The spiritual centre of Madrid and the thick of the tourist hubbub. The area around Sol is swamped with restaurants and bars – both good and bad, but often average. A bit of inside knowledge is a big help when separating the wheat from the chaff. Prefer to be led by a tapas expert? Check out my food and tapas tours at www.devourmadridfoodtours.com.
LA CASA DEL ABUELO
Old mirror and tile-lined taberna serving the best ‘gambas al ajillo’ in Madrid (as far as I know)
A stone’s throw from Puerta del Sol, this bar has been around – so the ageing photos of long-dead waiters attest – for over a century. The menu is short and centres around various ways of doing gambas (shrimps) and langostinos (king prawns). But most come for one thing – gambas al ajillo. Castillian food can be a little tame at times, but with these shrimps flash-fried in garlic and chilli, all is forgiven. At €9.90 the dish is a little steep, but it’s one of the best food experiences in the city. Get one plate between two and it’s ok to ask for more (free) bread to sop up the garlickly juice. They do their own sweet house wine, but I always lean towards the spicy vermouth on tap, or a frothy caña. Note: they’ve opened a new annex opposite – but make sure you go into the original bar (with the big window).
Family photos and earthenware wine jugs line this cramped, antiquated and atmospheric tasca
Over a century old, this tiny tasca in the heart of old Madrid is among my favourites. Family owned (brothers Emilio and José Antonio run the bar while mum Anna prepares the food), it’s one of the few gems in an area overrun by the tourist trade. Drink the spicy vermouth on tap or wine from the regularly rotating and well-thought-out list. The chow specialties are fat, fresh boquerones (white anchovies) in vinegar, garlic and parsley or, if you’re up for it, callos a la madrileña (tripe stew – the classic Madrid dish). They also serve excellent canapés (toppings on bread), including a stellar cabrales a la sidra (blue Cabrales cheese whipped with cider) and excellent bacalao. While you’re sipping and supping, check out the faded photo of young Anna on the wall and compare it to the staunch Castillian woman who – 30 years later – is still shutting between kitchen and bar. And here’s one for my fellow history geeks – during the civil war, the wine cellar under the bar was used as a bomb shelter by people in the neighbourhood.
Calle de los Cuchilleros, 6 28005
913 65 20 69
Small, loud and hectic bar serving the best bacalao (deep-fried cod) in the city
Crunchy, salty and moist – Casa Revuelta does the best bacalao I’ve eaten in Madrid. This brightly-lit no-frills bar – 120 years old, 50 of those serving cod – is a Madrid institution, so it’ll likely be cheek-by-jowl. Everyone orders the same thing (the generously-sized cod tapa is €2.60), so push past the stomachs, shunt up to the bar and follow suit. There’s beer on tap but if you’re after wine, the only choice is a rather rough Valdepeñas (a variety from Castilla La Mancha). Just ask for vino tinto or vino blanco – they only do one of each (memorably served from large jugs). As an aside, I think the bacalao here is far superior to that served in Madrid’s other famous cod place, Casa Labra.
Calle de Latoneros, 3 28005
913 663 332
Modern Spanish dishes at an excellent price
Hidden behind the forever-logjammed Mercado de San Miguel, Emma Cocina is a place Madrid locals rave about, but few tourists visit. It’s not my favourite restaurant in the city, but the price to quality ratio is high and if you’re after some light, modern Spanish cuisine for a song, then it’s a good bet. To avoid confusion, there are two Emma places owned by the same woman (yep, Emma) and almost alongside each other – Según Emma (more of a bar, see the DRINK section of this page) and Emma Cocina (more of a restaurant). Choose depending on the vibe you’re after – the menus overlap, with some differences. The website doesn’t show prices, but last time my wife Yoly and I went, we ate and paid thus: a large plate of delicious baby potatoes with mojo picón (a spicy Canarian sauce), a large plate of eggplant Cordoba-style (deep fried, with honey and sesame seeds), two (very generous) tapas: fall-off-the-bone bull’s tail stew and ceviche, plus two beers and four glasses of a local Madrid red. Only €36.
TAQUERÍA MI CIUDAD
Hole-in-the-wall Mexican food, also serving margaritas and tequila
Spain isn’t known for its Mexican food. Funny that. Taquería Mi Ciudad then, is an unlikely find. But a find it is. The menu, short and spicy, consists of not much more than eight of the most glorious soft-shelled tacos this side of anywhere. And within that warm tortilla is everything that Mexican food so often promises, but so rarely delivers. The flavours are simple but rich and spiky, and haven’t been watered down for the scaredy-cat Spanish palette. There’s old favourites like shredded chicken with tomato, onion and chipotle chile and unexpected turns, like shredded pork prepared with axiote and a touch of bitter orange. With most priced at €1.5 each, three is a snack and six a cheap dinner. Drink-wise, there’s local beer on tap and Mexican by the bottle but do yourself a favour and ask the nice man to mix you a margarita.
It’s hard to hate the San Miguel market. Madrid’s iron and glass gourmet food temple (or gourmet food-court, as my friend Lauren Aloise correctly labels it), is pretty, frothy and serves excellent food and drink. But it’s also impersonal, rushed and expensive. Lucky then for Bar Cerveriz, which is just an overpriced olive pit’s throw away from the market entrance. There, under a unflattering canopy of fluorescent light, and alongside a blue-overalled labourer knocking back an after-work cafe con leche, you’ll experience a true Madrid bar de la vieja escuela. It’s one of those atmospheric taverns – Madrid has them in spades – where the clock stopped in 1950. Too often though, such places, despite their charm, are let down by bad food and rough wine. Not here. Carlos, the rosy-cheeked Galician proprietor, keeps a fine selection of Spanish plonk and cooks all the food – classic tapas and raciones – himself. In fact, many of the dishes are “a mi manera”, i.e. à la Carlos. We ate nutty manchego, an earthy caldo gallego (Galician broth) and tortilla de patata that was right on the button – both firm and moist, and with a sharp onion hit. And as we settled the bill, Carlos (who’s a wine lover, but not a wine bore) produced an unlabelled bottle from his private collection. Made from his own grapes up north, he poured us each a glass (as well as a tipple for himself). It was a curious and coarse drop that – while nothing Carlos could actually sell – tasted all the richer for knowing its provenance and for the big-hearted Madrilenian hospitality it embodied.
Plaza San Miguel, 2, 28005
915 59 67 67
LA CASA DE LAS TORRIJAS
A tumbledown slice of old Madrid so close – and yet so far – from Puerta del Sol
I stumbled across this moth-eaten old bar while wandering the tangle of streets behind Puerta del Sol. It’s just round the corner from the madding Sol melee, and yet, tucked down a little lane, La Casa de las Torrijas goes unnoticed. The shabby barroom – lined with bullfighting posters, vibrant tiles and a big, old aluminium bar – is a 100-year time-warp. The specialty is torrijas, a fried bread dish (soaked in wine, lemon, sugar and spices) normally served at Easter. Here they make and sell dozens everyday (€1.30 each) and have been – a sign proclaims – for over a century. To accompany, get a small tumbler of the well-aged and tremendously throaty house wine (€1.20), which is made from raisins. Also, expect gruff service from the funny old chap behind the bar.
Calle de la Paz, 4 28012 Madrid
+34 915 32 14 73
CAFE EL FRONTÓN
Refurbished brothel – that’s how a friend described El Frontón’s decor. And he’s right. Supple booths, a dart board and an overall faded 70s colour scheme: this Madrid dive bar is a curious relic. It’s also top place to knock one back, early in the evening or tying-one-on late. The bar staff are benevolent, the tapas are basic but generous (if you get there early) and the booze is decently priced. What’s more, the music – Beatles, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, maybe even the Animals – is a breath of fresh air. It’s also a good spot to get a cold one or a cocktail after a film at the English-language Cine Ideal. Last but not least, this is frontón. Calle del Doctor Cortezo, 13, 28012
+34 913 69 12 75
Metro: Tirso de Molina (lines 1) or Sol (lines 1, 2, 3)