Argentina’s famed steakhouses adapt to life under lockdown


BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – On the tree-lined streets outside Buenos Aires steakhouse Don Julio in the trendy neighborhood of Palermo, diners are used to joining snaking lines to get a coveted table at the restaurant as evening falls.

But since a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 20 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it is having to adapt. Don Julio has converted into a high-end butcher shop, with plans to roll out street food.

Pablo Rivero, the owner of Don Julio, said the aim was to keep alive the atmosphere and feeling of the corner grill, or ‘parrilla’ – a concept that is a key part of Argentine culture and as ubiquitous and emblematic of Buenos Aires as a cafe in Paris or local London pub.

“We are not going to lose it, so it is a question of finding a way of getting through this,” he said.

Argentines have been told to stay at home, unless they are a key worker or are buying groceries or other essentials.

That has meant restaurants and cafes have been closed, while small local bakeries, grocers and butchers remain open.

“Certainly the idea of ​​the butcher shop is to give people a shade of Don Julio,” said Rivero. He said they would not do cooked food delivery because it was hard to maintain quality, though they are accelerating a plan to sell street food.

“This way we can engage people in something that can represent an income until activity restarts,” he said, adding that his 100 employees were still working during the lockdown in the butcher shop or helping remodel the restaurant.

Gaston Riveira, the head of another of the capital city’s top parrillas, La Cabrera, said the sector was going through a tough time under the lockdown, which has been extended to at least May 24.

“We are in a difficult moment because there is no tourism and Argentines are not going out because of the quarantine,” he told Reuters. He said the restaurant had “transformed into a food factory” doing deliveries on a reduced menu.

Deliveries in aluminum trays and covered pots come with instructions on how to ensure the food is as close to restaurant quality as it can be.

“We try to make it as similar as possible,” he said, adding that a lot of the cuts offered come on the bone, which helps maintain the temperature and “juiciness.”

The global coronavirus pandemic has hit international demand for Argentine beef more broadly, with many restaurants shuttered from Asia to Europe, said Mario Ravettino, president of Argentina’s meat exporters group.

Some companies were freezing merchandise, he added, while “other firms are turning to the domestic market, which is extremely dynamic and the situation is changing day by day.”

Francisco Palazzo, a 28-year-old who lives with his girlfriend in Buenos Aires, said it was important for people to be able to get a taste of normality. Before the lockdown, he usually ate an ‘asado’ mixed grill three times a week.

Recently, he said he bought some cooked meat, sausage, and black pudding from a parrilla near his apartment that was now doing take-out.

“It was late and it made us want to eat an asado and continue with our old habits,” he said. “What is more you can also contribute to that business, which has really great meat – just doing the little bit you can.”

Reporting by Juan Bustamante and Maximilian Heath; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien