A subject we often explore is the beauty of tango and its importance as Argentina’s cultural contribution to the world. There are lots of places in Buenos Aires to sit and enjoy the sensuality of tango. Many of these “tango houses” operate under the dinner show concept, but one had to be the pioneer. El Viejo Almacén (“The Old Warehouse”) is credited with introducing this type of show 50 years ago and continues to celebrate tango to this day.
A Historic Building
El Viejo Almacén began in the San Telmo neighborhood, a short distance from La Boca, the birthplace of tango. Its location, as well as the musical style relatged to it, are both an integral part of the history of the city of Buenos Aires. The building dates back to 1769, back when it served as a field warehouse. During the 1840s it housed the first British Hospital in Argentina, where the first ether-assisted medical intervention in the country was performed.
The warehouse was a refuge for wounded or afflicted combatants during the Paraguay war, as well as an asylum for the sick during the yellow fever epidemic. At the end of the 19th century it had served as a brothel, a tenement with a bar and a general store until 1900, when it was opened as a Russian restaurant and presented its first musical performances.
Tangueros Arrive at El Viejo Almacén
The store opened its doors as El Viejo Almacén in 1969 at the hands of its founder, Leonel Edmundo “El Feo” Rivero. A renowned tango singer, he christened his business in honor of the song Sentimiento Gaucho by Juan Caruso, Francisco and Rafael Canaro. Specifically the first lyric that translates to: “In an old warehouse on Paseo Colón where those who have lost their faith go.” Rivero conceptualized this corner as a tango cabaret where his friends and musicians could hang out, as well as perform.
During its golden era, tango luminaries turned El Viejo Almacén into their hangout. Performers there included Aníbal Troilo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Roberto “El Polaco” Goyeneche, Leopoldo Federico, Virginia Luque and dancer Víctor Ayos (whose ashes are still kept inside the place).
Tango’s seductive charm – via its movements, notes and verses – attracted more than musicians to El Viejo Almacén. The venue gained popularity among tango lovers, who organically motivated Rivero to serve dinner alongside the show. Celebrities and dignitaries from around the world have visited, including actress Gina Lollobrigida, singer Josephine Baker, writer Julio Cortázar, race car driver Juan Manuel Fangio, as well as Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía.
Like the lyrics of a tango song, not everything is rosy in the tale of El Viejo Almacén. The expansion of the city of Buenos Aires and its roadways pushed members of the government to plan the demolition of the old premises. Many opposed, including renowned writer Ernesto Sábato, which prevented the structure from being completely torn down.
To guarantee its permanence, the Honorable Deliberative Council of the City of Buenos Aires declared El Viejo Almacén’s headquarters as a Cultural Interest Site. In 1988, Correo Argentino commemorated El Viejo Almacén with a postage stamp as part of its “Sites and Monuments” series.
These initiatives, however, did little to save El Viejo Almacén after the death of its founder. In 1993 Rivero’s son closed the business due to financial troubles. Fortunately a businessman, Luis Veiga, acquired the property three years later and revitalized the historic cabaret to its former glory.
Spaces for Every Taste
El Viejo Almacén consists of two buildings split up by Balcarce Street. One houses the Tanguería, the tango show stage, open every night of the year at 10:00pm Argentine time.
The second houses three restaurant floors, also available for social and corporate events. On the ground floor lies the Lobby Bar, a less formal area with capacity for 50 guests, decorated with tango books and objects from yesteryear, such as a colorful antique record player.
On the first floor you can find Mi Buenos Aires Querido, a spacious living room with original Pinotea floor and exposed brick walls. This space accommodates 145 people for lunch or dinner. On the second level is Bandoneón, El Viejo Almacén’s most versatile area with its small stage, dance floor and bar. Imperial tables, sofas, an auditorium, a school and a “U” shaped table are available here for events, depending on the customer’s needs.
The most peculiar space, apart from the main stage, is the Mirador. Dinner is served there among decorations with canvas walls, a ruby armchair and a stained glass window with an image of El Viejo Almacén’s façade. The Mirador also has a balcony terrace to enjoy the night in San Telmo.
Dinner Show Packages
There are four packages available for El Nuevo Almacén customers. The Cena Show Tradicional at Mi Buenos Aires Querido includes a balanced menu and up to two drinks during the presentation, while the Cena Show VIP t the Mirador includes a menu with more options, preferred seating and unlimited drinks during the show.
For those who just want to enjoy the the music, the Show Tradicional gets them up to two drinks while the Show VIP has unlimited drinks and preferred seating.
Long Live the Crooners
One of El Viejo Almacén’s great charms are its vocalists. More than ordinary singers, both Hugo Marcel and Rosana “Roxana” Fontán are authentic tango crooners. When they take the microphone “you feel like you’ve gone back in time 50 years,” explains Viviana Gigante, customer service manager at El Viejo Almacén.
Marcel trained from the age of 13 in Osvaldo Fresedo’s orchestra. He was a star of Argentine cinema and television, especially during his tenure in the Grandes Valores del Tango TV show.
Fontán also forged herself from a very young age along traditional singers such as Alberto Podesta and El Polaco Goyeneche. Among her achievements, Fontán participated in Spanish director Carlos Saura’s Tango, an enigmatic film nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1978.
The singers and dancers are backed up by a musical quintet directed by Fernando Marsans. In addition, the show features the participation of Grupo Los Lamas, an Andes folk music band.
Walk the Streets of the Past
Apart from its shows and its spaces, El Viejo Almacén has another way to transport you to the past. Buenos Aires Antiguo is an open-air show that recreates the city of yesteryear. Actors dressed in period costumes occupy Balcarce Street between the buildings of El Viejo Almacén. There they perform as iconic characters from the 1940s with period vehicles and decor.
The performers in this original production welcome visitors with cocktails and snacks. After their artsy presentation, they take the guests to a gala dinner, followed by an exclusive tango show.
El Viejo Almacén’s Tango Tradition
You can find tango shows in Buenos Aires with all kinds of acrobatics and dazzling performances. What makes El Viejo Almacén stand out from the crowd is their attachment to tradition. The venue maintains is original cabaret atmosphere with a horseshoe balcony, just like when Edmundo Rivero founded the place. The show itself is not stuck in the past, as it features professional dancers, modern lighting and plenty of variety. However, it does adhere to the themes, values and majesty of classic tango.
Sentimiento Gaucho, the song that inspired El Viejo Almacén’s name, is about a drunkard abandoned by his love. Despite feeling betrayed and wanting never to see her again, he wishes her well and would forgive her if she returned. Like tango, El Viejo Almacén always brought together similar characters – free spirits, in pain, searching for redemption – and continues to give them a voice today.
“In Buenos Aires you will find many places where the lack of information is the charm,” Viviana Gigante says. “It’s all ‘word of mouth’. People look for the most private, most authentic thing.” Even after celebrating its 50th anniversary, El Viejo Almacén fans quietly promote it as the best kept secret in the city. A secret worth unraveling and enjoying.
Where to Find It
Balcarce 799 esquina Independencia, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
+54 11 4307-7388 • +54 11 4307-6689