“The mission of the press is to spread culture while destroying the attention span.”
– Karl Kraus, Austrian Journalist
Buenos Aires – It seems that among the many things that fascinate people headed here for vacation or business or an expat life, is the interaction between the press back wherever they’re from, and how it impacts life here. Each time there’s an article about Buenos Aires, or Argentina in general, or sometimes Mexico (please, read my Argentina Geography Lesson…), I get a flood of e-mails over the following week asking about how much change “that article” in the Supermarket Supersaver has had on our lives here. If “that article” appears in a “paper of record” – such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times UK, or some such, it just increases the tidal volume.
In general, I’d have to say, that other than a flurry of e-mail exchanges, usually making fun of “that article”, amongst expat and Argentine friends, and perhaps a mention or two in places like Trip Advisor or Fodor’s online forums (where most of the mentioning is made by people asking “how much impact has that article had on life down there?”), it simply has little to no impact on daily life here. Why would it? At most, an article might influence someone on the fence about where to vacation to choose one way or the other about visiting Buenos Aires.
What brought this to mind was last weekend’s article on private clubs in Buenos Aires that appeared in The New York Times. It included us, here at Casa S, as the featured restaurant de puertas cerradas. Now, I’m not going to say it didn’t impact our lives. It did. The two of us. Not Buenos Aires as a whole. It didn’t “open up a clandestine world” as someone put it in one e-mail, nor did it, nor is it likely to “change the face of Buenos Aires dining” as another predicted. Here’s the secret… we (those of us who live here) already knew about these closed door places. It’s part of the culture. While I was excited to be featured in the article, we’re just one of dozens of places doing something similar here in the city – and if one were to take Latin America in general, it’s downright commonplace.
So what impact did it have more close to home, i.e., here at Casa S? Let’s see, starting last Saturday eve I began to receive e-mail and phone calls. Lots of them. The pace picked up over the course of the day on Sunday and continued into Monday. 24 hours a day (what are people doing trying to make reservations at four in the morning?). It then began to slow, drastically, and between, say, Wednesday and today, I’ve received maybe two dozen. But, let me say, not all of those are reservation requests, though quite a few were. We received requests for about two hundred reservations. About 2/3 of those had read the article, about 1/3 had just gotten a note forwarded to them by someone telling them they ought to call us and make a reservation – but not having read the article, they had no conception of what they were calling for. In fact, even of folks who’d read the article, and/or gone to the website, virtually no one had bothered to read the paragraph on the main page that tells them what we are, nor look at the schedule of dinners – they simply jumped straight to the reservation. Some of them were not even in, nor planning to come to Buenos Aires, they just assumed that because the article was in the Times we were in Manhattan, or at worst, another borough – it was the Travel section, you know? At first, I spent time explaining to each person what Casa S is all about, but then I swiftly realized that I was going to spend more time doing so than getting anything else done, and I started just asking people to go back and read the website and then get back to us if they were still interested.
The vast majority of the reservation requests were for this past week and this coming week – lots of folks are here in town for the holidays. Of course, the article having appeared just last weekend, we were already almost fully booked for these two weekends before it popped into the paper. Even a good portion of January was already booked. We decided to open an extra day each of these two weeks, of course, that only accommodated twelve extra people a week. We filled those spaces quickly, and during the space of the week filled out most of the rest of the empty spots in January. I had to decline more requests than I was able to take. What was almost more interesting were the e-mails and calls that weren’t reservation requests. I’d say a good 10% were people who either 1) just wanted to share their experiences of closed door type restaurants – and I have everything from a couple of sentence descriptions to rambling multi-paragraph travelogues in my inbox (okay, they’re now in my trash folder); or 2) wanted to chat about how The New York Times was, as mentioned above, changing the face of dining in Buenos Aires. Oh, and of course, the half dozen or so folk who wanted me to plan their dining itineraries for them… not all of them coming to Argentina… again, please read my geography lesson…
I also got a reminder of why I left the restaurant business in New York. Understand, this isn’t a complaint, it’s actually kind of amusing to me. But then, I’m in a situation where I’m not operating a restaurant in Manhattan with all the attendant regulations, codes, press, social pressures, etc. It’s simply a dinner party in our home twice a week, when we want to, and with who we want to. I’m not obligated to say yes to anyone. I got a taste of local social politics, with postings on one local forum asserting that they were quite sure I must have paid for this publicity and trashing the place (an interesting group of six folk from the forum who’d asked for a gift certificate months ago for a giveaway contest, never held the contest and then used the certificate for themselves, who came to dinner, then proceeded to publicly trash the dinner on their board, while three of them privately e-mailed me to assure me that they didn’t agree with the trashing, but it was politics as usual and they weren’t going to contest it). I got a taste of the public relations world (four requests from different people at different firms informing me that they could “put me on the map” if I’d give them free dinners for them and their guests)… might I point out that the only reason they knew about us was because we’d already gotten “on the map”?
I’ll admit, the following is an exaggeration – mostly in the form of combining statements from multiple different calls into one (apologies to friends on eGullet, I already posted this one there): “I’m going to be there tomorrow with 17 people, four of them children, I expect separate kids menus for them and someone assigned to look after them so we can relax and enjoy our dinners. Two people need gluten free, one has a nut allergy, there are two strict vegans, and personally I won’t touch red meat, though pork and lamb are fine, and am deathly allergic to shellfish, though I love lobster and foie gras. Oh yes, and no tripe because we simply don’t like it. There are a couple of women on diets in the group, so just arrange individual tasting menus for each person. That would work far better for us. We want a table by the window overlooking the park, but no smoking, and would you please make sure there’s a mariachi band to play Happy Birthday to my great Aunt who’s 75 – and you’ll have to supply a decorated cake. I expect car service to and from our hotel. The sixty pesos [$20] a person is above our budget, please let me know what discount you’re giving us for our courtesy in helping you be successful. Oh, you do know who I am, yes? If you don’t accommodate us, I can assure you, no one else from New York will ever set foot in your establishment.”
That, by the way, is typical of what maitre d’s in New York deal with every day. And it’s not just New Yorkers, it’s people from all over the world who read “papers of record”, whichever one they consider most important. The two most recent fun ones? A call at 1:00 a.m. on Christmas day that turned into a several minute angry tirade (on voicemail) because no one was there to take his reservation… for February… and a series of four voicemails during the day yesterday from a party of eight demanding that we give them a table for Christmas dinner because no one would/could accommodate them last minute, and why weren’t we answering them???? (We were out enjoying the beautiful day, at the park, wandering the artisans’ fair, and seeing the movie Children of Men, just so you know…).
So, overall, it’s been a whirlwind week. The three dinners this past weekend went exceedlingly well, I’m hopeful that this week’s will too. The “Surfacing” recommendation in the Travel section in the NYT has moved on to the East Village of San Diego, my congratulations and condolences go out to Jon Mangini, the named one of the owners at Basic Urban Kitchen and Bar, who is now busily trying to figure out where he’s going to find a mariachi band for tonight….