“My worst nightmare!” – the young Argentine standing next to the pool table says in Spanish, as he realises the name of his next opponent on the chalkboard.
Mike, a British expat who has lived in Buenos Aires for 10 years, sips his beer, rises from the table and steps up to challenge the youngster.
A few minutes in, the game is close but the Argentine ends up with a late two-ball lead. Then, upon seeing his opponent’s miss, Mike takes another sip of his pint, puts down his beer, and saddles over to the pool table for his turn.
He sinks four balls in a row and claims a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
“Motherfuckers!” yells the Argentine in his best British accent, just one letter away from the more grammatically correct yet equally as profane exclamation.
Mike lets out his signature belly-laugh at his opponent’s attempt to swear in English.
“Golly gosh!” he responds. His rival laughs and repeats the phrase. It’s clear the two have known each other for some time – and that the Argentine has picked up a few British-isms along the way.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, this was a typical scene at The Gibraltar, a popular pub on Calle Perú in San Telmo – a man born and raised in Buenos Aires and a British transplant yelling playful insults at each other – opting for Spanish or English depending on their mood – over a game of pool.
Like all the eating establishments in the capital, The Gibraltar has been forced to cope with a new reality.
The sidewalk in front of the bar does not have enough room for a table and the smoking garden in the back is not considered an outdoor space according to Argentina’s coronavirus restrictions. This means it is, for the moment, limited to take-out (as well as selling branded Gibraltar face-masks), robbing the bar’s regular patrons of the warm, inviting atmosphere they cherished before the pandemic.
When you walk into The Gibraltar, it is clear that a history buff had a hand in the bar’s design. The walls are lined with photos of great events in European and Latin American military history. There’s even a fully stocked library located on a mezzanine on top of the bar.
The history buff is Alex, the man who, with his business partner, founded The Gibraltar 20 years ago, fulfilling a life-long dream in the process.
“I’ve been working in this industry since I was 18.” he said. “What I always wanted was to have a bar.”
Alex speaks with a British accent – which he picked up while living in London for seven years – in such flawless English that, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might not guess that he grew up in Argentina.
“One day I decided I wanted to have a pub. And since I didn’t know how to run a pub, I decided to go to England and work there,” he said.
When he arrived, he got a job washing up at a Scottish & Newcastle pub in London. Within five years he had worked his way up to pub manager. After two years in that role, he returned to his native Argentina to finally open up a bar of his own.
Originally the plan was to serve Spanish food – hence the pub’s evocative name.
“English bar plus Spanish food equals The Gibraltar,” Alex explained. “I like using names of cities because it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you will be able to pronounce it.”
His other bars are The Bangalore, which leans more towards a restaurant and specialises in Indian food, The Shanghai, which serves up Chinese food and the Waterloo, which was sold two years ago.
In the end, Alex switched over to classic pub fare but the name and Gibraltarian castle and key flag above the door to the bar remain.
A pub in Argentina
Patrons of the bar will tell you that if you call The Gibraltar a “British Pub” to Alex or to Beaver, the British-born manager of the establishment, they’ll correct you.
“Because it’s not,” Alex explains. “Like Irish pubs being in Ireland. If you wanted to have an Irish pub in Argentina it wouldn’t be an Irish pub. Not just Argentina, even Irish pubs in London aren’t really Irish pubs…This is a pub and it’s in Argentina!”
Still, the pub has a clear English style, which contrasts greatly with the City’s newer pubs. Alex observes that most of the news additions are all white and have sharp lights which create a focus on the clientele, rather than creating a comfortable, warm environment.
“What you do there [in the pub] is more important than for you to show off. Nobody is walking in here with their expensive suit that needs to be shown to other people,” he said. “People come here from work… You want people to feel important but it’s not for the type of person who has to be important. That’s the reason why it looks like a pub.”
Around The Gibraltar, you’ll find paintings of historic scenes like José de San Martín crossing the Andes, the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo and, of course, loads of Napoleon (Alex is a self-professed “Napoleonic buff”).
But one thing you won’t find is a single beer advert or logo, aside from on the taps.
“When you go to bars now, and you’re drinking, it’s just a supermarket aisle. You know brands and brands and brands,” Alex lamented. “When you go to a pub you want to see something beautiful. It’s better to look at a beautiful oil painting than a neon Corona sign flashing in your eyes.”
The drinking establishment’s British influence has helped make The Gibraltar a well-known hub for expats and tourists. Guidebooks and travel websites list the pub as one of the top places to catch a football match in Buenos Aires.
On Saturday mornings, in pre-pandemic times, the ratio of expats and tourists to native Argentines shifts from slightly favouring locals to being dominated by mostly British tourists. A visit around the time of a big match guarantees the sight of punters in football shirts.
You might see a solitary Brit stumble a few minutes before Chelsea faces off against Manchester United, look up to see the TV on the wall and exclaim “Oh thank god, a pub that’s showing the match.” Within seconds, they’re ordering a beer at the bar and making small-talk with fellow countrymen, sharing their respective club allegiances (and a bit banter).
The pub is well aware of what its public wants. If you want to plan your football-watching schedule, you can find the fixtures for the upcoming matches conveniently pasted on the door to the bar and above each urinal in the men’s restroom. At the bottom of each sheet it reads, “prepared by Sam Kelly.”
Sam is a well-known sports journalist who hosts the English-language podcast Hand of Pod, which explores Argentine football in depth. Cider is part of why he keeps coming back to The Gibraltar.
“It’s the first pub I’ve found that has English-style cider,” he said. “When I’m away from England for a year or two years at a time, I forget the difference. And then go back to England and have a glass of proper cider and I remember that I’ve missed it.”
How did he end up doing the fixture list for pub? “I had been talking with the guy who was at that point the manager of the bar [during the 2010 World Cup] and he made the connection that because I am a sports writer, I know where to find the fixtures and therefore I could do the posters for them.
“I was about to point out to him that any number of their staff could do this when he said that they would pay me a few pints of cider each week... so I was like ‘yeah!’
One person who Sam used to see frequently at the bar was Archie Whitworth, a former news editor at the Buenos Aires Herald, which had its offices nearby on Avenida San Juan.
Whitworth, who now lives in England, recalls the public fondly.
“It was extremely useful to have a place nearby that was British. If you spent all day writing in English, not being able to communicate in English was frustrating,” he said.
“The Herald’s vibe was quite backwards: we always had computers that didn’t quite work, there were never enough seats, the Internet was shit. So it was always quite a frustrating place to work and you’d get to the end of the week and you’d just need somewhere nearby that reminds you a little bit of home.”
The Gibraltar was a staple of the after-work social scene for Herald staff. They would frequently walk the few blocks over to the bar after closing the paper around 11pm, and it was a tradition to go at the end of the month on pay day and to initiate new reporters.
Francisco Aldaya was one of those who went through the ritual. The economist and journalist, who was born in Argentina but spent ages most of his youth in the UK, returned to his homeland after finishing his studies and took a job with the newspaper.
He remembers being taken to The Gibraltar for the first time after working at the paper for a month. It was his first job in the industry and his first few months at the Herald were often stressful. The Gibraltar, he recalls, provided a release.
“We pretty much lived up to the stereotype of the journalist who pounds the beers and the whiskeys,” he said.
David Hughes, who worked with Archie and Fran, also confirmed the stereotype.
“We would go there and just get plastered,” he said. “I nearly got kicked out of that place when Newell’s [Old Boys] lost in the [Copa] Libertadores in the 2013 semi-finals [David is a Newell’s fan]…I was apparently swearing too much.”
“We would finish the paper around 11, close up for the day and go to Desnivel [a parrilla] on Defensa near Plaza Dorrego,” remembered Whitworth. “We used to sit there and drink about a litre each of cheap red wine with soda, eat stupid amounts of red meat and then go from there to The Gibraltar, which was around the corner ,and just drink heavily until we could barely stand.”
Donde todo el mundo sabe tu nombre
Regular patrons consistently spoke about how abnormally friendly people at The Gibraltar are compared to other bars.
Marcela, who has been coming to The Gibraltar since 2002, met her boyfriend there.
“It’s rare that you have a bar that you can come alone to,” she said. “I don’t need to come with a group of people, I just come and talk with whomever is here. Everyone is very friendly and respectful.”
She added that “it’s the most democratic bar in Buenos Aires… Nobody comes to make sure that you’re drinking or anything like that… You are free to do whatever you want. Nobody pressures you; you’re free.”
Kelly says he has made a lot of friends at The Gibraltar. He also met his significant other through people he met at the pub.
When Sam first started going “it was kind of like the first year of university again – except I was 26 instead of 19!” he laughs
Conrado, another punter, never liked pubs or bars. When one of his friends would suggest going to one he would usually say “no, it’s expensive, let’s just buy beer and meet up at someone’s flat.”
He started going to The Gibraltar initially for the pool table but kept going even when his friends got sick of pool and stopped going with him. One day, he met a guy by chance who he had played football with. They had a lot of friends in common and soon, they were thick as thieves.
“He told me ‘I love this place’ and we realised that there was something different about this bar,” he said “I started coming alone and now when I come I know a ton of people…It is the only bar in my life where that has happened, where I can come and know I’ll see a lot of people I know.”
The Gibraltar has had its fair share of personalities too. In the course of researching this article, multiple people told me that a man named Mike — our famed pool player from earlier — had to be interviewed. He, they said, would help me understand the friendliness of The Gibraltar.
Mike has become something of a legend among the punters, mostly for his effusive personality. Many say he’s part of the furniture, that he is a true ‘regular.’
It wasn’t too hard to track him down. My first question was to ask what days he usually comes to the bar. He laughed uproariously.
“Monday to Sunday are the days I usually spend here,” he chuckled.
Mike, who teaches English (and “charges very reasonable rates”) moved to Buenos Aires in September of 2009 and settled, after living in many parts of the world. He came to The Gibraltar for the first time in October after seeing it in a Lonely Planet guidebook.
The thing that brought him back was that “people actually spoke to me which was very nice,” he explained. “It was rather strange, actually, because I have travelled a lot and I’ve never experienced the level of friendliness that I experienced here. I don’t know how to explain that. I made good friends in Spain and other places but here it's another level of friendliness. You meet someone new every day … The atmosphere in here is wonderful, everybody is welcome.”
Hailing from Manchester, Mike said The Gibraltar reminded him of his hometown pub scene. For him, a pub is “where you meet the lads.”
“The pub is a place where we meet to talk rubbish,” he said, letting out another loud extended laugh.
“You would never phone up a friend in Manchester and say ‘Oh are you going to be in the pub tonight.’ You’ll know if he’s going tonight because you’ll go to the bar and you’ll see him or you won’t!
According to Mike, The Gibraltar, despite its location in the heart of Buenos Aires, creates the same atmosphere. Besides that, he’s rather attached to the pool table, he admits.
“We don’t say to each other ‘hey, are you going to The Gibraltar?’” Mike said. “We know. We’ll see each other there.”
When the pandemic passes and normal service is resumed, I know where I’ll be going for a pint.