Afternoon Tea in Buenos Aires, Argentina

March 2010

Most portenos will tell you that the best, most posh afternoon tea is at the Alvear Palace Hotel.

Granted, it is posh indeed, on the scale of the old Plaza in New York, or the Ritz in London. And, lucky me, the Alvear Palace is around the corner from my apartment, in the neighborhood known as Recoleta. So, as my sister, Cass, was visiting me in Buenos Aires for the long weekend, we went to said Alvear Palace for afternoon tea.

But this was more than afternoon tea. It was high tea.

It was nice, to be true, and elaborate. But, there gets a point to where things can be too posh, too stuffy, too Louis XVI, too formal, even for my formal tendencies. I think the Alvear is worth having tea at----once.

Better yet, I suggest taking tea at the Palacio Duhau.

The photograph, above, shows some of the old mansions around the corner from my apartment. On the right you have the Vatican embassy. On the far left, you have the only remaining turn-of-the-century mansion in Buenos Aires that is still occupied by the original family. (They call it the Haunted House.) And in the middle, you have my favorite place for afternoon tea, the historic Palacio Duhau.

Even if tea's not your deal, you owe it to yourself to experience the Duhau. You could enjoy a cocktail at the wow bar inside or something else altogether outdoors. My sister, Cass, and I had the sweetest table on the veranda, overlooking the grounds. It was gorgeous. And such a balmy day. And my sister mentioned that it was my birthday, and immediately, as if on queue, another waitress appeared with this birthday cake, with its seven-inch candle.

This is the chocolate of chocolates, all almonds and brownie based, with mousse innards, topped with the silkiest chocolate frosting and ribboned chocolate decor. It was quite simply the most delectable chocolate concoction I've ever experienced. And, like most dishes in Argentina, this plate could have fed my three brothers.

The photograph, above, is the Four Seasons. Like the Alvear Palace Hotel, and the Palacio Duhau, the Four Seasons is also in the great Recoleta neighborhood, which by fluke and luck I claim as my own 'hood.

Once again, this building is an old turn-of-the-century family home. Some home! What's there not to like about it?

My sister and I went to the Four Seasons for afternoon tea, but unfortunately tea is not served in this mansion part of the hotel. No, tea is served in the new part, in the bar part, with all the suits and their "business meetings" over cocktails. Not exactly my cup of tea.

I would not suggest taking tea at the Four Seasons. It's not their thing.

Their thing is Sunday brunch, which is served in the old mansion. Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons is definitely a special treat. Brunch doesn't come cheap, but life is short. Treat yourself.

These two photographs are of the famed Cafe Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo, 825. Established in 1858, it's the oldest coffee shop in all of Argentina, but more importantly, it has strong historical significance. Not to mention simply gorgous architecture.

A pilgrimage to the Cafe Tortoni is not about food and beverage. It's about experiencing a bit of history.

For an interesting afternoon tea, I suggest the following tea crawl.

First, go to the Cafe Tortoni for just a coffee, or as I like, a "submarino" (a glass of hot milk with a small bar of chocolate that you unwrap, drop into the milk, and stir till melted. Luscious!).

Then, walk across the street (Avenida de Mayo) and descend one hundred years down into the subway station.

From this station (Peru) on Avenida de Mayo, buy a ticket (very inexpensive, a one-way ticket is about US$0.25) to Castro Barros station, on Line A.

This is the oldest subway line in Buenos Aires, and a true step back into history. The old tiled walls have huge, interesting, black and white retro photographs.

The seats are all wood, and you really feel as though you're taking the subway, circa 1899. The lighting is reminiscent of old gas lights. It's all very nostalgic, romantic, and a little spooky. But safe. I always felt safe in Argentina, everywhere I went.

On this tea crawl, your final destination is the historic Cafe Las Violetas at Avenida Rivadavia 3899. Just exit the Castro Barros subway station and walk a little bit.

Like Cafe Tortoni, and like taking the Line A at the Peru subway station, entering Cafe Las Violetas is like stepping back in time.

I love it. You're really experiencing a bit of history.

Now as much as the food at Cafe Tortoni is not to be raved about, the food at Cafe Las Violetas is the highlight of your tea crawl today.

On one section of the building is a proper "confiteria" (a heavenly place where they sell all sorts of pastries, cakes, and sweets). You can enter there and purchase something to take home.

But do take the time and sit down in the vast cafe. The white-coated waiters will seat you, and it's all very prim and proper.

The menu is a bit overwhelming. The Spanish didn't throw me. It was the sheer selection.

If you're with another person or a group, I suggest ordering "un poco de todo" (a little of everything). They'll bring out a platter with a little of everything, just like it says. Beware, though, the portions are huge in South America, and it's no different at Cafe Las Violettas.

As I was by myself (not alone, though, as I was with my knitting), I simply ordered a glass of "leche caliente" (hot milk, which is something I learned to love in London) and tiramisu. It was delicious, to say the least. And huge.

The stained glass is amazing. The architectural design superb. I would like to live in this cafe. Yes, that would be my dream.

When you've had enough sipping and knitting, go back from whence you came. Get back on the subway station and go back to Peru station on Avenida de Mayo.

Exit Peru station and walk to the "Casa Rosada" (Rose Palace, the presidential quarters), and if you're lucky, they'll let you in for a full tour of the place. You can stand on the balcony, overlooking the square. Amazing! It's so Evita Peron, circa 1949.

Speaking of Evita Peron, if you like fashion, and who doesn't, then you must visit the Eva Peron Museum at 2988 Lafinur Street in the Palermo neighborhood. There is a nice little cafe at the museum for tea, conversation, and knitting. But the fashions and the history are the highlights. What's there not to like about this period of fashion? Here are my photographs.

OK, back to the balcony at the Rose Palace.

From the Rose Palace, walk down Defensa street toward Plaza Dorrego in the neighborhood known as San Telmo.

There are plentiful street vendors on Defensa, selling antiques, jewelry, and whatnot. If you're out on a Sunday, take the walk down Defensa all the way to Plaza Dorrego, where the great outdoor flea market is held each Sunday. It's great. It's fun. Hope you like it!

I will always treasure my time in Argentina. If you can, rent a proper apartment in Buenos Aires and stay for awhile, like I did. How lucky was I to have the chance to stay and live like a local for a while. I especially suggest staying in the Recoleta neighborhood. My rendition of this great 'hood with its world-famous cemetery can be read here.

When I finally, sadly, departed Buenos Aires, I traveled as the locals do. I took the posh, overnight bus from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, Argentina. The bus ride was great, clean, safe, friendly, helpful, like flying business class, with a tastey hot dinner, unlimited glasses of wine, and seats that fully reclined flat. I slept well.

My destination was Mendoza, Argentina, the heart of the Argentine wine country. From my previous life in San Francisco and my subsequent experience with Napa Valley, California, I knew that wine growing regions also maintain high culinary standards. For me, that's the perfect combination: good wine and good food. I'm simple like that.

And from my research, I discovered that Argentine vineyards are much smaller than in Napa, and so there is an abbreviated distance between Argentine wineries. In fact, it was suggested that I rent a bicycle and go from winery to winery by pedal force.

What a great concept, eh? What's the worst that can happen? I'll sip too much and fall off my bike? Onto the grassy knoll? I accepted that risk and began an unforgettable journey: I cycled the Argentine wineries. This was one of the best things I did during my trip, and quite possibly my life.

After Mendoza, I took the bus over the mountains to Santiago, Chile. What a great city and country! While there, I crossed the border, again, to go mountain climbing here. I have nothing but good things to say about South America and her people. I have nothing but fond memories.