Spaniards are so keen to live in the present that they seem to look back on the past with a kind of mild disdain. Things have calmed down a little since Pedro Almodovar proclaimed his desire to be the ‘most modern person in Madrid’. Yet 30 years later there is still a sense that the new and up-to-date is something devoutly to be wished, while the old-fashioned is tedious and faintly embarrassing. Not any more. If you want to really have a great time and great taste of Madrid you have to visit tapas bars.
Paradoxically, Madrid is one of the European capitals that has (so far) remained truest to its roots. To walk the streets of the city’ central neighborhoods is a safari into a century or more of popular history. Traditional taverns and eating houses, their antique decor (and, often, their antique staff and clientele) remarkably intact, are still serving up the midday glass of vermouth, the tapas and the plates of simple food to a loyal crowd of regulars.
Independent businesses of all sorts. From perfumeries to coal merchants. Dating back 50, 100 or 150 years, are still trading, despite the twin pressures of fierce competition and pitiless speculation.
Madrid – Un Pueblo
For the sake of convenience. Madrid’s central barrios can be divided up into the area south of the Gran Via – which includes Los Austria the 16th-century heart of the old city, the market zone of the Rastro and scruffy-chic Lavapies – and the part immediately north of Gran Via. Running from Malasana in the west to Chueca.
Trendiest of the old-town neighborhoods. It is easy enough to see from a street map where the ‘old bit’ begins and ends: where the 19th century drew a grid of neat blocks, with wide avenues running north-south and east-west, earlier centuries left an inchoate jumble of narrow streets and houses that burgeoned organically to fill the gap around convents, palaces and churches.
The city of Madrid is often described affectionately as un pueblo (a village) and there are times when the city center feels almost literally village-like. Traffic, the scourge of the new Madrid is less of a problem in the old. To have a house in one of the streets around the Plaza Mayor, or even on the great square itself, is a privilege granted only to those with money, luck, or a rental contract dating back to the Civil War.
Late at night, when the tourists have gone and the bars have packed up their tables, the Plaza Mayor becomes a kind of park, a space for locals to stretch their legs and breathe the clean night air. Empty yet somehow intimate, the square feels like a drawing-room where a party has taken place and all the tiresome guests have finally left.
Calle Mayor, with the Palacio Real at one end and Puerta del Sol at the other, may feel a little like a tourist rat-run, but the mass of narrow streets on either side are a hive of authenticity. Dive into the alleyways running north towards the opera house, and you are right at the core of medieval Madrid.
Here you’ll see the 12th-century San Nicolas de los Servitas, a kind of parish church famous for its Moorish beamed roof and barely converted minaret. Look up at the roofs and balconies as the city’s piercing light catches the subtle colors that dare you to call them dreary: tones of faded ochre, ashen gray and the dusty red of aged brickwork.
Like any other European city you care to name, Madrid is keen for us to visit its minimalist bars. its state-of-the-art hotels, and its restaurants where the food is as chic and challenging as the furniture, but it can be rewarding to et all this novelty to one side and embark on an in-depth exploration of old Madrid ‘s highways and byways, concentrating on the tabernas, the casas de comida (eating houses) and the old curiosity shops of the historic center.
What with soaring house prices, immigration and a fast-changing life style that favors the hypermarket cart over the wicker shopping basket, Madrid’s inner-city heartland is feeling the pinch. It is worth catching the traditional shops, in particular, before they vanish under the hammer.
Places such as the little pasteleria El Riojano on Calle Mayor, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, and Martinez on Calle Postas, purveyors of glues, paints and essences, which was founded in 1888 and still has ranks of drawers containing mysterious substances such as sangre de drago (‘dragon’s blood’) and negro animal (‘animal black’).
The shops around the Plaza Mayor do better than most. How the neighborhood manages to support so many specialists in priestly robes, plaster-of-Paris virgins and other Catholic knick-knacks is something of a mystery. At least the wool store El Gato Negro (‘the black cat’) still does good business with the older women of the barrio, many of whose apartments have no central heating, and the frilly Spanish shawls at Bordados Borca are, luckily, irresistible to tourists.
For a truer sense of Madrid retail at its traditional best, there is more going on in the Comendadoras area, up by the Centro Cultural Conde Duque, where guitar-makers and artisan workshops jostle with old-fashioned grocery shops and builders’ merchants. Antigua Casa Crespo, an antediluvian shop with blackened wooden shelve around the walls. Sells nothing but hand-made espadrilles and is worth the detour in its own right.
The Spanish phrase de toda Ia vida, meaning something like “it’s been around for” might well be applied to the city’s typical tabernas, of which some 30 or 40 are still functioning in more or less their original form. With their solid zinc bar-tops and aluminum soda siphons, their crusty old barrels and terracotta vats and their signed photographs of matadors and Spanish film stars. they have more than a touch of the museum about them.
The oldest have showy facades painted with fruits and flowers. flamenco dancers or picturesque scenes of rural life, and interiors often sumptuously decorated either with wall tiles in geometric patterns, Andalucian style, or with painted views of vineyards and mountains or historical scenes.
Los Gabrieles, the famous tavern on Calle Echegaray near the Plaza de Santa Ana. Though spoiled by its attempts to attract the youth (loud music, modern furniture, touristy flamenco shows and designer tapas). Still boasts its original tiled frescoes of 1907. Don’t miss the inner salon with its ironic representation of a palatial dining room.
It is a rich heritage, but also a fragile one. Beginning my tour at the Plaza Mayor on a bright winter morning. I was alarmed to see that El Pulpito, an eating house dating from 1774, was in the process of conversion.
Los Galayos, another ancient watering-hole just off the square, had become a tourist parody of itself, with badly translated menus and ghastly photographs of its popular dishes. It was a depressing start, but things soon began to look up. Casa Antonio in Calle Latoneros, around the corner from the Plaza Mayor, has been functioning since 1890 and is still on fighting form.
The decor – colored azulejo tiles, furniture lacquered with years of use and coats of varnish, slatted benches around the walls – is as unchanging as the lottery seller who wanders in to try his luck with the customers. A girl and her friend grabbed the window table and sat nursing their glasses of beer, warming their faces in the winter sun.
I ordered a foaming Mahou. Madrid’s local beer, along with a tapas of pungent Cabrales cheese with a couple of juicy fillets of anchovy on toast.
A quick drink and a nibble of something savory, and the madrileno punter is ready to move on – perhaps to Bodegas Ricla on Calle Cuchilleros, a hole-in-the-wall bar dating from 1910, or to nearby Casa Revuelta on Calle Latoneros, where the tapas specialities are deep-fried chunks of cod, salty pancetta and big green olives. At the bar stands a group of elderly men with their midday chato (a small, chunky glass) of thin red wine. The beams and central wooden column betray an establishment with many years of life behind it, even if the 1970s bathroom tiles rather spoil the effect.
Breakfast in Madrid
Under waves of incomers. To the right is La Latina. whose hundreds of bars draw huge crowds at midday for tapas and at night for drinks. Music and hanging out. To the left is Lavapies, now home to an ensalada mixata of Ecuadorians, Colombians, Chinese, Moroccans and Romanians plus a good sprinkling of artistic types for whom this is the last central barrio where rents are halfway affordable.
Carry on walking down Calle Toledo. Past the big gray basilica of San Isidro that was Madrid’s cathedral before they built the big, gray modern one up by the Palacio Real, and you soon hit the fringes of the Rastro, whose famous Sunday street market encapsulates the rough-and-ready charm of old Madrid.
On a Sunday morning in the Rastro there are certain rituals that come with the territory. If you have been out late, which in Madrid means till early in the morning, you might have started the day with a thick hot chocolate and crisp fried churros. Pick up a paper. Spend the morning mooching over coffee, and before you know it it’s that time again: the aperitif hour.
Start perhaps at Vinos 11, a superb old tavern where you will see a good collection of castizo gents. Possibly the last such concentration of a species on the verge of extinction, supping their midday vermouths along with a plate of cecina (air-dried beef) or tuna in olive oil.
From here you might swing westwards toward the cathedral of Madrid bars, the marvelous Taberna de Antonio Sanchez in Calle Meson de Parede. The taberna has been running since at least the early 19th century, and from 1884 until1979 was managed by just three people: Antonio Sanchez Ruiz, a wine merchant, his son Antonio, a bullfighter who was gored in the ring no less than 20 time , and the bullfighter’s sister Lola.
It i a darkly paneled and slightly spooky place, with bulls’ heads on the walls and a menu featuring most of the foods that madrilenos love, from snails and huevos estrellados (fried egg and potatoes) to slithery tripe a La madrilena.
It is hard to put into word the atmosphere of a Madrid taberna in full swing, except to say that it can be pretty full-on. Of all the been-there-for-ever places in the old town there is one that always sends me into raptures, though it’s not easy to say exactly why.
Casa Amadeo on the Plaza de Cascorro at the heart of the Rastro is not much to look at, and the rabbit warren at the back of the shop, with its kitsch ‘salon’ in which to take refuge when the going gets tough on a busy Sunday lunchtime, comes perilously close to sleaze, but the atmosphere in here is fantastic, and there is something endearing about the way the boss-man shouts at you amiably a you walk through the door, making sure you are set up nicely with your beers, your glasses of wine, and your delicious tapas of patatas bravos, morcilla with fried red peppers or the house speciality and one of the favorite dishes of old Madrid, caracoles (fat snails stewed in a rich and piquant sauce), all served up with the kind of briskness that comes with half a century of constant repetition.
Eating and drinking in Madrid is a matter of feeling the rhythm. There comes a moment in the course of the pre-lunch tapas crawl when the company asks itself, either aloud or silently, whether it might not be time for something more real, preferably served on plates and at a table. At a moment like this a traditional casa de comida might come in handy.
The casas de comida are more or less unpretentious eating houses where for a few dozen euros you can eat your fill of down-home dishes such as macarrones (pasta with meat and tomato sauce), albondigas (meatballs) and arroz con leche (rice pudding). If the aperitivo round has taken you to Chueca, the place to head for might be the much-loved Tienda de Vinos, locally known as El Comunista after its left-wing clientele during the 1970s, where the De Miguel family has been running the show since 1888.
If you happen to be around La Latina, on the other hand, there are few better options for lunch than Viuda de Vacas, a creaky and colorful century-old taberna. The home cooking here tends towards hardcore specialities such as rabo de taro (oxtail stew) and besugo al horno, Madrid’s signature fish dish of whole bream baked in the oven on a bed of sliced potatoe.
Spanish food, a magnet for culinary modernists
Depending on the time of day, the degree of hunger felt and the ambient temperature, another possibility remains to be considered. Cocido madrileno, a fearsome all in stew of chickpea, vegetables and various cuts of meat.
Innumerable restaurants serve Madrid’s most famous dish, but for the authentic, long-simmered version, ideally cooked for five or six hours in a terracotta pot over a wood tire, head for a specialist such as Malacatfn (Calle Ruda 5) or La Bola (Calle Bola 5). Anywhere that has prepared cocidos since 1873 ought to know what it’s doing by now.
Here is the perfect antidote to the foams and sprays that have turned Spanish food into a magnet for culinary modernists the world over. First comes the soup, in which are served threads of pasta called fideos. Filling enough in itself, this is followed by the chickpeas and vegetables, and then the meat: a heaped platter of boiled beef, chicken, salt pork, chorizo, morcilla and as often as not a meatball with bacon, breadcrumb, garlic, egg, and parsley.
Properly made, there is nothing more satisfying than an old-fashioned cocido with all the trimmings. Properly eaten, it has to be aid, there is nothing more guaranteed to send you tottering into the street, eyes glazed from the brutal onslaught on a digestive system used to lighter, modern fare.
After a good cocido, you might like to see another custom typical of old Madrid, rapidly falling into disuse with the newfangled fashion for working in the afternoon. It’s de toda La vida, it’s thoroughly traditional, and it’s called the siesta.
The list of traditional Madrid restaurants and bars
This little~known bar behind Atocha station is a historic gem with superb azulejo tiling on the façade and vermouth on tap. Calle General Lacy 14
Caracoles (snails) are the thing at this busy Rastro bar, to be washed down with a glass of beer. Plaza de Cascorro 18
Avoid the tourist traps of the Plaza Mayor and make for this lovable old bar instead. Notably good tapas. Calle Latoneros 10
The Camacho family bar attracts old~school vermouth~sippers with pickled anchovies and olives to nibble on. Calle San Andres 4
Handy for the Puerta del Sol. this venerable bar makes a speciality of bacalao rebozado: chunks of cod in a superbly crisp batter. Calle Tetuan 12
Taberna Angel Sierra
This Chueca classic is a temple of the traditional Madrid aperitifs. Vermouth is served from the barrel along with a range of piquant edibles including anchovies, olives and marinated tuna. Calle Gravina 11
Taberna de Antonio Sanchez
The cathedral. Wood paneled, austere and utterly authentic. Calle Meson de Paredes 13
Decorated in the Andalucian style La Trucha is one of the best places in Madrid for fried fish. Calle Manuel Fernandez y Gonzalez 3
Ancient and gloomy. This wonderful old bar serves fino sherry with tapas of cheese lomo (cured pork loin) and mojama (air-dried tuna). Calle Echegaray 7
The Rastro district wouldn’t be complete without this exemplary tavern. Check out the zinc bar and gas lamps. Calle Calatrava 11
Cheerful place dating from 1897. Bullfighting fans will recognize the pictures of Manolete and Belmonte who if they didn’t eat here might as well have done. Calle Mayor 84
Casa Mingo stands beside the hermitage of San Antonio de Florida with its famous Goya frescoes. Founded in 1888. It is an Asturian cider house specialising in roast chicken. Cabrales cheese and grilled chorizo. Paseo de Ia Florida 34
A little out-of-the-way but well worth the effort. this modest eating house serves excellent Spanish home cooking. Calle Fernando el Catolico 31
The legend on the tiled shop front translates as: ‘To Eat Well and Cheaply. San Millan 4’. This splendid tavern of 1857 has recently been well restored. Calle San Millan 4
Home style Basque food in an original and lovely tavern. Founded more than 150 years ago. Calle Libertad 16
Tienda de Vinos
Used to be wine shop, but now an eating house. Somehow remains afloat on Chueca’s ocean of designer restaurants and gay bars. Retro heaven, with plastic tablecloths and Duralex glasses. Calle Augusto Figueroa 35
Viuda de Vacas
The Cavas – Alta and Baja – have boomed in recent years. With tapas bars and restaurants galore. This is one of the original and best. Calle Cava Alta 23
Traditional Madrid Food
Bacalao rebozado – Battered cod chunks
Besugo a Ia madrileila – Baked sea bream
Bocata’ de calamares – Doorstep sandwich of fried squid rings
Callos a Ia madrileila – Tripe in a tomato, onion and garlic sauce
Caracoles – Snails in a rich hot sauce
Churros con chocolate – Fried tubes of batter dipped into a thick drinking chocolate
Cocido madrileilo – Traditional stew with meat and chickpeas
Croquetas croquettes – Often made with leftover meat from the cocido Escabeche mild vinegar~and~spice pickle. most commonly applied to tuna. rabbit and partridge
Gallina en pepitoria – Casserole of hen with saffron and ground almonds Morcilla blood sausage
Patatas bravas – Fried potato wedges with a spicy sauce
Torreznos – Crisp grilled pancetta
Torrijas – Madrid’s most typical dessert: bread slices soaked in egg and milk. fried in olive oil with honey and cinnamon
Tortilla de patatas – Potato omelette