It is an Italian word that means “winery”. If when you visit Buenos Aires and Argentina, somebody tells you about a “canteen”, he will be referring to a type of restaurant found everywhere that may also be called a “neighborhood restaurant”. They serve plentiful but basic and simple dishes.
A few details about the place, firstly the room: simply enormous, usually in an old building, preferably at a corner. The height of the ceiling would allow you to play basketball without any trouble but it is mostly used to hang old hams and to display endless shelves with kilometers of bottles of wine that must have surely gone sour. On the walls you will usually find photographs and souvenirs from other times.
The staff: crowds of waiters that actually push, shout and cry at each other. It will call your attention that the best canteens have “old waiters” that are an inherent part of the place, some of them are even seventy years old who know everybody and, especially the preferences of each customer. They are actual actors who perfectly perform their part, even their costumes may be surprising because in the same canteen, one waiter may wear jeans and a t-shirt, another one may wear trousers, white shirt and a bow. As in the Comedia dell´arte where each one has its own function according to the clothes.
The owner: (usually a woman), the canteen is always a family business upon the father’s death; it is the son who inherits the business and so on. He decides, and when I say “decide” I mean “takes decisions” about everything. It can be said that he comes after God. He makes the service order be respected in the kitchen, in the room, even among the “guests”. One does not go as a customer but you will eat because the owner accepts you. Many times “guests” are seen to be removed from a canteen for a word out of place or others are not allowed to go in by an old story. The owner is like an elephant, he has a very good memory!
The kitchen: we refer to a room that dates back to a long time where some ovens may have been changed in the last decades but usually the operations centers lays on the ancient grill greased by million sausages and steaks. The kitchen, as the main room, deserves a photograph!
The dish: you shouldn’t look for refined or exotic dishes but for plentiful and simple dishes of the porteña cuisine: meat, salad, pasta, sausages, barbecue, and omelets of any kind. Drinks: el vino de la casa or cheap wine. You will rarely find that they offer half a bottle; in fact it could be lack of elegance to order it as you go to these places with friends of family to celebrate. Thus, I’d rather look for 5-liter bottles if they existed! You will see that the size of the bottles of water and soda can hold a liter and a half!