All Hail the Buenos Aires Bodegón
“What’s the name of the woman that comes to sing tango?” I ask. Oscar González’s eyebrows come together in the middle of his forehead as he stares pensively at the scene in the crowded restaurant, rolling through a mental rolodex of different characters. He’s been waiting tables for the last 18 years at Miramar, a bodegón in Buenos Aires’ historic San Cristóbal neighborhood.
“Her name is Ana,” he responds. But before he can launch into an anecdote, Ana slinks into the dining room from a side entrance and immediately begins belting out a tango ballad: “Anoche, de nuevo te vieron mis ojos/anoche, de nuevo te tuve a mi lado” (“Last night, my eyes saw you again/Last night, I was back by your side.”)
It’s 3 o’clock on a chilly Tuesday afternoon and the packed lunch crowd’s loud murmur subsides to near silence in an instant. It’s been a year since my last visit here—I prefer to save my cross-town pilgrimages to this restaurant for the winter to tuck into a bowl of oxtail stew or mussels provenzal. Ana’s song fills the room, accompanied at times by a loud gush of air emitted by the espresso machine and noise of traffic on the avenue outside, and then it’s over; people applaud, pull a few bills from their wallets to deposit into Ana’s hat, and promptly return to their meals. The white noise of table chatter and silverware clanging against ceramic plates returns, and Ana disappears back into the crowded street.
“This place is hard to describe,” says Oscar. “It’s magic. Lots of new restaurants try to imitate bodegones like this, but you can’t create history out of nothing.”
Bodegones are Italo-Hispano restaurants that became popular in Buenos Aires beginning around the 1930s and remain ubiquitous across the city. They serve as a reflection of the massive waves of immigrants that arrived in Argentina at the turn of the 19th century from all across Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, which played an essential role in building the country’s capital out of a dusty provincial city of the old Spanish colony. Open a menu and you’ll see the mark of these immigrants: There’s always a Spanish-esque tortilla served well-done or extra runny, Italian-ish fresh pastas that splatter sauce everywhere, and one or two hidden dishes brought over from the old country by the original owner that make each restaurant its own unique universe.
By the 1960s, European immigration all but stopped, and the construction of restaurants like Miramar slowly petered out. They are relics of another time, as a brief glance at the vast majority of their customers would confirm. Although an older crowd isn’t the entirety of their customer base, it’s certainly their most loyal.
There are only two kinds of customers: You’re either a loyal patron that’s been coming for decades or a random diner who’s walked in off the street.
Aside from the style of the cuisine, bodegones all treat their customers the same, and there are only two kinds of customers: You’re either a loyal patron that’s been coming for decades or a random diner who’s walked in off the street. The owner of a popular Italian cantina (who preferred not to be named for this article) once summed up the attitude of the bodegón like this: “We give the service we are required to—nothing more and nothing less. We’re here to make good food and take it from the kitchen to your table. Some people get annoyed that we don’t hang around and chat or cater to them.”
Her assessment, however, is a bit overexaggerated. Going to a bodegón for the first time is like a first visit with the in-laws: everyone is cordial, and the vibe is homey and may even be warm. But if you want to be treated like family, you have to keep showing up. Once you prove that you’re in it for the long run, you’re in.
“A lot of my good friends started as customers,” explains Oscar shortly after Ana disappears. “There’s a customer that lets me use his beach house in the summer. I take my daughters. He could charge a lot for that but won’t charge me.”
Oscar excuses himself to grab an order from the kitchen. Before he could get there, he’s intercepted by a table of four older men. “How are you?” one yells. “We’ve been waiting all afternoon to talk to you.”
Miramar opened in 1950. Prior to that, it was a hat shop that counted acclaimed tango singer Carlos Gardel amongst its most loyal customers. For nearly five decades, Miramar originally functioned as a rotisería, a neighborhood take-out spot that served homey Italo-Hispano dishes. The first head chef, Cabaleiro, worked the kitchen well into his 80s; today, his protégé, Richard Llanos, continues making the same exact dishes, but to dine-in.
In the early aughts, Miramar expanded from a take-out joint into a full-blown bodegón, known around the city for its Galician cuisine. On the wall, signs encourage you to PIDA CARACOLES (“Order the Snails”) or emphatically announce RABO DE TORO: ESPECIALIDAD DE LA CASA (“Oxtail: The House Specialty”). This time around, I order the snails. While I sip on a Mendozan Chardonnay with whiffs of lemongrass, I tease the snails out of their shell with a toothpick, each erupting along with squirts of a tomato and wine broth that leave gray and red spots on a pressed white tablecloth already dirtied with breadcrumbs. The bodegón is an elegant mess—if you haven’t stained the tablecloth, did you even have a good meal?
I’ve always been fascinated by places like this, and not just because of the communities they cultivate, nor the aura of nostalgia they provide in the form of pressed tablecloths, wood paneled walls, and posters of the old country. The headline of a framed restaurant review hanging on a dark wooden column at Miramar reads, “The Way Our Grandparents Ate.” While that phrase gets thrown around a lot when people talk about bodegones, as if this food belongs to some long-lost generation, I disagree. Bodegones fascinate me because the food they serve isn’t stuck in time; it transcends it. No matter how much the city grows and food culture expands, you can always find yourself a seat at a bodegón—your bodegón—and the food is always there, just as you remember it. This isn’t the food of los abuelos, or grandparents; it’s the food of the people of Buenos Aires—los Porteños.
That nostalgia does a disservice to bodegones and their food, much as the description of Buenos Aires as a European city in South America—repeated by both foreigners and locals alike—flattens the city’s character, as if Paris was copied and pasted onto the beaches of the Río de la Plata. Neither recognizes the confluence of immigrants from across the globe, nor the way that multi-generation Porteños have blended and created a culture that’s unique.
No matter how much the city grows and food culture expands, you can always find yourself a seat at a bodegón—your bodegón—and the food is always there, just as you remember it.
“Immigrants arrived from around the world and had to communicate in broken Spanish peppered with words from their homeland,” explains Mariana Radisic Koliren, owner of the sustainable travel company Lunfarda Trave, named after the country’s characteristic slang. “Those words became the base for our slang, Lunfardo, the intersection and meeting point for the diversity of Argentina. European languages merged with words from Indigenous and African origins. Lunfardo became the living testament of the mosaic of cultures that Buenos Aires became in the late 1800s.”
Lunfardo and the bodegón are both forms of communication and reaffirmation—the former, an outward expression of belonging to the idiosyncrasies of this specific place; the latter, the ingestion of our city between bites of bread and sips of wine, a Eucharist that also includes a giant plate of noodles doused in red sauce.
Any thick, leather-bound menu you open at a bodegón will leave you confronted with a culinary dialect, a language both familiar and foreign that one must practice in order to become fluent. Anybody can tell you the difference between a pesto and bolognesa; only the most studious have a breadth of pasta sauce knowledge to choose between puttanesca, Parisienne, scarparo, rosa, fileto, or principe di Napoli. What are sardines de vigo? And how are sea bass a la Vasca, a la Veneciana, and a la Lyonessa different? Why are milanesas denoted by geography? Would you like one a la Napolitana, Suiza, or Maryland (topped with tomato sauce, ham and cheese; served with a mustard-induced cream and cheese sauce; or accompanied with a fried banana and creamed corn, respectively). Obviously, everybody knows that the latter is only made with chicken—at Don Ignacio, a dive dedicated exclusively to beef milanesas (32 of them), they looked at me cock-eyed when I asked about the absence of the Maryland, as if beef was the odd ingredient.
“Be careful about calling this food European,” warns historian and food scholar Carina Perticone. “They may have European roots, but we have modified them so much that there is only a trace of European-ness left. There are plenty of dishes that appear European but are completely unique to here. These foods are American, they’re Argentine-American, they’re Rioplatenses.”
I thought of my go-to neighborhood bodegón, the German-owned Gambrinus. I often have a hard time deciding between a matambre a la pizza—a tough cut of meat that translates to “kill hunger,” which was given to butchers after a long day’s work, and is today served with tomato sauce and cheese on top—or pork stewed in a sticky plum sauce (French? Umbrian? Romanian? None of the above?) served with creamy mashed potatoes, or gnocchis piled with a thick, paprika-heavy goulash.
It is just past 11 p.m. on a cold Thursday night and I’m sitting at a table in the back corner of Bar Norte, a bodegón that has been popular in Buenos Aires’ tribunal district since it was opened by a group of Spanish immigrants in 1975. By day, it’s sparsely filled with suits and ties; by night, it has the same suits with loosened ties—with bottles of Coke swapped out for bottles of wine—alongside neighborhood patrons, and couples and friends who are making their way in or out of one of the two theaters that sit on the other side of the plaza.
The place is packed. I’m squeezed into a chair that’s been jammed between the table and an armoire that houses bottles of salad dressing, stacks of folded tablecloths, and silverware that lets off a loud, metallic echo each time a new table is set. When the crew of middle-aged waiters aren’t reaching behind my head for a wine glass, they’re rushing past me with plates stacked like towers: ñoquis topped with maroon-red stewed beef estofado and milanesas that droop over either end of their plates; tortillas Españolas that sit in a shallow mote of runny yolk, and long strings of spaghetti that wait to be mixed with one of the 26 salsas on the menu, which gives clear notice that “the SAUCES are charged separately.”
“You’ve been here before, right?” asks the waiter. I had—four times, to be exact. On each occasion, I was waited on by this same older man, except for the time that I sat at the table adjacent to him while he took his lunch break; me with a tenderloin and mushroom sauce with noisette potatoes, him with a grilled fish and salad.
His question catches me off guard. Not because of the boisterous scene in front of me but because it feels like the start of an initiation. He introduces himself as Pancho, and I can’t help but feel excited; a level up, the beginning of my initiation as a regular. “Yeah, I’ve been here a few times,” I reply with my best feigned nonchalance, and extend my hand. “I’m Kevin.”