Take the Café San Bernardo, a historic remnant and staple of Buenos Aires’ Villa Crespo neighborhood. Fondly known as the “Samber”, this institution was named after the quarter’s equally venerable parish church, completed in 1896. These days, the San Bernardo church itself is better known as the “Church of Christ of the Broken Hands” (Iglesia del Cristo de las manos rotas), a name that reflects said statue’s dire state. The slightly less ancient Café San Bernardo, housed in a 101-year-old building and never closed since its launch in 1957, offers a round-the-clock respite for anyone in need of a drink, quick sandwich, or place to relax. Also on the menu: a wide variety of games that foster a lively exchange with friends and neighbors.

Young people enjoying the ping pong and pool tables
Young people enjoying the ping-pong and pool tables

At first glance, San Bernardo strikes you as an old-fashioned café with a big wooden counter and several tables. Further in, the salon opens into a spacious hall with larger, communal tables reserved for regulars and players of buraco (the local rummy-style card game), dice, chess, or dominoes. Beyond this easy atmosphere, filled with banter and plenty of laughter, more ambitious players head for the venue’s pool, billiard, or foosball tables. A few more steps take us from the dimly lit games area into a bright, high-ceilinged hall supported by Roman columns, stocked with six blue ping-pong tables. The latter take up most of the space and serve as a striking visual backdrop and contrast for the orange balls that bounce across the surface or strike the speckled gray floor below. Up above, spherical lamps light up the room’s stripped walls and antique bricks.

Dishwasher behind the counter
Dishwasher behind the counter

Perched behind the cashier, Lito reveals that “in the beginning, this was all about the milonga (a primitive take on the tango that uses the same basic elements of the dance, but emphasizes rhythm and less complex movements or figures). Later on, the building housed a branch of the national bank (Banco Nación), followed by a supermarket.” Now, the not-so-new San Bernardo blends dance moves with simple gastronomic delights and games, with a focus on the latter. At the same time, the spirit of those long-gone times lives on in the smiling portrait of Carlos Gardel behind the counter, in trophies from old billiard tournaments, in polished bottles of Ocho Hermanos, in the huge retro metallic fans, and, above all, in the musical taste of the regulars and their conversation. Chatter is often peppered with names of local authors and musicians. Some might mention Osvaldo Pugliese’s first public appearances as a tango pianist here, while others reminisce about tango poet and Café San Bernardo fixture Celedonio Flores. And it is a badly kept secret that contemporary author and local celebrity Juan Gelman always lost at billiards. When talk finally turns to football, it inevitable centers around the quarter’s own blue-and-yellow Atlanta team who run a shop just next door.

Two girls comparing tattoos at a Samber night
Two girls comparing tattoos at a Samber night

Buenos Aires is changing fast, yet to an everyday observer, these changes might appear almost imperceptible. At the same time, very few structures have made it through the last century intact – most shapes and functions are no longer recognizable. Once a middle-class immigrant neighborhood, populated by the city’s largest Jewish community as well as Italian shoe makers or factory managers, Villa Crespo still retains its industrious ambience – and even some historic structures, scattered in-between the district’s modern apartment blocks. Divided into lots for development some time in the late 19th century, the “Villa” (Spanish for “small town”) soon evolved around Salvador Benedit’s shoe factory (Fábrica Nacional de Calzado), attracting labor from a range of different countries as well as plenty of social and commercial activity. And even after these factories closed or moved, the atmosphere remained the same. Thanks to its proximity to the trendy Palermo district, real estate agents even started to advertise the quarter as the new “Palermo Queens” to conjure up New York vibes and the spirit of up-and-coming gentrification. Locals and the city protested this marketing move and the district soon regained its original name.

Nevertheless, the barrio is changing, with a younger crowd taking over Villa Crespo’s apartments and homes, setting up shops and studios, and enjoying the area’s new cycle paths. Recently, some of Palermo’s young media and advertising crowd decided they had had enough of their district’s trendy international watering holes, so they discovered the draw of nearby Villa Crespo – and the joy of playing games. Now avid ping-pong fiends, they keep flocking to Samber on Tuesday nights for their fill of this fast-paced sport. One of those who kick-started the trend a mere two years ago, filmmaker Lautaro Núñez de Arco, explains that although the café is open every day, Tuesdays simply worked out best for everyone and usually guaranteed some free tables. By now, the club’s Facebook group has grown to a cool 2,800 members, introducing a new generation of regulars – from models and directors to actors, designers, and tourists – to the Samber. The venue, in turn, also goes with the times by putting on pizzas and even a DJ for the new clientele. Now, tango meets club sounds while different crowds and generations generously share the premises, united in their love of games, drinks, and jokes. “Nowadays, people come here from all over the city and even from the suburbs,” Lito adds. Everything blends, everything changes – and the Samber stays in place.

Café San Bernardo, Avenida Corrientes 5436 – open 24/7

Text: Gabriela Schevach
All photos, incl. the header image: Lena Szankay