It is difficult to find “American style” large-brewed coffees, but there are endless combinations of café: con leche (espresso with milk), con crema (espresso with whipped cream), doble (a double shot of espresso). Served in tiny cups resembling a child’s tea set, the café is brought out with ample sugar. Telling your server no sugar is necessary often prompts a puzzled look, and a clue that you are a tourist. Argentines love their sweets, and café is no exception!

Buenos Aires cafe
PHOTO Zosia Dunn

It is not simply the food that makes the Argentine café such a defining experience of Buenos Aires. The food itself is a medley of dishes from Italian, French and traditional Argentine cuisine. While wonderful, sweet or savory, it is not so exotic that it could not be found elsewhere. Instead, the experience begins with the attitude, the environment that assembles at the doorway. Time seems to slow down, and patrons are encouraged to linger and chat, or take time to read over the morning headlines in the paper. No one hustles you to leave your table or order more. In fact, if you are in a rush or want your check, you’ll have to make an effort to motion to your waiter that you need something. The concept of quick turnover seems to be nonexistent, instead focusing on professional and high quality service.

Buenos Aires cafe
PHOTO Zosia Dunn

I’ve found myself at café with friends, only to realize we’ve spent hours there just soaking up the experience, practicing Spanish and trying to seem like locals. The same people who were there when we entered were often there when we left, talking politics, engaged in deep conversations, and people watching throughout the room. But perhaps most appealing about sitting in the window of a café is observing the scene outside. It is worth considering the view instead of the menu when choosing a café. I was most taken with a café in the barrio Recoleta, which overlooked the beautiful and ghostly cemetery where Evita is buried. I felt like a true Porteña (someone who lives in Buenos Aires)—sipping café just feet from a one of the richest historical and political sites in the city.

Article written by Zosia Dunn.

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