So here I was, with sentimental tears running down my cheeks. It was all so beautiful. It was too much to keep inside. For the last 1,5 month I had walked my way through this great city that I love so much, in search of something that I honestly couldn't have pictured finding in the beginning of it all. But as I sat here, 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 second of this visit.
This was our moment of victory, this was where we wrote the final chapter on this incredible journey of ours. Day by day, all those kilometres of pushing the baby stroller through the streets of Buenos Aires. All those green parks and serene squares. Every kind person we had met and every great act of hospitality that had been given to us. And all those bars. We had together been to more than one hundred bars in this city, me documenting these public museums and him being showered by both admirers and the amounts of sweets that I could never reveal to his more responsible mother. A great duo, the two of us. I could never had asked for a better sidekick. And here we were, a father and a son sharing lunch as two childhood friends, as two brothers in arms. This pops was beaming of pride.
But these were not only tears of pride or personal emotions. It was also a water of joy that salted my eyes. I knew that I had found it. One of the greatest. And yes of course, you might say; this is bar twenty-two out of your subjective opinion of the best one thousand bars in the world. Well yes, but again no. Despite my usual conviction that bars shouldn't and can't be ranked between themselves, I knew for a fact that this place found it self on the mountain of top-notch. It was on another level. It was a god around mortals.
Café de Garcia, as this beauty is called, had everything a great bar experience could ask for. Like a mythical, hidden treasure it appeared as something unique, as a rarity among the best. "It is for this experience that I travel all around the world", I thought to myself as I victoriously watched my prey. "It is this I dream about every night and for what I am concerned, I may not encounter many bars like this again. This is one of the big ones, these ones don't grow on threes." And systematical reasoning would agree with this. This was indeed the perfect stone. Shining bright and without any flaws, it nailed all the criteria that I systematically set up when analysing greatness in a bar; aesthetics, story, product, people and ambience. These are the big five, here demonstrated in the bright light of one of the most stunning bars that I have ever been to.
Aesthetics. Just like a Diego Rivera, a rococo furniture or the Golden Gate Bridge, a great bar is most often the creation of beauty and brilliance. A craftsmanship that was made to amaze. An aspect of subjectivity one might interpose and not necessarily a game changer. This is true, every beauty is a matter of taste and there are many great bars that never cared or will care for any of that "interior-nonsense"-stuff. They rely on something else instead. Still, the making of a breathtaking bar design is king. No matter if we are speaking about an Art Nouvelle, a coked-out seventies interior or the fast and minimalistic contemporary bar, the talent of a visionary bar maker is the defining key to a sublime experience.
Café de Garcia was not an extravagant and luxuriously decorated bar. It was actually a quite simple place. Neither was it very unique to its Argentinean environment. There are hundreds spots like this all over Buenos Aires and they are often very distinct in their character. Memorabilia like old photos, football shirts and liquor signs were hanging on the walls. So were the mandatory jamón that was up for curing in one of the corners at the roof. A black-and-white chequered floor spread out beneath the old, wooden chairs that seemed to be about to break down in any given second. As nervous should you feel about the slow, hypnotic ceiling fan that were swinging for its last breath. Modest, classic and with a big pinch of nostalgia. The trad-scene of Buenos Aires doesn't get more recognisable than this. But where many other of this city's dreamy café bars disappear in each others resemblance, Café de Garcia stood out on its own. This bar had that special something, that enthralling elevation. Possibly an unexplainable sense for details, an expertise in how to restore what's best. Maybe the stubborn will to never compromise, at any cost or any mean. How could I know? I just stood there in awe.
Story. A great bar needs a story, something to write home about. This could be manifested in different ways. It could be that old bar brawl between Joyce and Hemingway. The origin of a cocktail or a secret sauce recipe. It could be the transformation of an old bank into a late night techno dive or the hybrid culture taking place when an immigrant is setting up shop in a new country. The twists of interest are infinite but still so crucial. Without them there is nothing to tell and nothing to hear. With them on the other hand, there is something to feel and something to live. Any schmuck with a license can pour a pint but it takes a hero to create history.
Needless to say, old bars has the advantage in this matter. I have ravelled on about it before but what I often find gasping about new, stylish places is the total lack of a story to tell. It is all good fun but nowhere is there a romantic feeling of being connected to the past. Nowhere is that revitalising feeling of taking part of something bigger than ourselves. This can't be said of Café de Garcia. With ninety years in running, this is the place where a whole neighbourhood grew up. Open from early in the morning until late, this has been the scene of history in the making. The rise of the big city, Perón, the military junta, the hand of god and national bankruptcy. This is the great story told at one single bar counter. Where Francis Ford Coppola came and sipped coffee when he fell in love with this city. Where former neighbourhood resident Diego Maradona paid his tribute by signing that valuable football shirt that is hanging on the wall. But most importantly, this is where Los Garcias put their name, love and hard work for all these years. That is the story I personally like the most.
Product. This is a confusing term. For me, the product of a great bar doesn't necessarily need to be about a physical matter. Many of the bars that I enjoy the most are not places of refined dining or a luxurious beverage extravaganza. Actually, they would not be what they are in case they would provide any of this. What makes them seductive is another kind of product, the one where a bad, metallic beer actually can taste great just because of everything else around it. The vibes, the peculiar setting, the many strong and interesting personalities. This is after all the experience industry we are discussing, an enigmatic arena of cultural transaction.
No matter the complexity of this reasoning, what I refer to in this context is product as in food and drinks. I am very big on that and it is after all one of the most elemental features of a bar; the disposal of alcohol and chow. And Café de Garcia did this with brilliance. Great pressure on the Quilmes, the perfect serve on the vermouth and a with Argentinean measures decent espresso. But the real star was the food and the snacks. I had the rustic Plato del dia of a white wine-braised veal with ham in the middle and simple but delicious roasted potatoes and bell peppers on the side. The true definition of good comfort-food and one of the best plates that I ever had in this country. But then I have not been here during weekend nights either. Then people from all over the city makes the pilgrimage for the house Picada that is being served in a small salon in the back. With a legendary reputation, the seats for this feast of cold cuts, cheeses and more, is almost always fully booked and without having tried it myself, I am ready to believe the hype. They say that it is a quite surreal experience, a reason why many in the know are ready to make the long voyage out here.
People. Without the people there wouldn't be any of this. Imagine a bar without its regulars, without its prolific owner or employees. A bar without the ever changing flow of eccentrics, intellectuals, drunks and random kinds? It would be nothing more than a black hole. A hollow shell. Truthfully, there are no great bars without great people. I for one have never seen any.
The crowd at Café de Garcia stood up for the test. Unlike myself and many other observers out there, these people frequented this bar naturally and without any hidden motives or attempts to live something they were not. This was the crowd of the neighbourhood, forever attached to this environment as a flower to its soil. I will always respect that, the local connection and spirit of community. As well do I appreciate the scene of original and authentic people. Café de Garcia didn't lack any of these. Old men from the barrio playing an energetic but civil lunch game of carambol. They were all the subjects of an endangered life form; the true old-school gentleman that leads his life far away of today's manic thirst of change. So where the chaps serving them. In their light-blue and indeed ordinary working-shirts they swirled around the room serving drinks and making jokes. A fascinating breed, these old waiters of Buenos Aires. Without them this twelve million people city would break down in a second and a tremendous part of the Buenos Aires soul would be forever lost.
Mystique. Too often I find myself forced to compromise bar splendour with the depressing fact of belonging to a "disneyfied" era. We are living in a time of no discovery, a world of billions of witnesses. The promised land is already taken. It is now replaced with hords of tourists in safari outfits, shameless prices and the sour taste of mass consumption. As low as this can make me feel, there is nothing as the joy of finding the true gem. Like the adventurer that discovered new land, the feeling of taking part of the unknown bar is what keeps me going. Even though this surely makes me to a cultural parasite, just sucking the blood out of everything that I find exotic and "true", this is one of the greatest pleasures of this work.
Located up to a forty-five minutes car ride from downtown Buenos Aires, Café de Garcia is the destination for the enthusiast, not the blasé traveller. Even though I find the neighbourhood of Villa Devoto to be a quite charming place this is clearly not one of the more spectacular areas of this city. A flat and quite sleepy neighbourhood, these are the streets of the common man, a middle class that is too poor to be envied but too rich to be romanticised. It is too tortuously similar to ourselves, to you and me. Being so, it is also the perfect place where to get away. Where to create your own world of mystique. Subsequently, by coming here a relieving feeling of uniqueness hits my heart and the belief of my own epic faith makes me feel bold and alive. As one might expect, this is something I like with a bar.
Ambience. This is the state that you can not explain but surely can feel. At Cafe de Garcia it was for me the perfect planning of a public space which created a harmony of intimacy and seclusion. But it was also the crackling sound of an old Astor Piazzolla-tune that together with the clockings of billiard balls echoed its way up in this high roof of local history. The soda siphon served on the side of my neighbours bitter. The hand shake between two old friends after a game of chess. Café de Garcia was where reverence mastered the moment and where life as a cinematic ritual really mattered. No wonder why Francis Ford Coppola adored this place. It was much the old-time settings in his great pictures. Wistful, tender and grand.
Drinks? Read section about products.
Munch? Read the section about products but please also note the superior house ham up for order. Superb and up there with all the best from Spain.
Where? Sanabria 3302, C1417AZZ, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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!