If the confitería is the essence of the idea of a café, the Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires is the essence of the confitería.
The Avenida de Mayo is a major thoroughfare in Buenos Aires. A shopping street, it is almost always glutted with automobiles. Its sidewalks are lined with deciduous trees that, during the summer months offer relief from the humidity that rises up from the Plate River. In winter, the street reminds me of the many paintings by Impressionists like Monet and Caillebotte, of rain in Paris. The streets in those paintings are slick, the trees having lost their leaves, their branches reaching into the sky like broken fingers. There is nonetheless considerable warmth in the paintings, because the Parisians are so devoted to light and color, even in the dead of winter. As the light fades in late afternoon, Buenos Aires, like Paris, gains color with electric light, making winter night-time Buenos Aires one of the most visually arresting cities in the world.
The trouble is that Buenos Aires didn't have the artists that Paris had. But it did have the Cafe Tortoni at Avenida de Mayo 825, a place that Toulouse Lautrec, Degas or Renoir would have understood and cherished.
It used to be that, no matter the season or time of day, the quiet of the Tortoni's interior belied the swirl of traffic outside. But lately it has become a favorite on the tourist scene. The Tortoni has a daily smattering of these, usually in the afternoons ... porcine, slovenly wanderers from everywhere, in hiking shoes or sandals, floppy shorts and T-shirts that advertise American cell phone companies, German football teams or meaningless software products. So I advise visiting the Tortoni in the morning before ten o'clock, when its more traditional Buenos Aires clientele is having early coffee. Another good time to visit here is mid-winter (i.e. June through August), when the Americans and Europeans have rumbled into Saint-Tropez or Yellowstone.
The Tortoni itself barely notices the tourist trade, though. The real clientele here are the porteños, citizens of Buenos Aires who one senses have been frequenting the Tortoni for most of their lives. They read the papers in the morning light coming through the large windowed doors of the café, light that spills across the tables, warming the disputatious information in the newspapers in a quiet glow.
This is a café in the grand style, founded in 1858 by a Frenchman named Tounan and named after the famous café in Paris. It is filled with nineteenth century French and Italian woodwork, with one of the most beautifully ornate bars one could hope to see. Beveled mirrors make the café seem larger than it is, even though it is already quite a sizable room, as do the crystal chandeliers, of which there are many. There is a good deal of brass as well in the fixtures, and the café is dotted with glass cases that contain the memorabilia of the many writers, politicians, intellectuals, singers and other luminaries who have made this their usual café.