Uruguay has a rich culture and learning about the music and food of Uruguay in Montevideo is one of the most enjoyable parts of any trip to Uruguay. The music, like the food, shows influences from other cultures. And while it has some commonalities with neighboring Argentina, it also has a vibe all its own.
Montevideo has its own foodie revolution going on and there are some great places to eat. We were very pleasantly surprised by both the quality and the variety of the cuisine available in Montevideo. And also a welcome surprise, there is a lot more variety than just asado (grilled meats). With only 1.3 million or so people, this friendly city offers a fantastic opportunity to explore the music and food of Uruguay.
And we have our first video on Compass & Fork in this post. Keep reading and you can learn, see and hear the candombe music from the streets of Montevideo.
Dance and Music of Uruguay: Candombe and Tango
Music and dance are essential parts of understanding the culture of Uruguay. Tango and candombe are the two you will probably see most often in Montevideo.
Tango in Montevideo
As in Buenos Aires, tango music dancing is a large part of the local culture. There are bars and tango shows throughout the city. The size and cost of the venue varies but you can definitely find something to fit your tastes and budget.
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If you would like some tango music to take home with you, both Puro Versa Bookshop and the gift shop at Teatro Solis have a great selection of CD’s (both mentioned below).
Ah candombe! (Pronounced can-dome-bey) I’d never heard of it before we arrived in Montevideo and probably could have left knowing little about it except for a chance encounter. I was wondering around by myself one hot afternoon and I was reading the sign on a jazz bar near our apartment. We had decided we wanted to go and I was trying to work out when it was open (as it always seemed closed).
An older gentleman saw me reading it and asked some innocuous question. After asking where I was from, he realized I spoke English, and thankfully switched to fluent English. This led to a conversation about candombe. He lived in a house with members of one of the local candombe troops or cuerdas. It was a bit of a “club” or museum of sorts.
What is Candombe?
At this point you are probably wondering what is candombe? Drumming actually. A Uruguayan style of drumming that has been heavily influenced by their African heritage. Many Africans were brought to South America (and the Caribbean as slaves) by the Spanish. It is a moving drumming troop called a cuerda. A cuerda consists of 50 members. The local cuerdas compete against each other during carnival.
To make a bit of a long story short I ended up going with him to learn more about it. (All the while thinking Mark will think I have gotten lost somewhere, but couldn’t call as I had no phone!) I later returned on a Sunday evening with Mark to watch them practice. Candombe is an important part of the Uruguay culture and you can often hear the drum practice from the Rambla. It is also an important part of the Carnival season each year. It is common in the Barrio Sur and Palermo neighborhoods.
It is not uncommon to see and hear the cuerdas moving through the streets drumming. Many people will join in and follow along dancing and enjoying the rhythms. I am not sure if it was because we were there in the summer and near the start of Carnival season or if this happens all year round.
Later we were fortunate to see a performance in front of Teatro Solis for some visiting dignitaries. Watch this video to see it for yourself!
Carnival in Uruguay
And that brings us to Carnival. Uruguay has one of the longest-lasting Carnivals in the world. It usually begins in late January and runs almost 2 full months until the end of Lent. It is much more family-friendly and low key than the more famous and glitzy Carnival in Rio.
If you would like to learn more about it, there is a Museo de Carnival near the port in La Cuidad Vieja. You can see many of the costumes and watch videos of previous years. You can learn more about the role candombe plays in the carnival as well.
The main performing arts theater in Montevideo, Teatro Solis, is over 150 years old. You can take a tour of the theater or go to see a performance. Tickets are on sale at the theater. It is a rather small theater but very nicely done. We also recommend the restaurant at the theater, on the left in the above picture.
The Candombe video also took place in front of the Teatro Solis.
Tasting the Wine and Food of Uruguay in Montevideo
Like the dance and music of Uruguay, wine and food are essentials parts of the culture. And for the visitor tasting the food of Uruguay in Montevideo is a highlight of any trip there. Here we share some of the places we discovered in Montevideo. An upcoming recipe and post about wine will explore the food of Uruguay further.
Places to Eat in Montevideo
Cafes in La Cuidad Vieja
La Cuidad Vieja (the Old City) has a number of trendy cafes that feature not only local specialties but also cuisines from around the world. Jacinto and Estrecho, both located on Peatonal Sarandi (the pedestrian street) are great for a delicious lunch. Both are a modern, fusion interpretation of the food of Uruguay, which Montevideo does very well.
Puro Verso (PV) Restaurante Lounge is located on the second floor of the Puro Verso bookstore. It too is on Peatonal Sarandi, near the city gate end. It has a great atmosphere and the food and service are both good. It features a 3 course menu del dia (menu of the day) which was very reasonably priced. The menu del dia provides a great opportunity to try several things and increase your exposure to the food of Uruguay.
Mercado del Puerto
It is a must to eat at Mercado del Puerto (the market at the port) and we will give you our favorite restaurant recommendation and a recipe in an upcoming post. It’s worth checking when there are cruise ships in the harbor as it is very busy on those days.
Honestly this place has to be seen to be believed! It is unique to Montevideo and a highlight of eating the food of Uruguay. This is asado or BBQ heaven!
Rara Avis at Teatro Solis
Looking for a great place for a special occasion or more formal setting? Rara Avis at Teatro Solis is a good choice. Prices are the same at lunch or dinner. Dinner is often served accompanied by live music on the grand piano. The service and meals are excellent and the wine list is extensive.
We started with a sample platter as our appetizer. It included octopus, shrimp, lamb and sweetbreads. It was all excellent and quite a generous serving, it could easily serve four. Main courses were a trio of fish and a rack of lamb. Again both were excellent. And unable to make up our minds we had the sampler of desserts. This way we tasted four of their beautiful desserts.
Cubiertos included a light sample of four items: goat’s cheese, camembert, terrine and avocado spread served on small bread crisps. Cubiertos, a service charge, is quite common both in Uruguay and Argentina (also in Italy under a different name). It also usually included small appetizers or tasting platters. The size of the food served varies with the cost of the cubiertos, and in some cases includes nothing. (The cost is usually listed on the menu somewhere.) It’s automatically added to your check. It goes to the restaurant not the server. If you tip, (and tipping is not required) 10% is usual if you received good service.
Rara Avis is consistently rated one of the best restaurants in Montevideo and an opportunity to experience fine dining and try some excellent food of Uruguay.
Wine Tasting in Montevideo
Uruguay is the fourth largest wine producer in South America! Tannat is Uruguay’s most famous wine (and the grape) for which Uruguay is famous. Much like Argentina has the Malbec and Chile the Carmenaire, Tannat is Uruguay’s bold red wine. It is high in tannins and pairs well with red meat.
Production has been increasing over the last decade and therefore exports are also increasing. If you have a good wine shop near you take a look, especially if they have a good South American selection. We found some excellent Tannats at a local wine store in Denver (Argonauts) in case you live there.
For a chance to try all of the local wines without heading out of town on a winery tour, you can visit Esencia Uruguay, the wine shop on Peatonal Sarandi 359. They offer very reasonably priced wine tastings with cheese or other small bites. They have some fantastic local wines, some you won’t find in the local Uruguay wine shops as they are more boutique and in some cases expensive (by local standards). Uruguayan wine is fantastic, of great quality and very reasonably priced by global standards. We will talk a bit more about Uruguayan wines in a future post when we visit La Bodega Bouza, a local winery about 20 minutes outside of Montevideo. (Stay tuned it is a highlight!)
To learn more about the culture and food of Uruguay, you might enjoy our other Uruguay content, including The Chivito Steak Sandwich is a Classic You Will Love
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