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Tasting utopia in Buenos Aires

In the United States, we tend to believe that communal ventures just don't work as well as capitalistic ones — that without a profit-driven boss-man keeping his employees in line, things will fall apart. This assumption is not as widespread in Argentina, which saw things fall apart in the 1990s and early 2000s with arguably little but the profit motive keeping things together. In Argentina, "socialism" is not a dirty word, as it is in the U.S.; "neo-liberalism" is.

Saddled with my North American prejudices, I didn't expect the restaurant of the Bauen to be worth eating at. The Bauen is a downtown hotel taken over by a cooperative organization of its workers, as described in my most recent dispatch, "The take" (which is a translation of the Argentine word commonly used for these takeovers, "la toma".) But the optimistically named Utopia Restaurant in the Bauen lobby gives a good aroma to communal ventures. The cafe is popular, its tables always busy with well-dressed folks in between downtown errands.

I ate two lunches at the Bauen's Utopia; and they were both excellent experiences, well above the average for Buenos Aires restaurants. The quality of the food was unusual for a restaurant in this price bracket. If you order vegetable crepes in Argentina, you can generally expect canned creamed spinach leaking out of a mushy pancake. Not at the Bauen: In their version, two firm triangular pouches filled with a variety of fresh minced vegetables are bathed in a delicious chunky tomato sauce that renewed my faith in Porteno crepes. And the rose sauce of the spinach-and-ricotta ravioli, a lunch standard in these parts, purveyed a tang that avoided the blandness of most of these attempts.

The service was also astonishingly responsive — a shock to a system accustomed to some of the surliest waiters on earth. This goes for all of the Bauen's staff. There is a palpable human warmth in the lobby and at the reception desk that you don't find in other Buenos Aires hotels, many of which make one doubt whether they're really in the hospitality industry. And this was true not just at the Bauen — workers at all of the taken-over businesses I visited talked about their teams as families, and gave off an unmistakable sense of concern for their work and their product. Morale seemed generally very high, something that one does not expect from industrial factories in economic crisis.

Maybe communal ventures aren't doomed after all.

(The Utopia Restaurant in the Bauen lobby.)