BUENOS AIRES - Imagine the scenario: You have just spent the day shopping, and shiny plastic bags are littered at your feet as you chew the last forkful of the most succulent rib-eye steak you have ever tasted. The sommelier pours the last bit of a fruity Malbec into your glass, and you glance around, soaking up the minimalist room's bits of European-design eye candy. You order coffee and a caramel-filled crepe before confronting the check. And then you smile. Because, just as you have been doing with every receipt all day, you mentally take the total and divide it by three, to account for the phenomenal 3-to-1 exchange rate in Argentina. In the end, you pay the equivalent of $52 for the four-star dinner for two, including three courses, drinks, wine, and tip.
World-class style at a serious discount. That is what it means to be in Buenos Aires right now. This has long been one of the world's most stylish cities - an intoxicating frappe of European class and Latin sass. It has Italy's obsession with chic dressing, Spain's love of architecture, and Britain's knack for grandeur and ceremony, all mixed with the red-blooded passion and flamboyance of the Argentines. And as Buenos Aires (``Baires'' to locals) gets back on its feet after an economic crisis two years ago, new shopping spots, hotels, and design-conscious restaurants are popping up right and left, and charging much less than their European equivalents do.
Buenos Aires has always led a double life. Fed a rich diet of natural resources, it has enjoyed an extravagant first-world lifestyle that has drawn successive waves of European immigrants who take pride in quality, creativity, and worldliness. Just witness the cinemas, bookstores, and cafes that line every block of Corrientes, the main drag that was once the beating heart of the tango craze. The city has been equally ravaged for decades by the competing interests of corrupt military dictatorships, with brief periods of democracy. Just when the city got back on its feet by opening itself up to foreign investment in the late 1990s, local companies were driven out of business and massive unemployment drew angry mobs to the Plaza de Mayo in December 2001, demanding access to their closed bank accounts. The peso dove, and three presidents were toppled within a week.
In the intervening two years, the city has been recuperating, albeit slowly. The recent election of President Nestor Kirchner, a populist, has put the middle class back on track. Most of the savings have been returned, and there is even talk of bringing to trial the military officers responsible for the Dirty War of the 1980s, a black mark on the country's psyche during which thousands of innocent people disappeared. So after weathering the storm of the crisis, `` porteÄnos'' (as city dwellers are called) are cautiously optimistic about the direction of their economy, and as older businesses recover, younger ones are taking hold.
Architect Ernest Goransky's new hotel, Design Suites, is open, with a spare lobby of concrete walls, white leather, and luminescent-green accessories centering on a mostly unused plunge pool. It's a magnet for hipster couples and business travelers who clearly take their leisure as seriously as their jobs. Nearby, the tables at the venerable steakhouse Lola, home of the aforementioned rib-eye, are bustling.
PorteÄnos start their nights with a late dinner and stay out to hours that would put even Spaniards to shame. At Bar 6, a funky, brick-walled room with a sort of Finnish minimalism-meets-San Francisco coffeehouse style, no one even starts ordering the rabbit confit with crunchy sweetbreads until after 10. Until then, they're content to loaf on the velvet couches, listen to Bob Marley, and scope the lounge. At Gran Bar Danzon, where slowly migrating emerald light splatters the cement-block walls, people are still putting in orders for grilled salmon at 2:30 a.m. At its long bar, amid bunches of white lilies and slowly dripping white candles, our bartender mixes us a caipirinha, aggressively crushing the fresh mint, ice, and sugar-cane rum.
The brand-new Humbolt, a tiny speck of a spot in the newly cool neighborhood of Palermo Viejo, is a vaguely bohemian bistro jammed every night with scenesters curious about the quasi-Italian, quasi-Argentine fixings of chef Matias Peroni. Black-and-white photos line the wall under a yellow light glowing overhead. If the place is too crowded, you will be seated at a makeshift table on the sidewalk, complete with linen and candles.
Another booming neighborhood, Puerto Madero, is about to get even bigger - literally. The harborside rows of shops and night-life scenes (the popular restaurant Happening, for example, where the bathrooms look like spaceship pods, and the new dance club Mint, which doesn't even open until 1:30 a.m.) look out onto pristine sailboats, with loading cranes still lining the former port on the opposite bank. That's where uberdesigner Philippe Starck and Buenos Aires fashion icon Alan Faena are building Starck's first Latin American property in the historic El Porteno building, a century-old grain warehouse. Two parts hotel and residence and one part bar, restaurant, and nightclub, the project will open this spring under the ambitious name Faena Hotel & Universe.
With these indications of an improving economy, the city might not be giddily cheap for long. But right now, it is still a bargain. Cappucino is $1. Taxi rides average $3 with tip. A bottle of water costs 30 cents. In general, clothes at boutiques and custom-made articles, innovative in design and impeccable in quality, are about half what they cost in Europe or stateside. The only way not to get a bargain is to buy imported designs; but duck into Trosman, a cutting-edge Argentine women's clothing store, and you can snag an undeniably cool, deconstructed top with a matching wraparound overlay for $125 - about a fourth of what Ann Demeulemeester would charge. At the Argentine leather store Sobek, a gorgeous brown leather satchel can be had for $150. And on the shopping arcade of Calle Florida, you can find flawless suits by Italian designers such as Alfredo Marino for less than $300.
In any city, bargains like that might be enough. But Buenos Aires is not just Europe on the cheap. The pace of life is pure South America, with a vibrant street culture that changes by the neighborhood. The frenetic cafe culture of Corrientes and Calle Florida gives way to leisurely, sun-dappled strolls on the picturesque streets of San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in the city. Fans sing well-rehearsed rally songs at the soccer stadium in the working-class neighborhood of La Boca, while in upscale Palermo, polo matches inspire just as much fervor among the upper class. And in Recoleta, the austere cemetery is a miniature neighborhood all its own, where tombs as big as houses keep Evita Peron's grave company.
With its recent turmoil behind it, and a welcoming populace optimistic about the future, Buenos Aires is a city worth visiting at any price.
Alexandra Hall and Michael Blanding are Boston-based writers.