The Last Bite: A 106-Year-Old Hippopotamus in Buenos Aires
“If someone came into El Hipopótamo and asked me for a Frappuccino, I’d tell them to go to the Starbucks down the road—or more likely tell them to fuck off.”
Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today we visit El Hipopótamo, a Buenos Aires bar that opened in 1909 and is run by inimitable matriarch/manager Ana Sala.
"If someone came into El Hipopótamo and asked me for a Frappuccino, I'd tell them to go to the Starbucks down the road—or more likely tell them to fuck off."
Ana Sala, El Hipopótamo's charming pitbull of a manager, has no reservations when it comes to customer service. A staunch defender of her 106-year-old bar's heritage, she has ruled the Buenos Aires watering hole with an iron rod for the past 11 years.
El Hipopótamo is located on a bustling street corner in the Argentine capital's San Telmo neighbourhood. The area attracts tourists with its antiques stores, Sunday street market, gloriously decaying architecture, and cobbled streets. But with Buenos Aires currently undergoing urban regeneration that has brought with it an influx of North American fast food outlets, traditional establishments like El Hipopótamo are at risk of being bounced out by big foreign brands. Confitería Richmond, a bar not far from El Hipopótamo, was recently forced to close when a sports shop opened in the area, while a former antiques store three blocks away on Plaza Dorrego now churns out those aforementioned Frappuccinos.
The Buenos Aires government has legislation in place to protect historic bares notables like El Hipopótamo but Sala says this isn't enough.
"It doesn't mean much. Even though we're notable—a historical bar—the city government won't help you, not yesterday, today or tomorrow," she says. "If the bricks-and-mortar owner decides to rent out this space to Starbucks or Café Martínez because they pay three times more, I don't know what I'd do. It could happen. And the next generation, his kids, might not be interested in renting out the bar as it is."
El Hipopótamo started out as Estrella del Sur, a grocery and beverage delivery store. Today, the corner tavern is decked out with sash windows, small square tables, and black-and-white photos of tango legends on every wall.
"Back in the day, workers from the nearby port would come here to drink wine and play cards," says Sala. "And while we've undertaken some recent renovations, the bar is original and there are still hooks in the ceiling that would feed ropes laden with goods into the basement. We had to fully replace the red paving stone floor four years ago, though. I think Christopher Columbus brought it over, it was so ancient."
Like any proud, Spanish-style bar, legs of ham, chorizos, and garlic dangle above El Hipopótamo's till.
"We've served the same dishes for 40 years and prepare lots of dishes using red sausage and bacon," explains Sala. "We knead our own dough—our pasta stuffed with turkey, arugula, and nuts is a classic. We produce everything ourselves, from bread, pizza, brined turkey—everything!"
Timewarp decor combined with abundant plates of picada mean El Hipopótamo welcomes tourists looking for an authentic Buenos Aires experience all year round.
"People come for sidra [cider] on tap and they knock it back like water in summer," says Sala. "It's very Spanish but not many places serve it in Buenos Aires. My English isn't very good so when tourists visit, I describe it as 'Champagne de apple' and it sells like mad!"
El Hipopótamo is also a dependable haunt for neighbourhood residents like translator Oscar Medina, who drops by for his daily cortado, managing to ignore snap-happy turistas. Everyone knows everyone here. And even if they don't, they'll greet you with a nod of the head or a kiss on the cheek.
"Alberto's worked here for about 40 years," Sala adds, pointing to a slender waiter decked out in black.
Alongside Medina, El Hipopótamo customers come for lunch, an afternoon caffeine injection, apéritifs, or dinner with friends. Street urchins and tango buskers pass through during the course of the day, all after spare change.
"Regulars don't come here for white tablecloths or comfy chairs. Oscar's the only one who swaps seats so he can sit on a cushioned one. And, as we're open every—except on Noche Buena [Christmas Eve] when we close at 6 PM, then reopen 24 hours later on Christmas Day. Our clients know we're always here and we know everybody."
San Telmo used to be a wealthy neighbourhood until yellow fever epidemics sent the upper class scuttling north in the 19th century. These days, the barrio is being repopulated with another kind of influx, according to Sala, who's lived in San Telmo for 30 years.
"A lot of French have moved here recently, people who don't want to live in France following the terrorist attacks," she says. "Young women with anthropology degrees drop off CVs here. Holy shit! Move from France to work as a waitress here? I think it's crazy but they say they're happier in Buenos Aires."
When Starbucks opened a San Telmo branch three years ago, Sala didn't even realise it had happened.
"Other bars might be worried, but not us—we attract a different kind of public. If Starbucks opened up opposite us, well, that's another story. Even if a similar type of restaurant opened up opposite us, it wouldn't affect us because it wouldn't have our history, our story, the years behind it; it would be invented."
Despite the stream of tourists, El Hipopótamo remains an authentic thread in San Telmo's rich tapestry. Let's hope this hippopotamus never succumbs to extinction.