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Culinary Travel

How and Where to Eat Well in Madrid

Hanging out on the Plaza Major in Madrid between meals.

With the celebrity fame of certain Spanish chefs, eating well in Spain, which was already good, has gotten only better. One of the keys is to understand a few guiding principals that are a bit different from visiting other European countries. It is also great to cultivate a good sense of adventure and explore neighborhoods off the usual tourist path. Plus, trust your instinct when you look inside a restaurant window. It’s usually a good guide in Madrid where restaurants abound on nearly every street.

Here are some initial ideas to help you get started. Keep in mind that the Spanish are very regional eaters. Each region focuses on its specialties, based on market freshness and seasonal harvest and catch. Eating in Madrid, as in a sleepy coastal village in Asturias, is local and the quality of the food is local. The vegetables, cheeses, meats, herbs, fruits, and wines all came from down the road. So, in Madrid, eat Castilian.

Well, you might ask, what exactly is Castilian food?

Castilian Cuisine 101

This is the food of shepherds and farmers. It is a hearty, rich, centuries old cuisine based on meats, stews, beans, winter vegetables, cheeses, eggs, wines, and strong other-world spice infusions like several varieties of smoked and ground red peppers, a specialty developed from New World imports, or saffron-rich sauces and soups, a legacy from the medieval Middle Eastern foothold in Spain. These all intersect in unique and delicious ways in Madrid in the center of Spain.

Regional food in Madrid is defined first and foremost by the Castilian cocido, a rich, hearty stew filled with the season’s vegetables and some form of meat, if not several meats. Often chickpeas are also in the mix It is a perfect dish for the very cold winters that rip through the meseta, the plateau on which Madrid stands. By contrast, in the very hot summers, Madrid’s food lightens up while still using the same spices. Madrid has its own gazpachos, seasonal salads, and roasted meats (asados), as well as the ubiquitous cured hams, cheeses and olives.

Also, to eat really well in Madrid, you need to change how you think about ordering food. Food here isn’t about individual courses. It is about sharing plates and eating family style. Graze, talk to the waiter, ask what is seasonal, and order for the table. Most waiters in Spain are a proud professional class who stick with their jobs--and their place of work--for a lifetime. They know their clientele and what good food is, as well as who makes it, who picks it, who cooks it, and what wine tastes great with it.

Lunch, around 2:00 pm, is the biggest meal of the day. Dinner, anywhere between 9:00 and 11:00 pm,  is smaller and more haphazard. I have found that the best tactic to eating well in Spain in general is to eat a large meal at lunch and then tapas for dinner. An added bonus to this method is that if you are hungry earlier than the Spanish dinner hour, tapas are available at any time of the day. In fact you can quite easily eat anything, anytime of day, for nearly 24 hours in Spain and no one will lift an eyebrow.

The Art of Tapas: They’re Not Just Snacks

While little plate snacks are a style of eating in many Mediterranean nations, the Spanish art of eating tapas is unique in its offering and its styles. If you master this art form alone, you will eat incredibly well in Madrid and may even look at a regular sit-down meal with suspicion. A tapear, to go out for tapas, asks for a bit of the daredevil but with little risks; if you order something you don’t like, chances are it's a small serving anyhow and you can order something else.

Classically there are two styles of offering and ordering tapas. Some eateries have an array of large plates of tapas on their counter and you point at the ones you want and the waiter or bartender will fix you several plates of chosen items, sometimes cooking it up on the grill so it arrives nice and hot (this is popularly referred to as the Madrileño style). Other places have plates with single-serving tapas built on slices of bread with a toothpick holding the sculpture together (popularly the Bilbao style). Again, you point at what you want and the waiter will place one of each on your plate. At the end, he or she will simply count the number of toothpicks on your plate and ring up your tapa tab along with the cost of your drinks. In establishments like both these, where the offering is on display on counters, it is as easy as one person or six to order tapas. Other places might list a menu on a card or chalk board. There you might find the words “racion,” “media-racion,” “tapa,” as well as “pincho.” In each eating place, these listings might mean different quantities of things. But usually a pincho is a little bite, for one person, a tapa is a small serving but a bit bigger than a pincho, a “media-racion” is a half large serving and a “racion” is a large ration or full plate for several people. To just taste small portions, you can ask, “Que hay a picar?” (What’s there to nosh?) or point at what you want and say either “a picar” or “para uno.”

In Madrid some of the best tapeando happens around the streets radiating to and from Plaza Santa Ana. A great tapa place near here is Café de la Abuela, on Calle Echegaray, 9. It is on a narrow corner where, inside, beautiful dishes of tapas await your order to be thrown on the grill and served piping hot.

In Chueca neighborhood, not far from the Chueca plaza and metro stop, is another delightful tapa and wine bar, Vinoteca Chueca, on Calle Gravina, 6, that serves delicious tapas along with a terrific wine list by the glass.

A sampling of some of the most common tapas includes: grilled shrimp kabobs, grilled paprika-seasoned pork kabobs, olive oil sautéed little green pepper with a dash of sea salt (pimientos de Padrón), garlic sautéed mushrooms, artisanal cheeses, olives, sausages and Iberian cured ham, wedges of Spanish omelet with potatoes and caramelized onions (tortilla española), marinated grilled vegetables, marinated or salsa stuffed mussels, fried artichoke hearts…Each day the offering might be different depending on what was best at market that morning. If you order several of these little dishes, along with an ensalada mixta—a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and any number of toppings such as tuna, corn, hard-boiled egg wedges, olives, shredded carrots and beets—you could make this a substantial meal.

Lunch as the Main Meal: Eating Like the Locals

You can make lunch your main meal and sample the lunchtime only menu del dia, a fixed price fixed menu restaurants across town offer with several choices per course that adds up to a three-course meal (two entrees, dessert, wine, beer or mineral water and bread) where the chef has selected the most seasonal and fresh ingredients. Moreover, get away from the Prado and Plaza Mayor areas at lunch time and instead go into the local neighborhoods where the food is better. For instance, explore these spots (good for lunch and dinner):

  • The area around Plaza de Santa Ana
  • The streets in and around Chueca, such as all along Calle Gravina, between Calle de Hortaleza and Paseo de Recoletos (near which Gravina stays the same street but changes names to Calle del Almirante) where there are a string of interesting restaurants. A favorite place on this stretch is El Cuatro de Xiquena on Calle Conde de Xiquena, 4, which intersects with Calle del Almirante.
  • The district around the metro stop “Opera” has interesting new and old restaurants. My current favorite here is Restaurant Chic, serving pan-Iberian fusion food. I had a bring-me-to-my-knees chocolate almond flan here. I also had scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms, which were just right. Then there was the spring squash and noodle dish. It is on Calle Campomanes 5.
  • On Calle Atocha 14, right off of the Plaza Jacinto Benavente is Medina Mayrit a Middle Eastern/North African/Iberian fusion cuisine place with a teahouse and an attached spa. Reservations are recommended for anything more involved than a cup of tea. Even if all you do is tea here, try some of the unique herbal infusions.
  • For truly classic Madrileño Castilian cuisine, try the bull-fighter afficionado’s restaurant, Restaurante Salvador on Calle Barbieri, 12, near the intersection with Calle San Marcos just north of the Gran Via.

Great Vegetarian Food in the Land of Meat Eaters and Ham Museums

Vegetarians in general have been challenged by Spanish cuisine, which often builds itself around meat. But as the capital, Madrid has some of the best selection of vegetarian restaurants in Spain. You can find out about the growing offering through the local free publication, Red Alternativa, available in health food (bio) and New Age stores. Here are a couple recommended veggie restaurants:

  • El Restaurante Vegetariano, Calle Marqués de Santa Ana, 34 (at the corner of Calle Espiritu Santo)
  • Restaurante Vegetariano Artemisa, Calle Tres Cruces, 4 (near the Plaza del Carmen), www.restauranteartemisa.com.

A Word on Wine

Madrid is also delightfully at the intersection of several nearby and well-known wine regions: the Penedes in Cataluña to the east; the Rioja, Aragon and Navarra regions just to the northeast; the Ribeira de Duero and Rueda north and east, Galicia’s Rías Baixas and Ribeiro to the northwest, the vast La Manchan wineries to its immediate south, and Madrid’s own Vinos de Madrid region to the west of the city. These all pair beautifully with the smoked pepper, cured olives and hams, and roasted vegetables, lamb, and legumes of Castilian cooking.

So often in dining out, the house wine is the best wine value. The owner and chef know what they are doing when they pick it and as they are in the heart of one of the world’s major wine-producing nations, where some of the best wines can be procured cheaply enough to be a house wine.   

A Final Word on Paella

Now, to the best paella. Don’t seek it out in Madrid. I’m sorry. Leave Madrid. Try paella if you are anywhere between the Costa Brava and Valencia. And absolutely avoid the great big outdoor paella on the beach in Valencia. It is too big and sits outside forever. One friend who lives in Valencia told me he got food poisoning from that great vat. Avoid it no matter how romantic it looks. Try instead paella at one of many little eateries in the Carmen neighborhood of Valencia that offer it as a part of their daily fixed menu special, the menu del dia. One of the best paellas I ever had came out of such a place. Curiously, it was a vegetarian paella. All the vegetables had been slow oven roasted first, with olive oil and garlic, before being turned into the rice sauté and slowly simmered. Another best paella I had was at a restaurant in Besalú, Cataluña, done Catalan style with little flat thin noodles instead of rice (more commonly known as fideua). But the truly best of the best paellas I’ve ever eaten was made by a friend’s father in their back yard in Seville on the outdoor grill. That in the end might be the secret to really good paella—having a friend make it up fresh just for you.