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Buenos Aires: Psst!
Discreet Dinner?

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Buenos Aires: Psst! Want a Discreet Dinner?

Published: December 17, 2006

IN Buenos Aires, land of plastic surgery and tanning solariums, few rituals are as beloved as having dinner in full public view. On any given night Sucre, Dominga and other restaurants known for large, ostentatious doors and department-store-size windows are packed with the city’s peacocks showing off their latest designer threads.


Horacio Paone for The New York Times

To get into Providencia, a bakery and cafe in Buenos Aires, you must find an orange door that says “knock hard.”

But lately, the Botox injections and Hermès bags have become harder to spot. As Argentina recuperates from a recent financial collapse, many of the city’s affluent residents are now going underground — to private clubs, unmarked bars and invitation-only restaurants — to flaunt their status.

“Traditional Buenos Aires is about big fronts, big doors, big everything,” said Terry Walshe, who recently opened Club 647, a membership-based restaurant and club tucked behind a loading dock in the San Telmo neighborhood (Tacuarí 647; 54-11-4331-3026; “The new trend is to be more in the know instead of buying yourself into places.”

The New York Times

Several of the secret boîtes were inspired by clubs in London and New York, and were started by expatriates like Mr. Walshe, an English film director who moved to Buenos Aires two years ago to write “a gangster script about London.” He faced some resistance from flashier Argentines, he said, but they seem to have come around.

Club 647, which has Shanghai-style décor and photos of semi-nude women, overflows at night with fashion models, media types and businessmen — some of whom paid 2,000 pesos (about $645 at 3.1 pesos to the dollar) in membership dues for the privilege of bypassing the velvet rope and having full access to the V.I.P. room.

Other places are a bit more egalitarian. Maat, a restaurant in Belgrano, modeled after an English clubhouse, allows guests to dine three times before they are asked to pony up the $2,000 membership fee (levied in U.S. dollars) — or not come back (Sucre 2168; 54- 11-4896-1818; Dishes include a grilled lamb filet served with an eggplant emulsion and goat-ricotta gnocchi (50 pesos). The owner, Nora Julián, an Argentine financier, said she got the idea from the Aspinalls club in London.

The speakeasy aura also extends to grittier establishments. Ocho7Ocho (Thames 878; 54-11-4773-1098), a restaurant and bar popular with bohemian types in their 20s and 30s, is hidden behind an unmarked wooden door in the residential Villa Crespo district. And Providencia (Cabrera 5995; 54-11-4772-8507), a hippie bakery and cafe in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood, is in an old warehouse, behind an orange door with a handwritten note that says “golpee fuerte” (“knock hard”). Vegetarian curries are about 15 pesos.

But perhaps the most exclusive place to flaunt one’s status are the puertas cerradas (or restaurants with closed doors) that have recently boomed in Buenos Aires.

Among the insiders’ favorite is Casa SaltShaker (54-9 11 6132-4146;, held twice a week at the ground-floor rear Recoleta apartment of Dan Perlman, an American chef and sommelier, and his Peruvian companion, Henry Tapia. The five-course menu is built around a theme, often wacky, like the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, or the film “Babette’s Feast.” Dinner is 60 pesos and up to 12 can be seated.

“There’s something kind of cool about knowing what’s behind the secret door,” Mr. Perlman said, “of being in on something that no one else knows.”