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The place was darkish and uncrowded; the music was recorded and scratchy, like an old 78; the dancers, for the most part, matched the music. Most recent was a major peso crisis a couple of years ago whose initial pain has eased but lingers in the form of strip steaks.But at 1 a.m., with the place filling up with people of many ages, an orchestra took over: two violins, a standup bass, a piano and two bandoneons. Before that, there were juntas and dictators and sad little wars and border skirmishes.Rumor has it that sushi is the rage in Buenos Aires, and, indeed, there are bright new sushi palaces among the parrillas (local jargon for steak joints). Now if you haven’t been keeping score: This steak dinner, among the best I’ve ever enjoyed anywhere in the world (including Chicago and Brooklyn) and graciously served by a waiter who couldn’t have been nicer despite my linguistic stupidity, set the Tribune back about . Buenos Aires is many things, but for sure it is never, ever dull.
There’s history here, pretty architecture, grace, grit and a certain big-city buzz that demands you pay attention, lest you miss something you probably won’t see anywhere else–for instance, street-corner tango dancers. But enough about great meat, especially the beef, and how cheap it is in Buenos Aires and how I could have eaten it for lunch and dinner every day despite my family history, doctor’s advice and soaring bad cholesterol.If the nearly forgotten Isabel Peron (Juan’s post-Evita wife and briefly, and disastrously, his successor as president) isn’t awakened from exile in Spain to testify on something–as she was just weeks ago–it’s refreshed every Thursday afternoon by the marching Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers and sisters of victims “disappeared” by the military junta that ruled Argentina into the 1980s. So for that, we are here every Thursday in this place.” On this particular Thursday, the dozen or so madres shared the plaza with hundreds of demonstrators, some armed with batons and others armed with signs, all representing labor-related grievances as drummers drummed up emotions and a few kids kicked around a soccer ball.“He was a witness, and they `disappeared’ him, ” said one woman, wearing the group’s characteristic headscarf, who lost a brother. “Thursday,” said an Irishman named Patrick who has married into the culture, “has become kind of an open field-day for protests.” Other days, vendors in the square sell postcards and little Argentine flags to tourists, and corn to anyone who likes feeding pigeons.San Telmo is one of the city’s older neighborhoods and the object of ongoing, thoughtful renewal and gentrification.For visitors, it is a neighborhood of restaurants, galleries and flea markets, plus shops selling serious antiques.
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Closer to the heart of the city, just off the Calle Florida pedestrian circus, was my choice, the Claridge Hotel (from $229; a five-star with nicely appointed rooms and a terrific staff.