Madrid is overflowing with culinary temptations, ranging from scrumptious tapas and seafood to lean cuts of prime beef, but when it’s time to eat out in the Spanish capital, where do you start?
On our visit to Madrid last November, we were based in Barrio de las Letras, or BDLL as locals refer to it, and found ourselves, more often than not, dining out in this hip ‘hood, in and around Plaza de Santa Ana and its side streets.
Here, we outline eight restaurant and casual dining recommendations for Madrid.
On our first evening, we took our hotel manager’s tip and headed straight to Casa González (12 Calle de León), an atmospheric tapas bar-cum-deli dating back to 1931 which is preferred by locals and has been recommended by Le Routard since 2006.
A popular spot for couples, we took a seat at one of the small marble-top tables near the entrance and tall bay window that offers street views. One wall of this iconic address is lined with all sorts of foodstuffs and wines that are served there but which you can also purchase and take with you.
We pored over jars of baby eels as we tucked into gorgeous garlic-scented green olives followed by pungent Cabrales, toasted Spanish blue cheese atop thick slices of bread, which our waiter warned us would be “very strong”; perfectly fine with us! We also sampled a selection of cheeses, including a subtle goat cheese from the Pyrenees, with quince paste, fat white asparagus spears as well as a platter of Iberian chorizo, lomo, ham and sausage.
We took our waiter’s tip on wine and paired our tapas with a very decent bottle of red wine, an interesting, playful drop with a deep purple-red hue, from young Spanish winemakers Pyjama. The small-scale winery grows the indigenous, unique grape variety known as Mencía in Bierzo, an up-and-coming winemaking region in northwestern Spain.
At La Cabana Argentina (10 Ventura de la Vega St), an atmospheric Argentinean restaurant not far from Plaza de Santa Ana, we dug into the juiciest and most flavourful rare Argentinean Angus ribeye and strip steaks we have had to date.
Our succulent steaks paired beautifully with a crisp salad of lettuce, apple, Roquefort cheese, celery and walnuts and an intense, full-bodied 2013 Malbec, produced by Argentina’s Rutini winery in Mendoza, under its Trumpeter label.
Dessert, a simple caramel ice-cream, couldn’t have been creamier. This cosy, stylish Argentinean restaurant, whose hip, industrial interiors feature vintage photographs and yellowed live show posters featuring Argentinean artists, was one of the culinary highlights of our trip.
- Cerveceria Los Gatos
Cerveceria Los Gatos (Calle de Jesús 2) was the final stop on our insider tour of Madrid with the fabulous Paloma, of Trip4Real, and one of our favourite memories of Madrid.
Decked out with bull-fighting accoutrements, this fascinating beerhouse is a nod to the inhabitants of Madrid, known as ‘los gatos’ or cats, though the origins are not crystal clear. Some say that the nickname harks back to battles of the Middle Ages, as the city’s soldiers were known for their ability to leap about like felines. Others say that the term refers to the fact that locals like to stay out late and wander round town.
This is the kind of cool pub where Madrileños, particularly those who work in the vicinity, get together for a long, lazy lunch of delectable tapas accompanied by their national beer Mahou, which you can apparently only find within Spain’s borders.
We were like kids in a candy shop as we stared wide-eyed at the vast selection of tapas with toppings ranging from baby eels to anchovies atop tomato and mozzarella, plates of sizeable mussels and vegetable dishes.
I was desperate to return to Los Gatos for a second tapas hit before we left, but we didn’t make it unfortunately.
Read more about Los Gatos here
On Plaza de Santa Ana, you can find Lateral, a good quality, affordable restaurant that blends Spanish culinary traditions with contemporary flavours, and is very popular with Madrilenos. It’s done so well that there are now seven Lateral locations in Madrid and one in Barcelona.
We took a seat at one of their outdoor tables one late afternoon, for a pre-dinner dish, though not the pinchos, which are assorted tapas on a stick, for which the cool, contemporary dining spot is known. Carlo sampled a pan-seared duck fillet that had been carefully marinated, and I opted for a salmorejo, a deliciously creamy seasonal soup similar to gazpacho which is thickened with a little bread and had an intense tomato flavour.
Lateral is also an ideal spot to start your evening with a cocktail or two, such as the divine spicy mango daiquiri that we shared and had us speaking in tongues.
Madrid may not be Valencia but we were having serious paella cravings, so we sought the expert advice of our insider guide Paloma on where to extinguish them.
She suggested El Caldero (15 Calle Huertas), a seafood restaurant just around the corner from our hotel, noting it’s the real deal when it comes to paella.
Admiring the discreet waiters in white shirts and black waistcoats ceremoniously dishing out paella in a dance-like performance to our fellow diners, we had a hard time choosing which one to order and – as usual – Carlo let me make the final decision.
And, of course, I selected the most exotic one – combining chicken, clams, squid and prawns, whereas he would have chosen a simpler one, reflecting his eclectic palate and innate talent in distinguishing a good dish from a grand one.
This is the kind of old-school restaurant that welcomes everyone, from the group of British ladies whooping and joking all night to young local couples who were digging into oven-baked fish encased in salt, and the waiters are serious, dedicated and long-serving.
We started off with a plate of baby clams, sautéed in a garlic and butter sauce.
Before too long our own waistcoast-wearing waiter arrived, brandishing a sizzling, steaming paella for two still in its pan, which he placed on a side table and started to spoon it onto each of our plates. Rich and flavourful, though perhaps a little too salty, we polished off every last rice grain. I should note, too, that the prawns were somehow forgotten.
At 11:55pm, as we sipped on shots of chilled vodka Karlova caramel, a Spanish vodka (who knew the Spanish produce vodka?) enhanced with vanilla, chocolate and cocoa essences, that proved a sweet finish to our evening, we watched as groups of young Madrilenos continued to roll in for their paella fix, before hitting the city’s bars and clubs. And this confirmed that El Caldero is the place to be if you’re looking for authentic delivery of this iconic dish.
Bookings on weekends and Spanish holidays are recommended.
Walking into El Lacón (Calle de Manuel Fernández y González 8), in Las Letras, it’s easy to see why locals gravitate to this attractive traditional taverna which has been around since the mid-60s. Our rule of thumb is to follow the locals. If the majority, or preferably, all of the diners are native, chances are it’s pretty good.
Buzzing with people sitting on high stools at the bar snacking on tablas – platters of fish and seafood, vegetables, cold cuts or meats, washed down with beer, we were guided to an upstairs section, which was quieter and played host to a few suits relaxing after a busy day at the office. We were seated at a table next to a father and son, who were waiting for their order to arrive.
When their dishes landed, both veal fillets, they politely pointed out that the meat wasn’t too their liking, without even having taken a bite, and sent them back with the waiter, who didn’t bat an eyelid.
This taverna specialises in meat so we, too, had just ordered, veal coincidentally, from the same waiter, who was a little blasé. The father looked at us and explained that the fillets, which looked very pink, were not rare, as per their instructions.
When our fillets – sliced, with peppers – turned up, they turned out to be a little chewy, as they, too, were a little overcooked, but we were too hungry to start complaining and simply dug in.
While this may not have been our best meal in Madrid, we really enjoyed the authenticity, atmosphere and value for money. Certainly, Madrileños know their meat, so definitely consider giving El Lacón a try.
Spanish charcuterie king Enrique Tomás may have opened two outlets in London, including one in Soho, but, like any local specialty, jamón obviously tastes best when enjoyed in its country of origin.
It’s like eating a horiatiki, what many refer to as a Greek salad, in Toronto. Whatever you do, you can’t replicate the flavour of ripe, juicy Greek tomatoes, fragrant oregano and slightly piquant feta, nor the feeling of sitting in the sun at a beachside taverna in the Aegean.
The same applies to acorn-fed Iberian ham, so we made a pit-stop at one of Madrid’s 10 Enrique Tomás outlets (Calle de la Cruz 25) to grab a simple bocadillo and a beer.
A bocadillo is not merely a sandwich. It’s made with a village-style bread loaf known as barra de pan and the Spanish don’t fill it with much more than a little ham and perhaps a dash of olive oil. Sometimes, a piece of tomato is rubbed on the soft side of the bread to add some flavour.
Well, the bocadillos with Iberian ham at Enrique Tomás had us raving. How can such a simple piece of bread and ham be so good?
Eyeing the premium whole legs of ham hanging around the establishment, some of which cost up to 26 euros a kilo, we watched as a young female employee hand-cut sheer slices with enviable precision – and patience.
Selections of ready-packaged, sliced jamón are also available to purchase and pack in your hand luggage.
On our final night in Madrid, we wanted to treat our new-found friend Paloma to a farewell meal and left it up to her to decide where we’d dine.
So, she turned up at our hotel around 7.50pm, on a Saturday, and took us to La Finca de Susana (Calle Del Príncipe 10), which is just a couple of hundred metres from Plaza de Santa Ana.
Querying Paloma on why we had arrived so early, she said that the restaurant is very popular as the quality of cuisine is good – though not consistently, she pointed out – and the prices are, too, but you can’t make a reservation.
When the doors opened at just after 8pm, we nabbed a table in the attractive, airy and bright contemporary dining space, which soon jammed with people, most of them locals.
The highlight dishes of the night were a rich, creamy gazpacho, chicken croquettes, a tender marinated roast pork rib dish in a flavourful sauce and the duck confit with plums and turnips. We shared a sweet finale – a smooth crema catalana.
When the bill came, our jaws dropped as we realised just how affordable dining in Madrid can be.
But, don’t assume you can hang out there at your leisure for the rest of the evening. Once you’ve finished your meal, the efficient wait staff will make it clear it’s time to vacate your table for the patrons patiently waiting in line outside. That’s a small price to pay, literally.