In the land of three-hour lunches, business travelers can indulge in grass-fed beef but many restaurants also offer lighter options
Just outside downtown Buenos Aires lies the Puerto Madero district, where early-20th-century waterfront warehouses have been converted into fashionable restaurants.
It's a good place to follow the traveler's lunch rule of getting away from the office for good food and local color.
At the iconic Cabana Las Lilas, famous for steaks produced from grass-fed cows on private estancias, casual combines with formal. Oiled-leather upholstered chairs slide out from rustic wooden tables on which lie pressed linen napkins.
My posse and I ordered an assortment of beef cuts, comprising: sirloin ($20), rib-eye ($25), bife de chorizo ($25) and an 800-gram slab of baby beef ($29), all medium rare.
The waiter recommended a bottle of 2006 Joffre e Hijas Premium Malbec of Mendoza ($56) from the 115-page wine list. The restaurant seats almost 400, but there are niches of privacy in the layout. We ate outside, with a breezy water view. Manager Gaston del Valle said a 12-seat private room is available for business meetings for an additional $100.
"We serve diplomats, business people and tourists here," said Del Valle, surveying a crowd dressed from shorts to suits. "Locals want to show this place to their friends."
Cabana Las Lilas is at Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo 516. Information: +54-11-4313-1336; http://www.laslilas.com.
San Telmo, minutes by taxi from downtown, is a tourist- friendly neighborhood with romantically decayed 19th-century architecture. The French Brasserie Petanque offers an alternative to local cuisine, though it can be noisy for meetings.
"I love the food in Argentina, and everything of the cow," Swiss owner Pascal Meyer said. "But I cannot eat a steak every day, because I need light food. If I am a businessman and I eat a kilo of meat at noon, my meeting at 3pm is not the same."
Frenchman Sebastian Fouillade, who has worked with Alain Ducasse, oversees the kitchen, and a three-course prix-fixe lunch is $12. My meal was certainly light: mixed greens, pancetta and croutons, along with a main of tagliatelle a la carbonara. It came topped with a small, hollowed out egg with a yolk inside, giving the impression of a bird nest, both surprising and slightly repulsive.
Brasserie Petanque is at Defensa 596. Information: +54-11- 4342-7930; http://www.brasseriepetanque.com.
A 20-minute taxi trip from downtown brings you to the city's trendiest neighborhood, Palermo Viejo, famous for gourmet cuisine, high fashion and real-estate speculation. Most eateries are dinner only, but one lunchtime option is Cluny.
Frank Matheson, a U.S. real-estate broker who lives part time in Buenos Aires, says he takes clients there because it "is a sophisticated place with excellent food and service in a beautiful setting. It is very accessible for English speakers, but does not feel like a restaurant aimed at foreigners."
There's soft jazzy music and a layout that offers many conversation spaces, from tables for two off the bar to sofas with low tables — even a smoking mezzanine with a filter system.
The three-course lunch menu is $20. A la carte entrees like Pacific pink salmon with shallots and oysters run as much as $23 and come with a warning: "If you should have to wait, it is for better service."
"This depends on the time you have and what you want to eat," said co-chef Juan Manuel Harvez. He recommended meat dishes for speed, although he prefers his fish creations. I ordered parmesan risotto with veal cooked in malbec wine with sauteed mushrooms ($14.50). The risotto was delightfully tangy with a firm texture; I only had to salt the meat to my own taste.
Cluny is at El Salvador 4618. Information: +54-11-4831- 7176; http://www.cluny.com.ar.
Dark Woods, Burlap
If you prefer the convenience of lunch in your hotel, the Panamericano's Tomo Uno is a formal, quiet, softly lighted space where the walls are formed of dark woods and burlap padding.
The day I went it was full of ladies who lunch and business people swirling wine glasses while talking deals. While there's no private room, a portion of the restaurant can be curtained off for as many as 30 guests.
As I was dining alone, I decided to test how the staff worked with a foreigner who didn't have the luxury of the traditional three-hour Buenos Aires lunch.
I consulted the bilingual menu's daily specials, which were all fish dishes, and ordered a brilliantly pink rainbow trout with lemon sauce and toasted almonds ($26), along with a Chinese lettuce and pear salad with blue cheese, raisins and walnuts ($26).
The wine selection is vast and international. Of the 35 kinds of Argentine malbec, the country's signature wine, only about eight are available by the glass. Since I had the fish, my server recommended a glass of the Luigi Bosca Reserva Sauvignon Blanc from Mendoza ($8).
The restaurant was started nearly 40 years ago by sister chefs Ada and Ebe Concaro. Ada died last month. Her son, Federico Fialayre, who manages the restaurant, said, "I want it to be much better in the name of my mother."
Tomo Uno is in the South Tower Mezzanine of the Panamericano Hotel at Carlos Pellegrini 521. Information: +54- 11-4326-6698; http://www.tomo1.com.ar.
Another hotel restaurant long popular with business travelers is the Plaza Grill in the belle epoque Marriott off leafy Plaza San Martin. The three-course executive lunch menu ($40) even includes a vegetarian option, but meat remains the star, cooked on a 101-year-old ornamental grill.
Chef Donato Gabriel Mazzeo said that for harried diners, "we can cook from the grill in 20 minutes. If you order a sirloin, we can even have it for you in seven minutes, medium rare."
He recommended a sampling of meats to give a business traveler, "a taste of everything Argentine." In the winter, he suggests the heavy stew puchero, which uses ossobuco, potatoes, pumpkins and spices. "I take nine hours to cook it," he said, but patrons don't have to wait that long to be served.
The Plaza Grill in the Marriott Plaza Hotel is at Florida 1005. Information: +54-11-4318-3070; http://www.marriottplazabuenosaires.com.