Amenities like this, part of Buenos Aires's customary formality, make even the simplest everyday activities gracious. If you order a cup of coffee, a waiter in a jacket brings it on a little tray and carefully lays in front of you first a napkin, then the espresso cup and saucer, and then a plate of tiny alfajores on a doily.
Around lunchtime groups of mothers begin to cluster at nursery school doors, exclaiming with delight as their children are brought to them one by one. Older children, in white coats (school uniforms that make them look like miniature scientists), walk home to eat, often accompanied by a parent in a business suit. Although many peoples are said to dote on their young, it's remarkable to an American city dweller how much of life in Buenos Aires seems to revolve around children.
Traditionally, lunch is a heavy meal of steak or pasta, because on the whole Argentine cuisine is a mixture of Italian and beef, and the difference between the fanciest restaurant and the simplest is the quality of the meat. Almost all Argentine beef is grass-fed; the most expensive is melt-in-your-mouth sweet, the least expensive -- usually served very thin and breaded, as steak milanesa -- is downright cheap but still far more succulent and tasty than most American cuts. Always-crispy, intensely flavorful papas fritas, probably fried in kidney fat, are the usual side dish. Most of the green salads aren't even up to the standards of an American school cafeteria, but after a day or two you'll be happy to eat that plate of boring lettuce, white onions, and tomatoes with your steak.
Evening is another opportunity to snack, since many porteños don't even think about dinner until nine or ten: normal office hours are from about eight to eight, with four hours off for lunch. It's easy to get a meal at 2:00 A.M. any day of the week. We felt authentically Argentine with a glass of wine and an empanada at La Querencia, but our favorite evening café, El Cervetillo, served the universally available appetizer called picada: first a tray of cold hors d'oeuvres -- octopus, olives, nuts, chicken salad, sausages, and cheese -- and then, when you're pleasantly full, a tray of hot hors d'oeuvres -- six varieties of sausages, some in sauces. While you sit outside in the warm evening air, bevies of high school girls in those white lab coats meet for a minute or two on the corners, squealing with news, and then scatter in twos and threes down the darkening sidewalks, holding hands. The women of Buenos Aires are known for their warm, intense friendships, independent of men. It's common to see groups of women -- married and single -- out together, not just for a drink after work but for a whole Friday or Saturday night's entertainment.
Buenos Aires is clearly a big city -- dense, busy, and sophisticated. Perhaps, as the home of the tango, it even has a reputation for decadence. Most striking, however, is its wholesomeness, which makes it feel like a vast small town. Even the teenagers lack the sullen, jaded look of their American counterparts. Porteños relish the night, but it's a mistake to assume that nightlife means only nightclubs and bars. Here, where the streets are shockingly safe all night long, whole families are out late together, going to movies and eating in restaurants. At Pippo's -- a place where the tables are covered in white paper, the waiters are brusque, and two can share a salad, a heaping bowl of pasta with both pesto and meat sauce, garlicky papas fritas, steak milanesa, and wine and seltzer for less than $20 -- parents make their children comfortable on their laps or across two chairs and go on talking until after 2:00 A.M.