For most of this century, inviting someone to rendezvous at the bar of the Plaza Hotel in the heart of Buenos Aires has been the Argentine equivalent of "Meet me at the Ritz." Flappers with long-stemmed cigarette holders and swells with top hats have given way to Armani-clad business executives wielding cellular phones and cigars, as well as the usual assortment of foreign diplomats, aristocrats and celebrities. But the promise of the Plaza Bar remains the same: sooner or later, everybody who is anybody in this sophisticated city will parade past your easy chair.
Last time I dropped by, several members of the crew filming Evita--including Madonna--were fortifying themselves here. On this occasion, in the midst of the Argentine Polo Open, the crowd is horsey and international: exuberant Brazilians, tweedy Brits and bewildered Bruneians (members of their polo-loving sultan's entourage) gather around a quartet of Argentine players cele-brating victory in a match a few hours before.
All this would no doubt have pleased the late Ernesto Tornquist, the Argentine entrepreneur who built the Plaza in 1909 to accommodate his friends--cattle barons from the pampa and business associates from the Old World--in the European grand hotel tradition. Back then "rich as an Argentine" was a phrase that echoed in London, Paris and New York, where the pampa millionaires spent half of their time. With the opening of the Plaza, they had a hotel back in their native land that wouldn't embarrass them.
Truth be told, though, in recent decades the Plaza had noticeably slipped. Social unrest, political instability and economic crises took their toll. The staff fell behind with repairs, and besides, the Rockefellers, Akihitos and Windsors stopped visiting the country during its troubles.
But Argentina's economic and cultural rebound during the 1990s has again made Buenos Aires a frequent stopover for well-heeled travelers. So, the $10 million renovation undertaken by Marriott when it was awarded management of the Plaza in 1994 has been welcome.
The 325 rooms have been remodeled to reflect more contemporary demands. Closet space is smaller, in recognition that guests rarely stay more than a few days in this fast-track era. But bathrooms are large and well-appointed enough to make a Park Avenue co-op owner feel at home.
Today, the Plaza is one of five luxury establishments in the booming Buenos Aires metropolis that suffers from a severe shortage of deluxe hotel rooms.
Besides history, the Plaza enjoys a number of advantages over more recent rivals. Its location couldn't be better. The hotel faces Plaza San Martín, one of Buenos Aires's most elegant parks. Step out the front door and you're on Florida, the pedestrian thoroughfare with boutiques that carry every designer name from both sides of the Atlantic. A five-minute cab ride will get you to most business appointments, first-class restaurants, tango clubs or the Colon Opera House.
In the unlikely event that you prefer not to leave the hotel, the Plaza Grill has long had a reputation for sophisticated cuisine. The hotel's main restaurant features Delft tiles from Holland on its walls and Indian Pakkah fans on its ceilings. Although the staff encourages customers to try some of the chef's elaborate dishes, you will do best if you stick to such basics as shell steak (bife de chorizo) and grilled lamb.
The Plaza's celebrated wine cellar--with hundreds of mainly Argentine labels, but also a large selection of European bottles--is well worth a visit. When you re-emerge, you'll be back where the tale began, in the Plaza Bar, ready for a brandy snifter and a cigar from a humidor well-stocked with Cuban Partagas and Cohibas.
Jonathan Kandell, a freelance writer based in New York City, was formerly a correspondent in Central and South America for The New York Times.
MARRIOTT PLAZA HOTEL
Phone (011) 54-1-318-3000;
Fax (011) 54-1-318-3008
Reservations (in the U.S.) (800) 228-9290
Rates rooms $300-$350; suites, $450-$900