Cafes are small and have specialty coffees and offer sandwiches, wraps, quiches, and the occasional empanada, along with a selection of pastries and medialunas (the Argentine version of the croissant, smaller and a bit sweeter). These cafes open early for the commuter crowd, usually between 6-8am, and remain open all day. Porteños pop into a cafe to waste an hour while they’re stuck in the city, to cool off in the air conditioning in the summer, or to simply refuel and tide themselves over until their late dinners. These cafes are everywhere, in every neighborhood, on every street. They are privately owned, but the menu and items offered are pretty much the same throughout. The only coffees they offer are pressure-brewed espresso coffees. A common order is a ‘cafe cortado’, or coffee topped off with a shot of milk. If caffeine isn’t your “cup of tea”, there are other options such as a lágrima (literally ‘tear’), that is mostly steamed milk with just a splash of espresso. This is a favorite amongst locals.
If you prefer a chain, there are three. Starbucks has been expanding its locations in the city, including the Alto Palermo and Galerias Pacifico shopping malls. Havanna is a local chain that has great specialty coffees, hot and cold, good sandwiches, and the best alfajores (Argentine cookie sandwiches), according to the locals, plus reliable Wifi. Cafe Martinez also has great specialty drinks. They tend to place their cafes on more residential streets, tucked between houses, rather than on the major avenues. Martinez also has reliable Wifi and good service. If you want your own ground coffee for home brewing, Cafe Martinez sells the best available in the city at about $35 for a 1/4-kilo.
Most cafes close around 10pm. In any cafe, you seat yourself and wait for a waiter or waitress to come over to take your order. If you want to see any kind of menu, you’ll need to ask for ‘la carta.’ When you’ve finished, you’ll need to flag your server down to get the check and pay. If you’re in a hurry, don’t feel badly about going up to the counter and asking for ‘la cuenta,’ or saying “me cobrás,” which means “charge me.” It’s perfectly acceptable cafe etiquette.
The pizza parlors are the porteño version of fast food. These tend to be much bigger than cafes, are almost always situated on the corners of major intersections, and frequently have Wifi available. Because the liquor laws in Argentina are very lax, these pizza joints also serve a selection of wine and beer, and sometimes liquor. The menus consist of pizza, empanadas, calzones, sandwiches, quiches, milanesas, and sometimes other hot dishes like pasta or parrillas (Argentine steak). Another popular dish is the Spanish tortilla, which is very much like an egg and potato omelet. They’re quick and inexpensive, and usually very satisfying.
These pizzerías remain open all day, with the lunch crowd usually hitting around 2-3pm, and close around 11pm to midnight. The menus of the different pizza parlors are all basically the same, and it’s a hit-or-miss system in regards to the quality. A parlor on one side of the street will have great food, while the one caddy corner will serve cardboard. The trick is to find one or two you like and just remain loyal. As in the cafes, you seat yourself in these restaurants, request a menu, and flag down your server when you’re ready to pay and depart.
While there is some overlap with pizzerías, proper restaurants in the city will usually have a higher end of cuisine on the menu. They are frequently only open for dinner and sometimes during the midday for lunch. Most restaurants that are open during the lunch hour will have ‘menus ejecutivos’, which are all-inclusive set lunch menus. The prices range from $35-55 for these meals, depending on the restaurant, and will always include some kind of drink (sometimes even a glass of wine) and a dessert. Most of these restaurants will then close around 4pm, and won’t reopen for dinner until 8pm, staying open until midnight.
Most porteños have their dinner at 10 o’ clock or later and will spend several hours at a restaurant. The service is slow and designed to allow you to relax and unwind after a long day. If you have a group of more than four people and intend to eat dinner past 9 or so, it is recommended to make a dinner reservation. However, if you are inclined to eat a bit earlier, you will most likely have any restaurant to yourself for at least an hour or so. Most restaurants will also have some sort of table charge or service charge, which is not to be misconstrued as a tip. This is the charge for any garnishes or accoutrements that your server might bring to your table to munch on while you peruse the menu. This usually ranges from $3-6 per person. At these restaurants, the menus will be brought to you automatically and the selection of food varies. There are many ethnic restaurants, but you have to search for them. Most restaurants are parrillas (steakhouses) or Italian-style restaurants. It’s very easy to find good steak in Buenos Aires. Finding good curry, however, is a different matter.
Tipping, in general, is not mandatory in restaurants. However, if you’d like to tip, 10% is considered standard.
A new trend that is growing roots in Buenos Aires is that of the closed-door restaurant. These are “restaurants” in people’s private homes with set menus. Reservations are required, and for now, they are all word-of-mouth. However, the food is usually spectacular, and the company and conversation are always interesting. It’s also a great way to meet other expats and locals. One such closed-door restaurant is Casa Mun, which accommodates a maximum of 12 guests a night and whose pan-Asian menu is drawing raves for its inventiveness.
A great online restaurant guide, the Guía Óleo, contains reviews of the city’s many restaurants. You can search the guide by cuisine type, by neighborhood or by price range.