Looking at it from ground level, you could be mistaken for thinking that 36 Billares is just a cafe. An old-style, historic cafe which doesn’t look as though it has changed much in the last few decades, but just a cafe nonetheless. However, 36 Billares has an underground other half, one which is pretty much given away by the name, as the downstairs was home to the first billiard hall in Buenos Aires (opening in 1894), and is still going strong to this day. The upstairs area is an atmospheric cafe with plenty of dark wood on the walls, old clocks and billiard photographs. A small stage area is set up on the left-hand side, reserved for tango shows. It has a charm to it, past its hey-day yet still retaining charm and character.
None of this however, prepares you for what goes on downstairs, and has been going on for the last 118 years. The space is huge and is filled with tables, old men and the gentle clack of balls striking each other. There are no longer the eponymous 36, but I’m told they now have 9 billiard tables, 6 more for pool pool and 1 for snooker. Also gone are the card, dice and chess tables which used to take up half the space upstairs.
Simply ask the waiter for a table and he sets you up, starting the meter, which at the same time opens a small door releasing the cue ball which is then placed on the table – an ingenious system that’s clearly been around for a while as the meters (built in Paris) look like they were installed when the place opened. When you’re finished, the number of units shown on the meter is checked against a tarif sheet and you pay for the time played.
At 5pm on a Thursday afternoon the place was pretty full with the billiard tables being the busiest. Its clientele are, for the most part, elderly men who clearly spend a lot of time there. Around the walls are little lockers where the regulars keep their cues, and frequently the public phone would ring, answered by the barman who would then shout out the name of one of the customers who would take the call.
Hidden below the once-swanky Avenida de Mayo, 36 Billares feels like another world, a secret known only to a few who spend hours down there amongst friends, and have done so for years. Very little has changed in the last 100 years down in that basement and it doesn’t give the sensation that if the customers have anything to do with it that much will change over the next century.
36 Billares: Avenida de Mayo 1265
Subte: Saenz Peña, Line A
This page is part of a series examining the Notable Bars of Buenos Aires.