The line spills out onto Calle Guatemala and down the cobblestoned street of Gurruchaga, past the Pleno Palermo Soho hotel in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Every weekend — and most weekdays — Don Julio is packed with restaurant-goers hoping to try the restaurant’s famous cuts of beef and extravagant achuras (tripe). Although the clientele often skews foreign, there are still plenty of Argentines despite a menu that is prohibitively expensive. A bife de chorizo (strip steak) alone can go for more than AR$25,500 (approximately US$70 at the official exchange rate, US$35 at the MEP dollar exchange rate), which is a little less than a quarter of the country’s minimum monthly salary.
“The gastronomic culture of Buenos Aires is really alive right now,” Pablo Rivero, the parrilla’s owner, told the Herald. “Chefs are taking older recipes and creating new inventions, while traditional dishes are better than ever before. We’re also seeing the influence of huge waves of immigration this century. The impact has been surprising and immense.”
In July, the Argentine Tourism and Sports Minister Matías Lammens announced that Argentina would become the first Spanish-speaking country in Latin America to be included in the Michelin Guide — the hotel and restaurant industries’ premier guidebook and a bible of sorts for gastronomists across the globe. It was a development years, if not decades, in the making. In spite of the country’s mounting financial troubles, or possibly because of them, Argentina is experiencing a culinary golden age whose glow extends well beyond the city limits of Buenos Aires.
Michelin, which is owned by the French tire company of the same name, will unveil its first starred selections for Buenos Aires and Mendoza on November 24. These rankings, which are based on the criteria of consistency, food quality, flavor harmony, mastery in cooking techniques, and the personality of the chef on display, are as follows: one star is for “high-quality cuisine worth stopping for,” two stars are for “high-quality cuisine worth a detour,” and three stars are for “high-quality cuisine worth a journey.”
Although Michelin has agreed to list Argentina’s restaurants through 2025, the guide’s communications director, Elisabeth Boucher-Anselin, has signaled that this contract is likely to be extended.
“We’re seeing the fruits of a ten- to fifteen-year project to activate Argentina’s gastronomic industry,” explained the chef and television personality Narda Lepes. “Many of us chefs decided to travel to the interior and share what we learned with the rest of the country. A Patagonian didn’t know what a Chaqueño ate. A Correntino didn’t know what a Salteño ate. Today, there’s a much greater knowledge of local products.”
“Before, it was difficult to get good olive oil,” she continued. “Now, there are quality vinegars, spices, honeys and really good cheeses […] Twenty years ago, you had to look for these things. Today, they’re easy to find.”
That the country’s economic crisis has coincided with a boomlet in Argentina’s restaurant industry is perhaps less surprising than it seems. Because the peso depreciates month over month and sometimes week over week, and because traditional savings instruments like fixed-term deposits have failed to keep pace with inflation, Argentines with any kind of purchasing power may be more inclined to spend their income on lower-cost items like food and drink.
Then there are the hordes of tourists eager to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate.
According to the Ministry of Sports and Tourism, a record 33.8 million people traveled to Argentina in the summer of 2023, spending US$1.3 billion. Those numbers eclipsed the previous highs of 2022. The hotel and gastronomic sector has experienced 23 consecutive months of growth, and its employment is up 6.1% over 2019. Since 2022, the industry has expanded 13.4% — good for more than 32,000 jobs.
Still, Lepes believes that this restaurant craze cannot be attributed to the economic crisis alone.
“My parents’ generation had the dictatorship, and my grandparents had the war and the immigrant experience,” she said. “Our generation has never experienced a threat like the pandemic. We didn’t grow up with the idea that you could die at any moment. I think the pandemic was a huge cachetazo (slap in the face) for everybody.”
“The feeling that everything you thought was secure could end tomorrow is incredibly powerful,” Lepes continued. “There are people who experience this as anxiety and depression. And then there are people who respond by going out every night.”
Mica Najmanovich, one of the chefs and founders of the trendy Anafe restaurant in Colegiales, said that the pandemic was “like a Red Bull” for the country’s restaurant industry. While closures and quarantines shuttered a lot of eateries, she explained, others were able to move into those spaces without having to make the kind of financial investment they might otherwise because they were already operable.
“All you had to do was paint the place, give it a new name, and step onto the playing field,” Najmanovich told the Herald.
“During the pandemic, restaurants were the only businesses that were really active,” she continued. “People met each other in these places because it was the only thing to do. So food culture became an even more important part of people’s lives.”
Najmanovich, who never considered the possibility that her restaurant could earn a Michelin star when she opened Anafe in 2018, believes the rest of the culinary world is just beginning to understand what Argentine chefs have known for years.
“The guide drives a lot of tourism,” she said. “Professionally, it’s like getting your degree, but for the whole country. It’s been frustrating eating at Michelin restaurants when Argentina’s were on the same level or higher.”
While Lepes shared Najmanovich’s exuberance, she also struck a note of caution.
“People will get on a plane to follow the Michelin guide, and that’s spectacular not just for Buenos Aires and Mendoza but all of Argentina,” she said. “On the other hand, there will be a tremendous psychological burden on owners and chefs to maintain their star rating. The pressure is absurd, and people are a little fragile at the moment. That worries me.”
Rivero believes that Michelin’s arrival will only accelerate the growth of the country’s food culture.
“It doesn’t matter whether a restaurant receives a star or not,” he said. “Argentina is now on the map, and that benefits everybody.”