From the Plaza Santa Ana down to the Paseo del Prado, the pokey streets of Huertas brim with top-notch eating, lively drinking and an intoxicating dash of history. This was the literary quarter during Spain’s Golden Age and thus was home to Cervantes – the man behind Don Quixote – among other long-gone local luminaries. Nowadays, the barrio is a wonderfully anachronistic whirl of old taverns and chic celebrity chef joints.
So, want to know where to eat in Huertas? Read on…
El Lacón is the real deal – an often packed and always atmospheric spot for no-fuss drinks and honest fare. The menu is a mix of down-home raciones from across the peninsula and the prices are spot on (plus they’ll do medias raciones on request – half servings so you can try a wider selection). The bar is famous for its tapa policy – with every drink ordered you can choose a hot tapa from a short blackboard menu (the selection changes constantly and includes anything from fried fish to patatas a la gallega). Callos a la madrileña (a cockle-warming tripe stew) is always on the list. So, if you’re too chicken to order an entire bowl of this most Madrilenian dish elsewhere, this is the place to try it for the price of a caña. There’s a dining room above the bar if you want to take a load off and mention must be made of the sleeve-garter-wearing waiters. They work with rare efficiency and grace and, if you’re sharing raciones, will cut up your parties’ food before your eyes… just like mum used to.
It was another new opening in Madrid. I was expecting ok food. Kinda interesting. Nothing great. The menu hit a few very ‘now’ and therefore very worrying notes: does any recently-opened Madrid eatery not serve tuna tataki or steak tartar? And then the food came. Elegant, fresh, precise and surprising. It was – almost across the board – excellent. The first piece of cooked bacalao I’ve liked in a long time, the potatoes stuffed with bull tail had a lovely charred flavour (needed a tad more bull, though…), the gazpacho was excellent, the foie terrine gorgeously gamey. The menu is smartly divided into three parts: market produce without much maquillage, riffs on Spanish classics, and dishes from abroad. But. There is a but. But this but is a good but. You can choose ración, half ración and tapa sizes (called 1/3 raciones) of many dishes. I wrote that last sentence on bent knees, in gratitude. It’s frustrating to be constantly corralled into Madrid’s traditional ración size, compared to the smaller half-ración and tapas sizes available down south. Now, I know all parts of Spain have their own eating culture. But bugger it – tradition is never a reason not to change. Let Madrid learn something from its southern sisters. The mixture of serving sizes means you can swing by for a bite at the bar or sit at a table and splurge. I suggest you hit up TriCiclo for both. And when you do, get the tataki. It was very good.
If I only had one measly day in Madrid (how sad), this little corner of heaven is where I’d pull up a pew and tuck in a napkin. Down the hill in Huertas, near the Prado, Vinoteca Moratín drags me back every time with it’s rare blend of attentive, unaffected service, reliably delicious and interesting food, reasonable prices, tasteful decor and a killer wine list (mainly Spanish and French). Snug and satisfying, it’s where my wife and I go to eat, talk and get a bit drunk, far from the BS and boring hype that too often dominates the world of eating out. The dining room only seats 25-odd, meaning talented chef Marcos has time to advise (and not in an icky pretentious way) diners on the menu and wines. But, with so few tables, you’ll need to call well ahead, or turn up at the last minute with your fingers tightly crossed. If you strike out, lick your wounds, hit the tapas bars on nearby Calle Jesus (try Los Gatos and Cervecería Cervantes), and try again the following night.
To quote Withnail, walking into La Venencia is like stepping into a nicotine-stained lung. Smoking in Spanish bars is now verboten, but this old-world, achingly-atmospheric sherry saloon remains wonderfully discoloured by tobacco and time. The five sherries come by the glass (from €1.70 to €2), half-bottle (about €7) or full bottle (about €12), and the bottles are refilled from barrels stacked behind the bar. Order a tapa of mojama (salt-cured tuna) and maybe a little cecina (the often-ignored beef equivalent of jamón) to accompany. La Venencia is in the guidebooks, but it’s still frequented by fusty locals and the owners keep the tourists in check by ruthlessly enforcing a no-photo policy. Avoid stepping on the resident black cat and never leave a tip (scan down this NY Times piece to find out why). Oh, and Hemingway used to drink here (along every other gin joint in Madrid it seems…).
Calle de Echegaray, 7 28014
+34 914 29 73 13
Metro: Sol (lines 1, 2, 3) or Anton Martín (line 1)