Wine glasses clinked in an Art Nouveau culinary jewel basking in its newfound splendour. It was a tasting night in the more than 100-year-old café-turned-restaurant of the old Buenos Aires Zoo, as beetroot tartare, pan-seared calamari and a perfect rib-eye floated out of the kitchen, chased by a velvety chocolate mousse.
« As you can see, we’re betting a lot on the desirability of the gastronomic scene in Argentina, » said Pedro Díaz Flores, during a tour of the restaurant, Águila Pabellon, which he co-owns – the 17th gastronomic enterprise to open in Buenos Aires in the last 18 months.
In Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina, a world-class culinary scene flourishes. It wouldn’t necessarily be news were it not for the fact that Argentina is in the midst of an extraordinary financial crisis.
Inflation is over 114 percent — the fourth-highest rate in the world — and the street value of the Argentine peso has tumbled, falling about 25 percent in a three-week period in April.
Yet it is the fall in weight that is fueling the restaurant industry’s recovery. Argentines are eager to get rid of the currency as quickly as possible, and this means that the middle and upper classes are going out to eat more often and that restaurateurs and chefs are reinvesting their earnings in new restaurants.
“Crises are opportunities,” said Jorge Ferrari, a longtime restaurant owner who recently reopened a historic German restaurant that had been closed during the pandemic. “There are people who buy cryptocurrencies. There are people who go to other types of capital markets. This is what I know how to do. »
The boom, in a sense, is a facade. Everyone seems to be out having a good time. Yet, across much of the country, Argentines are getting by and hunger is on the rise.
And in wealthier circles, the rush to get out is a symptom of a dwindling middle class who, no longer able to afford larger purchases or travel, are choosing to live in the here and now because people don’t know what tomorrow will bring. – or if their money will be worth anything.
“The consumption you have is the consumption for satisfaction – happiness in the moment,” Mr. Ferrari said.
The city of Buenos Aires, which has been trying to boost its culinary scene, has tracked the volume of dishes sold in a sample of restaurants every month since 2015. The most recent numbers, for April, show that restaurant attendance is at one of its highest levels since monitoring began and 20% higher than its highest point in 2019, before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not just venerable hot spots that are thriving. In Buenos Aires, hidden residential areas have suddenly become destinations for food influencers, quickly leading to new crowds of porteños, as the capital’s residents are known.
There are cocktail bars with mixologists, drag shows as you dine, vegan bakeries, verdant patios, and global cuisine fusions from chefs who have apprenticed in kitchens around the world. An « it » spot, Anchoita, a modern twist on Argentine fare, has no reservations available until next year.
While the currency devaluation has also brought tourists back to Buenos Aires as the pandemic has abated, it’s the locals who are out in full force.
The restaurant boom is a class-crossing phenomenon, said Santiago Manoukian, an economist at a Buenos Aires consulting firm, Ecolatina, though it is largely driven by middle- and upper-middle income earners, many of whom have kept pace with their earnings inflation, but still had to adjust to the crisis.
For members of the middle class in particular, expenses like a vacation or a car have become largely out of reach, so they are indulging in other ways.
But even low-income earners, who have seen their earnings shrink by 35 percent since 2017, according to data compiled by Ecolatina, are dining out before their money depreciates even further, Manoukian said.
« It is a product of the distortions the Argentine economy suffers from, » he said. « You have extra pesos that are going up in smoke due to inflation, and you have to do something about it because you know the worst thing you can do is nothing. »
In a Buenos Aires orchard next to a tennis court, Lupe García, owner of four restaurants in the city and another just outside, reached out and broke what looked like a miniature watermelon but was actually a cucamelon, a fruit the size of a blackberry.
She was surrounded by lettuce leaves, parsley, mint, alfalfa and purple shiso used for tempura at one of her restaurants. The garden, owned by Ms. García and managed by agronomists from the University of Buenos Aires, reflects the changing tastes of the locals, which Ms. García’s restaurants have helped to cultivate.
He opened his latest venue, Orno, a Neapolitan and Detroit-style pizzeria, in February in Palermo’s hip neighborhood.
However, while the inflation crisis has brought more customers to restaurants, it has also added another layer of complexity to their operations.
To save on expenses, Ms. García has replaced the printed menus in all of her restaurants with website QR codes that her team can quickly edit.
« Your supplier brings you beef and they tell you it’s 20 percent more, » he said, « and you have to turn around and raise all the prices. »
Still, Ms. García said, the explosion of restaurant openings makes for an exciting time to be in the industry, as competitors grapple with how to creatively bring in diners.
« It’s also in the porteños’ DNA to go out every day, » he noted. « I don’t know if there are many cities where people go out as much as in Buenos Aires. »
In a bustling new street food strip in an alley near Buenos Aires’ Chinatown, Victoria Palleros was waiting for noodles from Orei, a hot ramen spot that often sells out.
« I think the generation before us thinks more about saving, but not about us, » said Ms Palleros, 29, a government employee.
Many Argentines buy physical US dollars to save money, but « buying $100 is almost half a young man’s monthly salary, » he said, adding, « And, honestly, I think you’d rather make plans like these and live well during the week, rather than living really well every month.
Ms Palleros wishes she could save up to buy an apartment, she said, but it’s impossible.
Mariano Vilches and Natalia Vela, a married couple who found themselves among hordes of people at a Sunday afternoon French food fair, came to a similar conclusion about enjoying life as much as possible despite economic hardships.
Ms Vela, 39, an administrative assistant, said they can no longer afford to travel, but still eat out about three times a month. « It also fills a basic need, » added Vilches, 43, a real estate agent. « You have to eat. You don’t have to buy that coat.
As a result, places like Miramar, in the working-class neighborhood of San Cristóbal, remained full for lunch and dinner. The iconic restaurant, with salami dangling in the entrance and framed pictures of tango lyricists on the wall, has seen its share of financial crises since it opened in 1950.
But now, even as Argentina enters perhaps one of its worst economic moments, Miramar is busier than ever, said Juan Mazza, the coach.
« I don’t know if it’s a contradiction, » he said. “The crisis is here. So, with the little money I have, I want to have fun. »