A slow sip of espresso: The change of pace in Buenos Aires

café in buenos aires
Molly Nolan/Staff

Shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires, jet-lagged and exhausted, I walked into a café near my homestay and ordered a “cortado grande” – espresso with a bit of milk – to go. After paying for my peculiarly small paper cup of coffee, I walked out to receive an odd glance from every passer-by on the street. It was later that I realized taking food and beverages “to go” in Argentina is largely uncommon, and here, espresso is made to be sipped slowly from a delicate cup, alongside a “factura,” or pastry of some kind.    

There’s something incredibly refreshing about sitting down and enjoying a coffee — or an entire meal, for that matter — without a sense of urgency or haste. In fact, passing hours talking at the end of a meal is so typical here it even has a name: “sobremesa.” This means dinners that begin as late as 10 p.m. and go late into the night. People spend long hours sharing stories, discussing political trends and rehashing the events of Lionel Messi’s most recent game performance.

coffee in Buenos Aires

After my first week, I finally felt as though I had embraced this style of leisurely dining. One afternoon, some of my friends and I wandered into a small restaurant in search of coffee (what else?) and possibly an empanada or two after exploring the neighborhood of San Telmo. The San Telmo market is a sprawling street fair with 15 blocks of vendors selling everything from handmade leather bags and belts to decorative art pieces. Each Sunday the vendors set up shop along the cobblestone roads, a colorful scene accompanied by the sounds of the tango cadence and sizzling “choripán,” grilled and prepared on nearly every street corner.

After settling into one of seemingly thousands of cafes tucked into the city’s street corners — all of which look vaguely alike — we ordered a round of espressos while indulging in endless artisan bread, refilled without request. Three hours later, we found ourselves still sitting at the same table, lost in conversation. It isn’t customary for waitstaff to check on customers, so we had no reason to feel as though we needed to leave. No one around us seemed to be in any rush either — in those late afternoon hours, it appeared as though the rapid pace of this once-bustling city had slowed to a crawl.

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This lull happens about 4 p.m., when everyone retreats to the nearest “cafetería” in search of a caffeinated beverage, and the smell of sweet “medialunas” (a croissant-like pastry, but far superior), wafts into the streets.

The roots of the Argentine tea culture trace back to British influences, but here, teatime embraces a novel element of camaraderie and collectivity. Maté, the traditional herbal tea enjoyed here, is sipped from a single gourd through a metal straw, which is passed in a circle and shared among friends.

I was first hesitant to participate in the ritual — sharing the same beverage among six or seven people isn’t exactly common practice in the States. But I quickly realized that the event was less about the drink itself, and more so an opportunity to bond, open conversation and express a sense of geniality.  

san telmo, buenos aires

This theme plays a major role in everything people do in Buenos Aires, from mealtime to daily greetings. I work as an intern at a nonprofit organization, and each morning I am greeted by everyone in the office with a kiss on the cheek and a friendly ¿Cómo andas?” Upon leaving, it’s a similar routine, and I make “the rounds” to say goodbye to each one of my co-workers.

The work environment itself is equally congenial, with large tables to facilitate conversation and collaboration, instead of isolated office spaces or cubicles. There is a resounding sense that the people here enjoy one another’s company and will take time to communicate with one another directly, with a sense of intimacy and sincerity.

The best example of this form of bonding takes place at an “asado,” or an Argentine barbecue, an event that can go on for upward of eight hours and leaves you feeling full beyond belief. We drove outside the city and spent the day at a friend’s house while his dad prepared a lavish assortment of traditional meats. As soon as I finished the first serving, the second was brought out, followed by three more. Needless to say, by the time we left, I was beyond satiated.

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But it’s not just dining where Argentines tend to take it slow; the arts culture in Buenos Aires thrives at the unhurried pace of life in the city. Independent bookstores — which in the United States are often considered rare gems — appear on practically every block. Despite some concern that paper books are becoming increasingly obsolete, the culture of print literature in Buenos Aires is flourishing; in fact, the city has more bookstores per capita than any other. El Ateneo Grand Splendid was once an opera theater that was converted into what is now considered one of the most famous bookstores in the world. Even better, many bookstores seamlessly combine my two favorite things — coffee and books — by building cafés in secret patios hidden inside.

Buenos Aires bookstore

Art museums in the city, while much smaller than many I’ve visited in the States, allow visitors enough time to see and enjoy every exhibit. From modern, conceptual art pieces at the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires to renaissance exhibits at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, there’s a broad diversity of art on display, and new exhibits opening nearly every week. But you don’t have to wander into a museum to get a glimpse of the city’s radiating artistic flare. Buenos Aires is one of the world’s street art capitals, and giant murals give good reason to slow down your stride to take a look.

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But despite my affinity for this “slow-paced” culture, it’s clear I haven’t quite caught on yet; I wrote much of this article in a café called Lattente that I was surprised didn’t offer Wi-Fi, especially since it’s a popular spot in the neighborhood. When I left, I noticed a sign on the wall with a list of friendly rules, one of which was “no Macs,” and another that reminded patrons to avoid internet use and “hablar entre ustedes,” or talk to one another.

After getting over my embarrassment, I decided I would eventually come back — maybe this time with a good book in hand — and learn to slow down and sip my coffee the Argentine way.

Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].