What It’s Like to Run an Illegal Bar in Buenos Aires

Julián Díaz opened a speakeasy on a $7,000 budget in 2004. “It was also my home,” he remembers. “The bar’s bathroom was also my bathroom so most mornings I’d find vomit everywhere.”

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Oct 21 2016, 1:00pm

As a precocious 20-year-old bartender with next to no cash, Julián Díaz went through a phase of opening criminally good illegal bars in Buenos Aires.

Cutting his teeth by opening his first speakeasy bar Casa Chai, he and girlfriend Flor Capella closed that down to open a second speakeasy, 878 (referred to as El Ocho), on a $7,000 budget in 2004, when Argentina was going through tough economic times.

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Today, El Ocho remains one of the city's hippest drinking establishments, though Díaz is totally legit these days.

We spoke to Díaz about nightlife in Buenos Aires, the influence of Argentina's migration on cocktail-making, sharing a bathroom with his bar, and why he won't make a strawberry daiquiri. Even for Metallica.

MUNCHIES: Hi Julián. So, you started bartending on the wrong side of the law. Julián Díaz: Yeah, my first bar was totally illegal—a real speakeasy—and it was 2002, a time when the country was in crisis and there were scarcely any controls. I was so young, I couldn't even open a bank account in my own name, my parents did it for me.

Casa Chai was really underground, it had a swimming-pool and it was also my home. The bar's bathroom was also my bathroom, so most mornings I'd find vomit everywhere. But I learnt so much about running a business from that experience. And when I opened 878 in Villa Crespo, obviously I moved into an apartment.

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A mint julep served at El Ocho in Buenos Aires, Argentina. All photos courtesy Santiago Ciuffo.

How has Villa Crespo changed over the past 12 years? It's always had loads of character, home to strong Jewish and Turkish communities and mechanic workshops. 878 wasn't just the first bar in the barrio, it was pretty much the first business. It never had a sign so the neighbours didn't realise it was a speakeasy—they thought it was a swingers' bar or that we were people-traffickers. It's transformed so much, there are outlet stores and cafes in every direction.

Last year, the oldest resident, who lived opposite, died aged 102. She only came by once, she wasn't a big drinker.

This is South America. Just how cocaine-fuelled is Buenos Aires' nightlife? I've always kept 878 clean from drugs and prostitutes, though people would smoke weed at Casa Chai. It's a case of letting dealers know they aren't welcome from the offset. I'm into booze so that aspect of nightlife never appealed to me. Coke used to be popular but it's stopped being cool and become the rubbish man's drug of choice. People tend to smoke weed plus the dynamic has changed: there are more bon vivantes now, pleasure-seekers keen for a good meal with their good times.

READ MORE: Argentina's Best Restaurants Are Illegal

As Buenos Aires' original speakeasy, what do you think about the city's current thirst for themed saloons that pretend to be unlicensed? We started out small, illegal, informal but genuine—a place I want to frequent as a drinker, and yes, it's now legit.

It's good there's a few speakeasies, but not ten of them. It went well for one, then a load copied it. That's sad. No one's offering up new ideas. I don't get why a bar would invent a background from another country. We've got such a rich drinking history, why would you only serve North American cocktails in Argentina?

I don't go to places where they might reject you on the door, you have to say who you are or wear the right clothes. It's a pain in the arse. And I definitely don't go to private members' clubs—they have an elitist attitude that I don't care for in life.

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Behind the bar at El Ocho.

Who are your regulars? A bar isn't a bar, it's a parish, so we welcome all sorts of freaks. An obese cook used to get through a bottle of whisky every two days, while another guy came every single night—and we open every day—for three years.

Here, I want everyone to be comfy, from older couples, gringos, and regulars to youngsters on a date or groups of friends. Cocktails bars shouldn't be exclusive or scary—though I probably won't make you a strawberry daiquiri and not even for Metallica, who came here for drinks last time they played Argentina. Now that was a delirium.

As well as running your bars, you're also a sommelier. Does that mean you're basically a professional alcoholic? I drink a lot less these days! Years ago, I downed four Martinis in 30 minutes before opening up at 6 PM. I was a drunk, but a responsible one. Back then, gastronomy was more excusable. Clients are much more demanding now. I've raised my game, plus we own a second bar, Los Galgos, so I've got even more responsibility!

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The 5 o'clock gin and tonic at El Ocho.

What's the house tipple at El Ocho? A Cynar Julep. It's Italian with elements of a Mojito as well as modern European cocktail-making techniques. Argentina's drinks scene is a crazy mix because of our diverse migration story: a Turkish guy falls in love with a Polish woman whose aunt is Italian—they eat and drink all those flavours at the dining table.

Cocktails or wine? Both! I'll start with an apéritif, have wine with dinner, then return to a cocktail. That's the perfect sequence. We Argentines have always drunk vermouths such as Cinzano, Fernet, Gancia, and Cynar. We're not big on distilled spirits.

READ MORE: Meet the Bagel Guy of Buenos Aires

What's your tried-and-tested hangover cure? I do know that the older you get, the worse they are. I got over my most recent terrible hangover with a slice of mozzarella pizza from La Mezzetta, and it's the only time I drink soda. A Bloody [Mary] used to save me but it just fucks me up now.

What other life skills have you learnt on the job? I know a lot about plumbing. On Saturday—no lies—the gutters clogged up as it was raining so hard and water was leaking into the bar, I had to clean them out in the rain. Three weeks ago, I was at the police station for hours with a client who'd been robbed, going through video tape. I'm also very familiar with filling out paperwork. I'm not actually behind the bar that much! I can spend the whole fucking day going between the courthouse to my lawyer to my notary then back to the courthouse.

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Old Fashioned.

And finally, what tunes get the night going at a Buenos Aires speakeasy? I like to start off with jazz. Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, and national music too. You can't not play Michael Jackson. The Clash, the Stones, classics. I like to mix national rock with music in English. Don't just play just hits—you've got to surprise your drinkers. The mixture's everything, whether it's in music or in a cocktail.

Sounds perfect, thanks for talking with me Julián.