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Don’t Leave Argentina Without Dining at a Patio Gastronómico

Dining at one of Argentina's food halls gives you the chance to explore local dishes and strike up lively conversations.

<p>William Hereford</p>

William Hereford

Food halls in much of South America are noisy, cluttered, furiously chaotic affairs. Then, there’s Argentina, where the experience of dining at a patio gastronómico, as they’re known here, is always relaxed, occasionally refined and often downright enchanting.

No food hall is more famous than Mercado de San Telmo, which opened its doors in 1897 in Buenos Aires. It became the main market for European immigrants flocking to Argentina's capital city, which was, at the time, one of the world’s wealthiest cities. To this day, you still find the flavors these expats brought with them — scratch-made Italian pasta at Vórtice, saffron-spiced Spanish paella at De Lucía, pistachio-filled French éclairs at Merci — alongside the plates of newer arrivals from countries like Armenia, Israel, and Lebanon.

The success of Mercado de San Telmo paved the way for modern Buenos Aires food halls like Mercat Villa Crespo and Gourmand Food Hall, which offer everything from vegan empanadas to artisan alfajor cookies, a local favorite made with the caramel-like dulce de leche. Then, there are the rowdier post-fútbol, pre-disco food halls like Patio de los Lecheros, where performers — ranging from tango dancers to drag queens — entertain visitors late into the evening. The patio lies in a decommissioned train station where milk would once arrive from the countryside; these days, visitors are more likely to toss back highballs of vermouth or fernet (the bitter amaro that fuels the Argentine night).

Related: How to Find the Best Wines From Argentina

Of course, food halls aren’t limited to the capital. In 2023, Argentina’s famed wine region of Mendoza inaugurated Planta Uno, a former metals factory that winemaker Sofía Pescarmona converted into a gleaming glass-encased market with 30 stalls, including her restaurant Criolla, which puts an upmarket twist on hearty country fare (think plump bife de chorizo steak with an acidic chimichurri glaze). Elsewhere are swanky vino bars like Vigil Wine Club, whose list of Argentine bottles spans 25 pages; it includes under-appreciated varietals, like Bonarda, alongside unexpected ones, like Teroldego. Planta Uno aims so high in its culinary ambitions that there’s even a space, Mendocina Cocina, where budding chefs like Flavia Amad (from Mendoza’s choiciest hotel, the SB Winemaker’s House) stage pop up restaurants pairing peppery Malbec and floral Torrontés with seasonal dishes sourced from farms in the Andean foothills.

What makes touring Argentine food halls such an enriching experience is that each has a strong regional identity. Down south, in the windswept wilds of Patagonia, you find hoppy craft ales made from glacial meltwater or sandwiches piled high with cordero al palo, a lamb slow-roasted over an open flame. Up in the tropical rainforests of the northeast, you encounter cheesy mandioca buns (chipá), flaky catfish (surubí) and tart juices of guava and passion fruit. In the arid Andes of the northwest, there are humitas (similar to Mexican tamales) boiled in corn husks, as well as bite-sized Salteñas, which might be South America’s tastiest empanadas, stuffed with potatoes, onions, and stewed charqui (sun-dried beef), and browned in clay ovens.

When you’re busy being a tourist, and standard restaurants feel like too big of a commitment, these food halls propose something different: the chance to explore, sample what’s local, and dine alongside complete strangers. Strike up a conversation with the famously social Argentines, and who knows where the day might lead you?

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