What? Café / Restaurant
Where? Carlos Calvo 599 y Peru (San Telmo)
MENU (Spanish) / WEBSITE (English) / Open everyday, from 8am until late / Mapa interactivo
El Federal is a lovely old café to stop in for a coffee and a little nibble. It’s two blocks from Defensa street, so is a good option if you need a break from the Sunday market, the big indoor antiques market (a block away), or if you don’t want to drink anything in Plaza Dorrego (maybe it’s raining, or you don’t like to be pestered by people selling pieces of wire with bits of reclaimed rubbish on, or maybe you just don’t like spending a week’s pay on a single coffee). There are better places to go to in San Telmo for a full meal, although the picadas (mixed platters of meats and cheeses and other stuff) are quite good.
Looking down the length of Defensa street is usually a pleasure. There are the Church spires that act as sign-posts against the sky, there’s the big tree near Venezuela, which spreads its horizontal lines of green like dirty clouds, and on a Sunday shades the man who sells rusty knives. At the other end, near Plaza Dorrego, there’s the suggestion of trees, a hint of green poking out beyond the buildings, and of course there are the cobbles, which endure in all their holey glory despite the preposterous attempts of the local government to cover them over.
Looking down the side streets is not always so pleasurable, and the part of Carlos Calvo street which leads to El Federal curiously mixes the good and the bad of San Telmo into a single block. It is a surprisingly steep hill, and there are always a few people sat out along it, drinking Quilmes beer and/or watching football, who lend the street the certain charm of community.
But there’s also the ever so slightly intimidating parrillada, a steaming hole in the wall which makes meat sandwiches for the eternal assortment of men who loiter around the entrance and prop themselves on the bar stools. When you walk past your first thought is ‘this is authentic…cool! I should buy something.’ Then you look at the dry plain bread upon which lies the scraggly pustulating tube of red chorizo and you wonder if the thrill of buying a choripan from an ‘authentic’ spot like this is worth the inevitable grease sweats and food poisoning. You decide that it is. But then the men on the bar stools and at the little tables look at you as if you were dressed in the uniform of the British Army and holding up a sign saying ‘The Falklands Are Ours,’ and so you walk away briskly.
On to El Federal, where you can find the same charm without the “I’m going to kill you” stares. It is old, built in 1864, an era when San Telmo was still the barrio of choice for the moneyed elite of Buenos Aires, before yellow fever sent them packing seven years later.
The building has lived various lives – as a local store, a brothel and a warehouse – and, according to the website, has even seen a murder on its doorstep. It has only been a bar in its present guise since 2001, but its past still lingers in the cracks between the floor tiles and under the polish on the long wooden bar.
The food is distinctly average, in one of the rooms they play music too loud, and the menu is a little on the expensive side (for a miserly English teacher), but – like many cafes in Buenos Aires – El Federal is not really about those things. It is about the atmosphere, the smell of the place, the tantalising possibility of entering another time. When sitting by the bar with a slightly stale medialuna and sipping a cortado, it is easy to imagine yourself in another era, when working men tramped their dirt across the tiles and friendships would be made and broken and made again.