It’s a regular midweek morning in Congreso, Buenos Aires’s political district, and Ricardo La Rosa has stopped off at Los Galgos for a cortado and a sweet, croissant-like medialuna pastry. Before the day is out, he will have likely passed by a few more times, perhaps ordering the plato del día (dish of the day), which might be a tortilla or lamb’s tongue, and he will definitely have caught up with other patrons perched at the bar.
La Rosa has frequented this bar notable – a culturally relevant and historic café in the Argentinian capital that’s one of more than 70 such establishments holding heritage status – since 1966, when it operated as both grocery store and watering hole. His dad would bring him, the young Ricardo peering through the sash windows at the cheese and charcuterie, inspired to save up his pesos to buy a savoury treat. For almost 60 years, Los Galgos has been the pensioner’s social axis, a bolthole to eat and greet, laugh and mourn; it’s one of many such centenary establishments that weave a colourful thread through Buenos Aires’s social tapestry.
La Rosa’s six decades of ritual came to an end in 2015, when Los Galgos, which translates as ‘the greyhounds’, ran its last race. Regulars had to search for new meeting spots, though La Rosa and his gang never put down roots anywhere else – that is, until new handlers and cultural heritage guardians Julián Díaz and Flor Capella, co-owners of the trendy 878 cocktail bar in the Villa Crespo neighbourhood, entered the scene, determined not to lose this piece of history brimming with Argentinian identity. ‘The Ramos brothers ran Los Galgos for more than 50 years – but when they died, their heirs couldn’t sustain it and closed it down,’ says Díaz. ‘That’s when my family got in touch with theirs to revive the space. Working with my architect parents Luis Díaz and Teresa Chiurazzi, and my partner Flor, we restored the property and reopened in December 2015.’
Los Galgos’s story starts in 1879, Argentina’s financial golden age, when the Lezama family constructed a splendid building on the prominent corner of Avenida Callao and Calle Lavalle; it was later a storefront for the Singer sewing machine company before taking on its third purpose. Inspired by Europe’s fashionable bars, the Lezamas incorporated many materials straight from the Old World’s finest workshops, such as the original Slovenian hand-carved oak wall panels. ‘When Los Galgos opened in 1930, it was perfectly located for Tribunales and the courts,’ says Capella, ‘as well as Avenida Corrientes and its plethora of theatres and tango dance halls. It was a protagonist in Buenos Aires’s political and cultural life, a café where cultural luminaries like musicians Enrique Santos Discépolo and Aníbal Troilo – as well as politicians from all parties – came together. It was where the vibrant essence of life happened.’
Having given the 878 bar a new lease of life as a speakeasy in 2004, the pair felt a sense of duty when it came to embarking on this second, more ambitious project. ‘Working in gastronomy for many years, I felt a commitment to its restoration while preserving its authentic identity,’ says Díaz. ‘We live in a city where international chains coexist alongside a fascinating mix of local bars, restaurants, cafés, cocktail and even billiard halls. The challenge was restoring Los Galgos with a sense of purpose, respect and dedication.’
Labour of love
The couple fell head over heels with the project, says Capella, thinking with their hearts rather than their heads as they embarked on what she calls ‘a romantic crusade. We barely gave a thought to the commercial angle, because we simply saw gastronomy as part of Buenos Aires’s culture. Both Julián and I are very porteño [born and raised in the Argentinian capital]; we love our city and have always appreciated its cultural life.’
Everything – mirrors, painted fileteado signs and even the ceramic greyhounds – had been put up for auction online. Some pieces were lost in the process, but many original artefacts were reclaimed from Mercado Libre – Argentina’s version of eBay. ‘We bought everything and started over, restoring objects and furniture. We put a great deal of love and so many details into putting Los Galgos back together,’ says Capella.
Nerves were fraught when they reopened: would patrons still love it? Would they embrace the renovated space? ‘The magic of a particular place can’t be planned or controlled,’ says Capella. ‘It’s about feelings. When you walk through that door, it’s what you feel that counts – and that, for me, is fundamental. I was very anxious, because if you look at photos from 2012, the bar looks very different from how it is now. But when people walked in, they felt the magic and started sharing their stories of weddings and gatherings, millions of life stories that had played out at Los Galgos. There were a number of anecdotes we heard that were so moving – especially when people were reunited time and again, sharing the most wonderful memories. This made it all worthwhile.’
It certainly did. Their saving Los Galgos means the venue is able to rub shoulders with other legendary bares notables – such as tango haunt Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo and Bar Británico in San Telmo. ‘The city government’s bares notables initiative was led by a group of romantics at the end of the 1990s who wanted to stop historically and culturally relevant places from closing down,’ says Díaz. Fortunately, their passion has helped safeguard other properties such as the Confitería del Molino, also in Congreso.
Back to our roots
Besides the ambitious architectural refurbishment, which took the better part of a year, managing food and drink expectations was key. Given the prevalent waves of Italian migration in Argentina’s 213-year history (as well as Spanish, English, Eastern European and Middle Eastern among others), aperitivos and coffee are integral to the daily grind, says venerable bartender Fede Cuco of Verne Club, on the 50 Best Discovery list, and beverages are key to Los Galgos’s revival. ‘Aperitivo isn’t a drink; it’s a moment. Drinking something before dining is traditional in Spain and Italy, and those migrants brought that custom to Argentina,’ he says. ‘Drinking Fernet or vermút with soda was the norm in homes, as well as in ordinary corner bars. The famous vermouth came with sides: ask for a vermút, and you’d get a soda siphon and a plate of cheese, salami and other bits. It was cheap – anyone could afford to order one – and it was something that was served at every corner bar in every city across Argentina.’
This part of the culture has come full circle and is growing again, certainly in Buenos Aires and large cities like Rosario and Mendoza. Given that Díaz is co-founder of La Fuerza – a pioneering line of Malbec- and Torrontés-based vermouths that launched in 2018 – with winemaker Sebastián Zuccardi, he has also been a guiding light in the vermút comeback. ‘Drinks trends today are current at Los Galgos because many of them are simply about returning to their roots, and that’s where the paradox lies,’ Díaz explains. ‘I always believe our essence isn’t about being conservationist and clinging on to the past because it’s the past. Rather, we’re mining for bygone treasures to reintroduce them. Today’s younger clientele finds returning to the origins of both quality and identity very alluring.
‘Our drinks list is about balance, and vermouth creates a dynamic link. It closes gaps: older generations enjoy it, as do young people and wine lovers – but also those who barely touch wine. Vermouth is in revival mode, bringing in lots of consumers who are into beverages that hit many current targets, such as low alcohol, a natural product and high quality. Vermouth checks all the boxes.’
Cuco agrees: ‘Garibaldi and Negroni became trendy, and people started drinking vermouth differently, consuming new styles made from unusual ingredients such as kumquat; these are the aperitivos for the next generation. And given that you can prepare one in any glass, that’s an advantage that aperitivos wield against cocktails: they aren’t quite so glamorous.’
Los Galgos’s cocktail list includes national favourites such as the Negroni and other drinks dating from the 1940s. ‘They hold classic elements that we like so much and give Los Galgos its identity,’ says Díaz. Its wine list follows the same path: traditional styles rub shoulders with skin-contact and amphora-aged vintages from across the country.
When it comes to dining, head chef Florencia Dragovetsky has also injected love into under-appreciated dishes. ‘The childhood flavours of buñuelos [traditional fritters] were prepared by our grandmothers, and even though they are tied to porteño cooking, restaurants largely stopped serving them. That’s the reason we want to raise their profile and appreciation.’
We belong to history
‘Los Galgos is my second home,’ says La Rosa. ‘I don’t venture far these days, but if the wife and kids can’t find me, they know where I am. Today they can call my mobile, but they used to just phone the bar.’ As time has passed, his original gang of six amigos has dwindled to three, although he has dozens of acquaintances at the bar. With one, they visit fortnightly for the menú del día.
‘We talk about politics, football, the grandkids, the usual. What makes Los Galgos relevant is the fact that it’s historical. Because of my wretched age, I practically belong to history, and this place has all the warmth that’s been preserved from the old bars,’ says Ricardo. ‘And that’s important.’