Buenos Aires’ Cafe Tortoni

 Buenos Aires, Argentina
May 2007
            “Señor, discúlpeme señor.” As I tried (in vain) to get the attention of one of the harried looking waiters who were flitting about, I thought to myself that my Frommers’ Buenos Aires guidebook hadn’t lied when it said that “service and treating people well has never been the Tortoni’s forte and to also not expect great service.” I didn’t want great service nor did I need to be treated like the Queen of Sheba, I just wanted my order taken.
            When my friend and I were planning our girls’ trip to Argentina, I had let her take the reins in terms of plotting our course of action while there. Leigh was just as meticulous and thorough as I was when traveling, so I knew our trip was in good hands. However, I did have a few must-see things and one of them was visiting Café Tortoni, one of the most historic cafés in the city which enjoyed the reputation of being an artistic and intellectual hangout in times gone by. With a history that dates back more than 150 years, it was a popular gathering spot of famous writers including Jorge Luis Borges and José Ortega y Gasset.  Suffice it to say that Café Tortoni ranks along with Café des Deux Magots in Paris and Café Central in Vienna as iconic restaurants. I’m sure if ‘Papa’ Hemingway had ever lived in Buenos Aires, he would have taken up residence there as well.  
            The interior of Café Tortoni was breathtaking-wood veneers, stained glass, marble, and bronzes dotted the walls and floor. Starbucks and other modern day coffee houses could take a few notes from the places which succeed in exuding old world charm and class. Upon stepping inside you are immediately transported to a locale reminiscent of the old world, which isn’t surprising since Café Tortoni was begun by a French immigrant. The café superbly fit in with the city’s designation as the Paris of South America. Although never entirely comfortable with the European fashion of seating oneself, I picked a table that was more centrally located, with the hope of not being forgotten about or completely ignored by the wait staff. Having spent the previous spring in Spain, I was quite familiar with the lack of customer service on the part of waiters and waitresses in restaurants and cafes. My  Spanish professor had attributed the surly nature of these individuals to the fact that tipping was neither expected nor required, as in they didn’t need to be sugary sweet to their customers since a tip is not necessarily coming their way . 
            After being seated for more than 10 minutes with our order still not taken, I was just about to say “to hell” with this Porteño (what a resident of Buenos Aires is called) experience when a beleaguered waiter appeared at our table. Leigh ordered a café con leche and I ordered what is perhaps one of the most representative treats  in Latin American cuisine-dulce de leche ice cream. Dulce de leche is made from sugar and boiled milk;  hence its name when literally translated  means “sweet milk.” It is one of those things that are so sinfully delicious, you feel as if you’ve died and gone to heaven upon eating it. My first experience with dulce de leche was in my college freshman Spanish class, when my Spanish professor (an Argentine native herself) brought in a jar of the stuff to spread on crackers. Dulce de leche is delicious on just about everything. Need something to be sweetened, spread dulce de leche on it. It’s the Argentine version of peanut butter in that regard. At the hostel where Leigh and I stayed, a continental breakfast was provided each morning (read: corn flakes, the most ubiquitous cereal worldwide, and slices of bread). But what accompanied the bread was the best part, a jar of dulce de leche to apply to the bread. (Every person was not given their own jar of the stuff;  that would have been too good to be true, not to mention extremely detrimental to one’s body weight…) 
            That first taste of the dulce de leche ice cream, that came in a fancy crystal bowl which reminded me of sherbet glasses my great-grandmother had bequeathed to me, was divine. Although I was hesitant to consume it too fast for fear of getting an upset stomach (although this is usually inevitable no matter where I travel in the world), I did indeed scoop up every last morsel. By Argentine standards, it was quite an expensive bowl of ice cream, as their peso is quite low when priced against the United States dollar, but by my standards it was worth every penny. 
            As I sat there eating spoonful after spoonful, I took in my surroundings once more to fully appreciate the beauty of this historic Porteño institution. The café dates to before the American Civil War and has been in operation ever since, bearing witness to countless  significant events in Argentine history, including the era of the country’s most beloved citizen, Eva Peron, as well as its darkest days during the Dirty Wars, a period of state-sponsored violence in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also true what my guidebook said about it being a place frequented by both tourists and Porteños;  I heard both Spanish and other languages being spoken. There often don’t exist many places like that in terms of equilibrium between tourists and native residents, and yet here I was dining in one. 
            It naturally took a while to get the check once we had requested it. But that is one of the great things about spotty customer service, you’re never rushed to vacate your table as customer waiter interaction is minimal.  So you could stay somewhere for hours on end and never receive a look which translates to, “are you kidding me, you’ve been  here for hours nursing the same cup of coffee, leave already!” 
            Although I’m sure the minuscule gift shop was not in operation when Borges and Ortega y Gasset were regular customers here, I nonetheless found a souvenir to take home with me that I think even the two famed authors would have approved of-a tea cup bearing the name of this venerable place. A perfect accompaniment to my teacup from Babington’s Tea Rooms in Rome and my espresso cup from Madrid’s Prado Museum, don’t you think?

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