When visiting a new city or country, I like to combine historical, cultural and culinary experiences into an itinerary that provides a rich flavor of wherever we are visiting. It’s always nice to find places that combine more than one of these features. In the case of Café Tortoni, you get all three.
Café Tortoni is a quintessential “porteño café”. Established in 1858, it is the oldest café is Buenos Aires. Little is known about its origins, other than the fact it was opened by a French immigrant who borrowed the name from a café in Paris where the elites of arts and culture in the French capital would meet. The choice of name foreshadowed the role Café would play within Argentina as well.
The café fronts Avenida de Mayo, the main avenue of Buenos Aires, and is only a few blocks from the Plaza de Mayo. It’s easy to pop by during the middle of a day of sightseeing, which is exactly what we did.
What a Stunning Interior
The Gran Café Tortoni remains locked in another century. I was immediately struck by the stately interior and beautiful glass ceiling. Everything is covered in dark paneling. There are photos, paintings and drawings from through the decades adorning the walls.
Near the back of the café is a display of busts. Even farther back there is a small library and billiard tables, in keeping with its roots as a gathering place. La Peña, a group dedicated to furthering and protecting arts and culture, met in the basement of the cafe during the early part of the 1900s.
A number of distinguished politicians and artists have visited the café over the years, adding to its status as a piece of Buenos Aires history. Last year the cafe hit their 160-year mark. For a country that isn’t especially old, this is impressive. Besides the food and beverages served at the cafe, the Cafe Tortoni menu also contains some information on the history of the cafe.
Black tie service
The waiters at the Café Tortoni are dressed sharply in black suits with bow ties. Even though the place really isn’t upscale, at least based on the prices and clientele, the waiters give it more of an upscale ambiance. They probably also silently judge you if you walk in wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
I’d originally only intended to grab a cup of coffee here with my daughter to check the place out, but we’d gotten a later start and it was getting on lunch time. We decided to order food as well. She went with pizza, while I chose a burger.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat at Café Tortoni for the food. It was fine, but nothing noteworthy. You can find plenty of other excellent options in Buenos Aires. A visit to this cafe is more for the history and ambiance.
There are certainly better places to enjoy a fresh empanada, or even a submarino or café con leche, and places where you’ll pay a bit less. Prices aren’t bad, but given the popularity of the establishment, it is a premium over similar fare you can find at other establishments.
But a visit to Café Tortoni is entirely worth it. If you have the chance while in Buenos Aires, pay the oldest café in the city a visit!