Serious monkey business – how a Buenos Aires bar developed the best service in the world

Sorrel Moseley-Williams - 12/09/2023

As part of the build-up to The World’s 50 Best Bars 2023 awards ceremony in Singapore on 17th October, the first accolade goes to Buenos Aires’ Tres Monos, which is recognised with the prestigious Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award. Sorrel Moseley-Williams speaks to the team about how they converted monkeying around into a benchmark for outstanding service

With discreet pink neon lights in the shape of three simians above the front door, the black-painted, two-storey corner building at the intersection of the Thames and Guatemala streets in the Palermo Soho district of Buenos Aires doesn’t give much away. It’s little wonder, given that the mantra at Tres Monos – its name meaning ‘three monkeys’ in Spanish – is based upon the Japanese proverb of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’. These wise yet loaded words have been attracting guests since the bar’s opening in June 2019.

At the same time, three has become a special number for the bar. The venue is the brainchild of young but expert bartenders Charly Aguinsky and Sebastián Atienza, who were soon joined by third partner Gustavo Vocke. Plus, Tres Monos is built around three key initiatives. “The bar is the most recognisable one, but there are also educational and consultancy pillars,” says Aguinsky. “And it’s long been said that, when you work behind a bar, you have to be like those three wise monkeys. That concept of service – and above all, sensitivity toward clients – is core to Tres Monos.”

Pulling in a diverse crowd eager to sample playful cocktails mixed behind the stick – where a cheeky middle finger illuminates the team – Tres Monos displays a free-spirited, almost nonchalant approach. Yet, the Monos’ penchant for monkeying around has always been mixed with a highly tuned attention to detail and a tireless pursuit of guests’ happiness.

Cheeky monkeys

Five years ago, when Aguinsky and Atienza – both former brand ambassadors – first threw around the idea of setting up a bar together, big bucks and speakeasy concepts dictated the direction of most Buenos Aires openings. These two monkeys, however, chose an intimate space in trendy Palermo Soho for just 35 guests.
Sebastián Atienza (left) and Charly Aguinsky founded Tres Monos in 2019

“We sank all our savings into opening the bar, without any investors, big budgets or brands behind it,” says Aguinsky, who holds a degree in business economics. “Seba [Atienza] and I were on the same page when it came to creating a concept: we didn’t want passwords or dress codes, and our place wouldn’t require membership to get in. It was the kind of bar that Buenos Aires needed at that time.”

Going against the flow paid off, their vision guided by heaps of attitude that led them towards graffiti-lined walls, low lighting and a Nirvana-esque soundtrack, yet combined with a genuine desire to reflect a sense of place and their ethos as bartenders.

At the same time, many offered them advice – says Aguinsky – that wasn’t exactly loaded with positivity. “When we told friends and colleagues about our idea, they said: ‘A small space won’t work, the bar has to be bigger,’ among other things. But we didn’t care what they said: we wanted to do it that way and we believed in it. Tres Monos is our reflection – it’s an attitude.”

This ‘don’t care’ school of thought isn’t applied universally, because the Monos do believe in the old adage that the client is always right and that service should go beyond excellence. “Hospitality lies in the smallest details – subtleties such as greetings, serving a glass of water and generating conversations, which are small but significant – and it works when you sincerely enjoy undertaking it with the goal of ensuring a guest’s happiness. Service can be copied; hospitality cannot,” says Atienza.
Tres Monos has become a standout of the Buenos Aires bar scene for its stellar service and inclusive philosophy

Aguinsky adds: “Hospitality is our main objective and the reason behind all our decisions. We believe that our point of difference is the closeness we have with people and the fact that we truly care about how they feel. Our amazing team has generated a community, which means Tres Monos has gone beyond being a business to become something highly approachable.” Those close relationships are also generated at Cacho Rotisería, the deli storefront to La Uat, the team’s party bar that’s also located on Calle Thames in Palermo.

Motivation and mise en place…

The team’s happiness is also key to successful hospitality, says bar manager Sofía Miró, who joined in 2021. “Motivation is very personal, and it means undertaking meticulous work with the team to understand the needs of each member and work with them to help meet their goals, which, of course, will change over time. It’s even more important that each person feels they are contributing to – and feels part of – the big picture.”

Working hard to keep the young group (average age: 23) motivated means they can continue to implement outstanding service, says head bartender Lucila Calichio, who at the tender age of 22, has already worked at Tres Monos since its second month of opening. “We hold regular training sessions and the way we work is demanding yet fair. We also listen to our guests to understand their needs and ensure that everyone feels welcome and comfortable. Our clients are loyal and come to the bar to relax, either on their own or as a group, any day of the week,” she says.
The Misticollins is created using sake made in-house by the Tres Monos team, alongside cucumber, brine and tonic

Service begins behind the scenes with mise en place led by Cande Vizcarra, who started as a runner four years ago and worked her way up to head of production. That might include fermenting koji rice for the Monos’ sake or preparing their own coffee liqueur. Once guests are seated at the bar, at a streetside table or in El Garage (the 2023 add-on space that boosts guest numbers by 50), a welcome shot of punch and a glass of water brings them into the inner circle.

Next is a brief assessment of the seasonal cocktail list, which changes every three to four months. Hits from the menu as of September 2023 include Misticollins, made with the Tres Monos’ own sake and London Dry gin, aloe vera, cucumber, brine and tonic water; and Fresco y Batata, made with whisky, Parmesan cheese, sweet potato jam and toasted walnuts.

Community focus

Education has also formed part of the Monos remit from day one, says Atienza. Besides creating a cocktail school above the Palermo-based establishment, they are also deeply involved in the local community. “Tres Monos Estudio was conceived at the same time as the bar and aims to share our experiences with our community comprising both colleagues and clients, so we can help our industry keep growing,” he says.

“Since 2021, we’ve been holding free cocktail and beverage workshops in Barrio Múgica [the former shanty town known as Villa 31]. The idea behind ​​this effort is to give opportunities to residents with few resources as part of a development and job induction programme, giving them tools for a better future within the bar industry.” To date, they have already employed a handful of graduates at Tres Monos.

Bringing the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award to Argentina means a lot for the team, as it’s a country that usually makes headlines for its economic and political instability. “Latin America stands out for its people’s hospitality, while the warmth of Argentines has always set us apart,” says Aguinsky. “People might forget what they had to drink, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. That was our primary goal – to make people feel welcome in every situation – and we’re extremely proud of what we’ve built.”

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The 15th edition of The World’s 50 Best Bars list, sponsored by Perrier, will be announced on Tuesday, 17th October 2023 in Singapore. To be the first to hear about the latest news and announcements, browse the website, follow us on Instagram, find us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.