The List




22. Café de Garcia

May 23, 2017
The bar at Café De Garcia.

So there I was, with a couple of sentimental tears running down my cheeks. It was just too much to handle, too much to keep inside. For the last 1,5 month I had walked my way through this great city I love, in search of something that I honestly could not have pictured finding in the beginning of it all. But as we sat there, sheltered by the furious rain that me and my one-year old son had recently fled from, I understood the importance to breath in every blessed second of it all.

Because this was our triumph, our moment to raise the cup. There and then we wrote the last chapter of an unorthodox adventure which epic dimensions were only outshined by its farcical ways. Day after day, pushing that loyal stroller through the mile-long streets and avenues of Buenos Aires. That sweltering heat, the cascades of stinging sweat. The baby breakdowns in the middle of the road and the undignified hauling up and down all those third-rate subway stairs. A venture of grace this was definitely not. As first in command of this two-sucker-infantry going embarrassingly haywire, I guess I’ll answer to that. And boy, I did. The puzzled faces on some of the innocent bystanders that crossed our way as they tried to find logic in our presence. Here was a grown man who spent his paternal leave by pulling around his kid in a baby carriage so he could map more than one hundred historical cafés and bars in a city of roughly twelve million people at the edge of the world. For some this was as difficult to comprehend as it was shockingly absurd. Just the concept of a stay-at-home-dad or the changing of diapers performed by a man - both in public and in panic - was too much to digest for many machismo swayed.

But we did make a great team, my son and I. Me with the ill-fated vision and he with the looks. Imagine a brilliant resource like that; the exploitive optimisation of a child. For every sceptical look that my dubious character evoked, his angelic presence was there to charm them all and take care of the downfall. A prosperous thing, really. The freebees, the exclusive kitchen tours and the local anecdotes that found their way directly to my notebook. It was all his work and I believe I owe him for that, just like I am forever in debt for all the other joys he brings to my life. Still, I know that he was enjoying himself as well. He lived a life on the road which most one-year olds can only dream of. The attention and the endless showers of kisses and sweets. The corrupt cavalcades of creamy flan. He knew. Rolling through the doors of a Buenos Aires oldie meant that he was about to live large. Rod Stewart large.

And so I cried. Besides staying up late every once a year to see through the Lord of the Rings-trilogy just so I can therapeutically sob my heart out to the final scene where Frodo leaves his best friends to sail away with Gandalf to the Undying Lands, crying is something I don’t do often. But now I just couldn't hold it back. It was all too much. We had now reached the finishing line and regardless the irrelevance of our venture or the fact that my childish partner didn’t have a clue of what we were up to, this was where our journey came to an end. There are in Buenos Aires ninety-four historic bars that the city has honoured with the title bar notable because they are all perceived as sites of special cultural interest and during our time in the Argentinean capital we had (dis-)graced every one of them with our presence. Job done. After this we were heading home and damn this hubris piece of a father if he could not snivel a bit at a moment like this - both because of this rare achievement but also because of the bonding road that a father and a son had travelled to get there.

Still this water of joy that salted my eyes was chiefly of another nature, much greater than the trivial marks that me and my son had left during our brief time in this city. Because there and then I knew that although how ironic and tendentious it may sound since Café de Garcia indeed was the last stop on our tour, that this was the most notable bar of them all. It really was. Quintessential is the only word that can actually fit its description. A bold statement one may interpose, considering that Buenos Aires is probably one of the most exciting and distinguishing bar cities in the world but nothing but logical when viewed in a systematic frame. Café de Garcia just had it all. It was truly the holy grail.

Then what is this? What makes the quintessential Buenos Aires bar? I feel obliged to expand. First of all it needs a great story. Every mythic boliche in this city has got one and this bar is no exception. First, there is of course the obvious narrative, the one about the Garcias themselves. In 1927, husband and wife Metodio and Carolina opened up this bar and for the first decades they lived with their family in the backroom which today has been remodelled to an intimate dining salon. Since this first generation of owners, their descendants have kept the banner high, serving the neighbourhood and nurturing this legacy as it deserves. Personally, I find this modest family saga as most intriguing to speculate in but there are of course other tales that surrounds a bar like this as well. Take the Argentine football shirt that is triumphantly hanging on one of the main walls as an example. It was signed by THE hand of god who once lived not far away and it goes without saying that the presence of his kind would dignify any mortal refuge with a severe dose of celestial prestige. So is the case with Francis Ford Coppola who liked to come around here when living in Buenos Aires for a while. It is understandable why the American director became fond of both the city and this café as they both share that old-world corleonesque mystique and charm that so often characterises his greatest films.

Then think about the product. To really stand out among Buenos Aires’ grand flotilla of bars, you definitely need a good product. Café de Garcia knows this and it is visible in everything they take on. Like the gigantic portion of rustic estofado which I planned to share brotherly with my toddler of an ally but desperately and selfishly divided to my own favour while handing him another one of those bland crackers that I usually bring with me for awkward situations like this. The simmering beef stew reached all the high notes just like everything else that is served in this house. There is that perfect pressure on the Quilmes, those masterly slices of house jamón that can compete with the best back in the old country and even the coffee, which in Argentinean terms most often come close to something between burned mud and old sewage, is indeed a sincere treat in this house.

But no matter how crucial good products like these are to stand out, they really mean nothing without the notion of ambience. Product and ambience come hand in hand and never can they part ways without undermining the essential sum. A hit of potent dreamy maui-wowie would, to pull a disjointed metafor, never give you the same liberating high if consumed whiled locked up in jail than it would if enjoyed freely on a pristine and far-away beach. The same goes with another vague example which perhaps can be more efficiently translated to the specific nature of a place like Café de Garcia; the legendary hotel bar at the Parisian Ritz, which was nothing of a scene when occupied and befouled by nazis during the World War II but directly came to life after Ernest Hemingway famously liberated it in 1944. It is a fluctuating dependance really, this relationship between persuasive vibes and material highs and sometimes it may simply just be the same. Ambience can on its own be an abstract source of product that calls for nothing more. Still, Café de Garcia comfortably relies on them both. Here, the vermú tastes delicious simply because it is, but also because the moment and the situation calls on it to be. Just take a sip and listen to the crackling sound of Astor Piazzolla’s old accordion that together with the clockings of billiard balls echoes its way up in this sky high roof. It is a backdrop that would turn even old milk into a sweet thing.

After story, product and ambience there is also what I refer to as mystique. Every great notable is blessed with this trait. Almost dangerously close to such a deceptive term as authenticity, mystique instead carries the true possibilities and limitations of what a historic bar experience in Buenos Aires can be all about. It is the promise of something that is more real than the real - where your mundane persona becomes a bit more exciting and where our whole commonplace existence surrenders to the made-up illusions and myths that we so much love to create for ourselves. This promise can never really be fulfilled at the Café Tortoni - the doubtless downtown mother of all notable bars that every day welcomes a cynical myriad of pre-booked bus tours, all ready for a jaded tango show and a generous chunk of Gardelian stereotype. Inaugurated as early as 1858, this landmark café is of course an incomparable phenomenon that discloses Buenos Aires at an infant and storied age but its tourist-trailed status entails that something is lost. The explorative nature of adventure, perhaps. Or just the paradoxical but exuberant sensation of being part of random everyday life. The uncompromising forty-five minutes cab ride from Microcentro to Café de Garcia will however see to that. It is just enough distance to motivate the true aficionado and sufficiently of a journey to break free from the customised midst. Residential neighbourhood Villa Devoto may well not be as grand and spectacular as the faded glory of San Telmo and neither does it contain Palermo’s chic elegance and smarts but the blocks around sleepy street Sanabria holds another ace in its sleeve. It is the casual life around the esquina - the corner. Small nodal points like these ties together the endless Haussmann-styled grid of this city and nowhere does Buenos Aires really comes to life as at a green, lush and dreamy corner like the one where Café de Garcia is to be found. It is really a secret displayed openly to all of us; to truly explore, experience and understand the great essence of Buenos Aires there is nothing like the quotidian corner.

But finally, let’s not forget about aesthetics. When the bell rings for closing time, this is what defines a notable the most. They contain a certain kind of beauty, these old bars of “good winds”. Traced to the glory days of this city - the first half of the 1900s - it is a range of artistic signs that does more than just to please one’s mind. They are the core expressions of this culture, the central marks of porteño life. Take the native fileteado - that artistic style of drawing and lettering that is so typical around here. Nowhere does this organic font style find a more natural habitat than it does at these classical bars. Ditto the old stools, tables and whatnot that cluster around the romantically tattered floors. Luxuriously ritzy they are not, still venerable and refined. Truth is, Buenos Aires is the most thrilling flea market in the world and los bares notables are its rich and self-evident storefronts. Old soda syphons, newspaper holders and endless bric-a-brac on the walls. Even the mass produced objects makes this to a distinct genre of its own. But where many of these places of pleasure almost get lost in a reproductive and esoteric circle of replica, Café de Garcia seems untouchable to that. It is genuine and free. It predates itself. It becomes something desirable and almost spiritual and unreal. It is the holy grail of Buenos Aires. Can’t blame a dad for crying at a moment like that.

I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!