Argentina, between inflation and the restaurant boom

Wine glasses clink in culinary gems Art Nouveau bask in its restored splendor. It was tasting night in this more than one hundred year old cafeteria converted restaurant in Buenos Aires' old zoo, while beet tartare, grilled baby calamari and perfect ribs came out of the kitchen, followed by a velvety chocolate mousse.

“It is clear that we are very committed to the fact that there are opportunities in Argentina in the gastronomic sector,” said Pedro Díaz Flores, during a visit to the Águila Pabellón restaurant, of which he is a co-owner, the seventeenth gastronomic restaurant venture that has opened in Buenos Aires in last 18 months.

In Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina, world-class cuisine thrives. This wouldn't necessarily be news if it weren't for the fact that Argentina is in the middle of a tremendous financial crisis.

Inflation hit 114 percent – the fourth highest level in the world – and the Argentine peso has plummeted, dropping 25 percent in the three weeks in April.

However, it was the decline in the peso that fueled the boom in the restaurant industry. Argentinians were desperate to get rid of the currency as soon as possible, and that meant the upper and middle classes were eating out more often, and restaurateurs and chefs were reinvesting their earnings in new restaurants.

“Crisis is opportunity,” said Jorge Ferrari, a longtime restaurateur who recently reopened a historic German restaurant that was closed during the pandemic. “There are people buying cryptocurrencies. There are people who will go to other capital markets. All I know how to do is this.”

Boom, on the one hand, is the facade. Everyone seems to be having fun. But in most of the country, Argentines are barely holding on and hunger is on the rise.

And among the more affluent, the rush to go out is symptomatic of a declining middle class who, unable to afford large purchases or travel, choose to live in the here and now because they have no idea what tomorrow will bring or if your money will be worth anything. even.

“The consumption you have is consumption for satisfaction. Happiness in the moment”, said Ferrari.

The city of Buenos Aires, which has been trying to promote its culinary scene, has been tracking the volume of dishes sold at a sample of restaurants every month since 2015. The most recent figures, for April, show an increase in restaurant patrons. the highest level since records began, and 20 percent higher than the peak in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic began.

It's not just adored hot spots that are thriving. In Buenos Aires, a little-known residential area suddenly became a destination for influential foodies, which quickly spawned a new throng of porteños, as the capital's residents are known.

There's a cocktail bar with mixology magicians, drag show while dining, a vegan patisserie, a green terrace and global fusion cuisine from chefs who have studied in kitchens around the world. One of the hot spots, Anchoíta, a modern twist on Argentinian food, has no reservations until next year.

Although the devaluation of the currency also drew tourists back to Buenos Aires as the pandemic subsided, it was the locals who were forced out.

According to Santiago Manoukian, an economist at Ecolatina, a Buenos Aires consultancy, the restaurant boom is a phenomenon that cuts across all social classes, although it is largely driven by middle and high incomes, many of whom maintain their income at the same level. as inflation, but even so they have to adapt to the crisis.

For some middle class people in particular, expenses like vacations or cars are largely out of reach, so they indulge in other tastes.

But even the lowest-earning freelancers, whose earnings have fallen by 35 percent since 2017, according to data compiled by Ecolatina, are eating out before their money depreciates further, Manoukian said.

“This is a product of the distortions that the Argentine economy has suffered from,” he said. “You have leftover pesos burning every day because of inflation and you have to do something about it because you know that the worst thing you can do is do nothing.”

In a Buenos Aires garden next to a tennis court, Lupe García, owner of four restaurants in the city and one in the suburbs, bends down and opens what looks like a mini watermelon but is actually a cucamelon, a mulberry-sized fruit.

He is surrounded by the lettuce, parsley, mint, alfalfa, and purple leaves of the red shiso used to make tempura in one of his restaurants. The garden, owned by Garcia and managed by agronomists from the University of Buenos Aires, reflects the changing tastes of the local people, who have been helped by the Garcia restaurant.

In February, he opened his newest establishment, Orno, a Neapolitan and Detroit-style pizzeria in the wildly fashionable Palermo neighborhood.

However, while the inflationary crisis has brought more customers to restaurants, it has also added complexity to their operations.

To save money, Garcia has replaced the printed menus at all of his restaurants with QR codes for web pages that his team can modify on the fly.

“They ship the meat and your supplier tells you: it's 20 percent more,” he says, “and you have to turn around and upload it all.”

But, according to Garcia, the boom in restaurant openings makes it an exciting time to do business, as competitors figure out how to creatively engage diners.

“It's also Buenos Aires DNA to go out every day,” he said. “I don't know if there are as many cities leaving as many days in Buenos Aires.”

In a bustling new street food joint in an alley near Buenos Aires' Chinatown, Victoria Palleros is waiting for noodles at Orei, a ramen joint where the dish often runs out.

“I feel that generations before us thought more about saving, but we don't,” said Palleros, a 29-year-old government employee.

Many Argentinians buy physical US dollars to save, but “buying 100 dollars is almost half a youth salary,” he said, adding: “And actually I think you'd rather make this plan and live well on your week instead of living very fair every month”.

Palleros would love to be able to save up for an apartment, he says, but that's impossible.

Mariano Vilches and Natalia Vela, a married couple who found themselves in the crowd at a French food fair on a Sunday afternoon, came to the same conclusion about enjoying life as much as they can despite financial difficulties.

Vela, 39, an administrative assistant, said they can no longer afford to travel, but still eat out about three times a month. “It fills a need,” added Vilches, 43, a real estate agent. “You have to eat. You don't have to buy that jacket.”

As a result, places like Miramar, in the working class neighborhood of San Cristóbal, remain packed at lunch and dinner. The iconic restaurant, with its salami hanging from the entrance and a framed photo of a tango lyricist on the wall, has experienced several financial crises since opening in 1950.

But now, when Argentina is perhaps experiencing one of its worst economic moments, Miramar is busier than ever, according to Juan Mazza, the manager.

“I don't know if that's a contradiction,” he said. “The crisis is. With the little money I have, I want to enjoy it.”