Argentines are artists at the grill. Pasta and gnocchi is invariably fresh, while the best pizzas vie with those of New York and Naples. Pair any of this with some fabulous Argentine wines. Mate, that iconic tea, doubles as a social bond between family and friends. And don't skip a scoop or two of gelato, preferably with dulce de leche.

Tips for Eating Out

  • Reservations

Only necessary on weekends at better restaurants (or high season at Mar del Plata or Bariloche, for example).

  • Budgeting

To save a few bucks at lunch, opt for the menú del día or menú ejecutivo. These ‘set menus’ usually include a main dish, dessert and drink.

Large, modern supermarkets are common, and they'll have whatever you need for self-catering, including (usually) a takeout counter.

  • Paying the Bill

Ask for your bill by saying, ‘la cuenta, por favor’ (‘the bill, please’) or making the ‘writing in air’ gesture. Some restaurants accept credit cards, but others (usually smaller ones) only take cash. This is especially true outside big cities.

At fancier restaurants, your final bill may arrive with a cubierto (small cover charge for bread and use of utensils). This is not a tip, which is usually around 10% and a separate charge.

Staples & Specialties

Beef

When the first Spaniards came to Argentina, they brought cattle. But efforts to establish a colony proved unfruitful, and the herds were abandoned in the pampas. Here the cows found the bovine equivalent of heaven: plenty of lush, fertile grasses on which to feed and few natural predators. After the Europeans recolonized, they bred these cattle with other bovine breeds.

Traditionally, free-range Argentine cows ate nutritious pampas grass and were raised without antibiotics and growth hormones. But this culture is being lost, and today most beef in restaurants comes from feedlots.

Average beef consumption in Argentina is around 59kg per person per year – though in the past, they ate much more.

Italian & Spanish

Thanks to Argentina’s Italian heritage, the national cuisine has been highly influenced by Italian immigrants who entered the country during the late 19th century. Along with an animated set of speaking gestures, they brought their love of pasta, pizza, gelato and more.

Many restaurants make their own pasta – look for pasta casera (handmade pasta). Some of the varieties of pasta you’ll encounter are ravioles, sorrentinos (large, round pasta parcels similar to ravioli), ñoquis (gnocchi) and tallarines (fettuccine). Standard sauces include tuco (tomato sauce), estofado (beef stew, popular with ravioli) and salsa blanca (béchamel). Be aware that occasionally the sauce is not included in the price of the pasta – you choose and pay for it separately.

Pizza is offered at pizzerias, many with stone or brick ovens, though restaurants offer it as well. It’s generally excellent and cheap.

Spanish cooking is less popular than Italian, but forms another bedrock of Argentine food. In Spanish restaurants here you’ll find paella, as well as other typically Spanish seafood preparations. Most of the country’s guisos and pucheros (types of stew) are descendants from Spain.

Local Specialties

Although comidas típicas can refer to any of Argentina’s regional dishes, it often refers to food from the Andean Northwest. Food from this region, which has roots in pre-Columbian times, has more in common with the cuisines of Bolivia and Peru than with the Europeanized food of the rest of Argentina. It’s frequently spicy and hard to find elsewhere (most Argentines can’t tolerate anything spicy). Typical dishes can include everything from locro (a hearty corn or mixed-grain stew with meat) and tamales to humitas (sweet tamales) and fried empanadas.

In Patagonia, lamb is as common as beef. Along the coast, seafood is a popular choice and includes fish, oysters and king crab – though seafood is often overcooked. In the Lake District, game meats such as venison, wild boar and trout are popular. In the west, the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja pride themselves on chivito (young goat). River fish, such as the dorado, pacú (a relative of the piranha) and surubí (a type of catfish), are staples in the northeast.

Snacks

Kioscos (kiosks) are all over town and provide sweets, cookies, ice cream and packaged sandwiches. On the streets, pancho (hot dog) and garrapiñadas (sugar-roasted peanuts) sellers prepare and sell their treats from carts.

Sandwiches de miga (thin, crustless sandwiches, usually with cheese and ham) are popular tea-time snacks. Lomitos (steak sandwiches) are the pinnacle of Argentine sandwiches, while the choripán is a classic barbecue sausage sandwich.

Empanadas – small, stuffed turnovers ubiquitous in Argentina – are prepared differently throughout the country (you’ll find spicy ground-beef empanadas in the Andean Northwest, while in Patagonia lamb is a common filling). They make for a tasty, quick meal and are especially good for bus travel.

Desserts & Sweets

Two of Argentina’s most definitive treats are dulce de leche (a creamy milk caramel) and alfajores (round, cookie-type sandwiches often covered in chocolate). Each region of Argentina has its own version of the alfajor.

Because of Argentina's Italian heritage, Argentine helado is comparable to the best ice cream anywhere in the world. There are heladerías (ice-cream stores) in every town, where the luscious concoctions will be swirled into a peaked mountain and handed over with a plastic spoon stuck in the side. Don't miss this special treat.

In restaurants, fruit salad and ice cream are often on the menu, while flan is a baked custard that comes with either cream or dulce de leche topping.

Where to Eat & Drink

Restaurants are generally open from noon to 3.30pm for lunch and 8pm or 9pm to midnight for dinner, though exact hours will vary depending on the restaurant.

For the best meats, head to a parrilla (steak restaurant). Panaderías are bakeries. Confiterías (cafes serving light meals) are open all day and into the night, and often have a long list of both food and drinks. Cafes, bars and pubs usually have a more limited range of snacks and meals available, though some can offer full meals. A tenedor libre (literally, ‘free fork’) is an all-you-can-eat restaurant; quality is usually decent, but a minimum-drink purchase is often mandatory and costs extra.

Argentines eat little for breakfast – usually just a coffee with medialunas (croissants – either de manteca, sweet, or de grasa, plain). Tostadas (toast) with manteca (butter) or mermelada (jam) is an alternative, as are facturas (pastries). Higher-end hotels and B&Bs tend to offer heartier breakfasts.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Health foods, organic products and vegetarian restaurants are available in Argentina’s biggest cities, but outside of them you’ll have to search harder. A recent surge in alternative diets means that more gluten-free and vegan options are now available, though selections will seem poor compared to North America or Europe.

Most restaurant menus include a few vegetarian choices, and pastas are a nearly ubiquitous option. Pizzerias and empanaderías (empanada shops) are good bets – look for empanadas made with acelga (chard) and choclo (corn). If you’re stuck at a parrilla, your choices will be salads, omelets, pasta, baked potatoes, provoleta (a thick slice of grilled provolone cheese) and roasted vegetables. Pescado (fish) and mariscos (seafood) are sometimes available for pescatarians.

Sin carne means ‘without meat,’ and the words soy vegetariano/a (‘I’m a vegetarian’) will come in handy when explaining to an Argentine why you don’t eat their nation’s renowned steaks.

The word for vegan is vegano/a. Vegans can be challenged in Argentina. Make sure homemade pasta doesn’t include egg, and that bread or vegetables aren’t cooked in lard (grasa; manteca means butter in Argentina). Some breads are made with milk or cheese. You’ll need to be creative. One tip: look for accommodations offering kitchen use. Good luck.

The Basics

Argentina has a range of eating options. For fine dining, book in advance.

  • Parrilla Grills that focus on barbecued meat.
  • Panadería Bakery stocking pastries such as facturas and medialunas.
  • Confitería Cafe serving light meals, open all day and into the night.
  • Tenedor libre Buffet, all-you-can-eat restaurant.