Bring your appetite—and your children—to Argentina’s capital.
Eating in Buenos Aires is a delight—and not just for adults. Children will love the licuados (fresh fruit shakes), extensive dessert range (the ice cream is like gelato, the pastries are divine) and freshly made pasta and pizza on nearly every menu.
Adults typically want beef—Argentina’s pampas grass-fed cattle produce the best beef in the world. And anyone who thinks otherwise should pretty much keep it to themself, as it’s one of the quickest ways to rile a local (known as a porteño). There also are plenty of cafés in which to while away the hours and a diverse range of excellent restaurants with everything from sushi to Middle Eastern to modern European/Argentinean fare. It’s sophisticated food, beautifully presented—you are far away from rice-and-beans land (so far it’s impossible to find great Mexican food here).
What’s more, the produce is lush. Argentina encompasses so many different climates that everything from pineapples, avocados, potatoes, asparagus, strawberries, pumpkin and broccoli is grown locally.
The real challenge is dining times. If you’ve been to Spain, you know what you’re in for. Dinner is around 9 or 10 p.m.; most restaurants don’t even open until 8:30 p.m. Argentines eat late, and so do their children. Their trick is a special tea time, called merienda, around 4 to 5 p.m., to tide children over until dinner. But merienda takes place at home—no help when you’re a tourist.
The best strategy is to have nice big lunches, which are a bargain, and to eat a lighter dinner in the cafés and restaurants that stay open throughout the day. There’s also a fair amount of decent, cheap on-the-go food in local panaderias (bakeries): sandwiches (made with white bread and no crusts) and empanadas (little pastries filled with meat and/or cheese). We often grab one or two jamón y queso (ham and cheese) empanadas for our daughter Indigo when we go out for the day, in case our hungry periods don’t coincide. At A$2-3 (US 65 cents-$1) each, they are a bargain.
There is not a culture here of family restaurant versus fine dining. People take their children with them everywhere. Forget that oh-so-familiar sigh of resignation when you show up with small ones. Our 3-year-old daughter loves eating out here as the waiters make a fuss over her, giving her carmelitos (candy chews), and she can spend hours playing with her favorite drink, the submarino—a make-your-own hot chocolate where kids are given a chocolate bar to dunk into hot milk.
High chairs (sillita alta para bébé) and booster seats (almohadón), however, are not as common, so you may have to improvise or feed little ones in their strollers.
Check out the most expensive places, or those that feature “romantic” in the reviews, beforehand. We often take our daughter to El Mercado at the lovely Faena Hotel+Universe (designed by Philippe Starck) in Puerto Madero, but she has been swigging water out of wine glasses since she was 2.
If traveling with little ones, you definitely should check out Recursos Infantiles in Palermo. It’s a combination of toy store and café. It's open seven days a week, serves pasta and other child-friendly food at reasonable prices (A$8-18), and has all the gear you will need—high chairs, dog-eared books they won’t mind your teething child chewing on, puzzles for the older ones to play with, and more. You may not escape empty handed, however; they sell gorgeous wooden toys, puzzles and dolls.
At the parilla (pronounced pa-REE-jah) restaurants, grilled meats are lovingly tended to by an asador. Parilla restaurants litter the streets here like confetti, so a good rule of thumb is to look for somewhere slightly run down, with long lines of people waiting. I strongly recommend skipping Cabaña Las Lilas, which irritatingly features in many of the world’s top restaurant lists with its overpriced menu, as the exact same quality of meat is on offer at El Desnivel.
Desnivel is a legendary restaurant in San Telmo—impossible to beat for its beef, some of the best gnocchi in town and low prices (main courses are around A$15-20 (US$5-7). If tender is your top priority, go for lomo cut; if it’s flavor, try mariposa (which means butterfly). Desnivel is on Defensa, where the famous Sunday antique fair in San Telmo is based, so you can combine the two. Expect crowds of laughing, chatting people, with waiters that banter and barter more than serve. They are especially good with children; we went two weeks in a row and were astonished as the waiter remembered our daughter and what she drank. Aim to be there around 12-12:30 p.m., and your seat is assured. Show up at 2 p.m., and you will be joining the hordes of people lining up, wistfully sniffing the air.
Fish and seafood aren’t really that popular in Argentina, for reasons unknown given its lengthy coast—its neighbor Chile goes crazy for the stuff. The best restaurants for fish are Spanish, and Casal de Cataluya is a personal favorite. It looks unprepossessing—the first time I went I thought I’d mistakenly walked into a senior citizen milonga (tango hall). Turns out it shares a foyer with the theater next door. The restaurant is vast, it’s too brightly lit, and it feels a bit stilted until the seats start filling up. But the food: Heaven. The squid is so tender it’s like butter. The fish falls off the bone. The saffron fish stew is divine. Enough said.
The trout in Café San Juan is also scrumptious. The term café is a bit misleading—it’s actually one of the best restaurants in the city, run by a local family and featuring the best of modern porteño cooking.
If you don’t know what you want to eat but feel like having a wander, Palermo Viejo is a safe bet. Here you will find sushi, French, Middle Eastern and modern European cuisine. (The Asian and Mexican food is pretty average.)
Our favorites for lunch in Palermo are Freud & Fahler, which has a very pretty indoor tree with glass leaves that Indigo always wants to sit by; Cluny, which has long sofas and pleasant outdoor seating that is not on the street; and Mott, which is spacious and light and has a ramp on the top floor that Indigo races along on the way to the bathrooms.
While the neighborhood of Las Cañitas is often described as a diner’s delight, my experiences have been pretty hit and miss.
Vegetarians, do not fear. This is plenty to eat here—well beyond the dreaded cheese omelet you must eat in Paris. When your family has had enough of a meat fest, head for the very good organic, vegetarian Bio in Palermo. It has friendly service, well-positioned outside seating and a fantastic ginger drink. The quinoa risotto, made with a traditional Incan grain, is mouthwatering.
Unless stated otherwise, reservations for dinner are advisable.
Bio (no credit cards): Humboldt 2199, Palermo Viejo, tel. 4774-3880
Cafe San Juan: Avenue San Juan 450, San Telmo, tel. 4300-1112
Casal de Catalunya: Chacabuco 863, San Telmo, tel. 4361-0191
Cluny: El Salvador 4618/22, Palermo Viejo, tel. 4831-7176
Desnivel (no credit cards): Defensa 855, San Telmo, tel. 4300-9081
El Mercado: Faena Hotel+Universe, Martha Salotti 445, Puerto Madero, tel. 4010-9000
Freud & Fahler: Gurruchaga 1750, Palermo Viejo, tel. 4833-2153
Mott: El Salvador 4685, Palermo Soho, tel. 4833-4306
Recurso Infantiles: J.L. Borges 1766, Palermo, tel. 4834-6177
Themes: Family Travel