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August 13, 2008
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Madrid Tapas Bars

Top 10 light bites in the Spanish capital

Torre del Oro - animal rights? Que?
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The only European capital where the streets are busier at 3:00 am than 3:00 pm, Madrid is fast catching up with Barcelona as a prime destination for a good-time, party-down weekend. Drawing the best from Spain’s disparate regions, the city makes a fabulous base for the mother of all tapas crawls...

1 Almendro 13, (District: La Latina). The granddaddy of all Madrid’s new wave tapas bars and still one of the buzziest. Set on a narrow alley in the heart of trendy La Latina, Madrid’s top tapas district, Almendro 13 is a simple, scrubbed down, almost rough-and-ready bar—it’s the crowd that gives it atmosphere. Crammed elbow to elbow and bursting through the open door, drinkers and munchers pump up the conversational decibels as young Spaniards take it in turns to navigate through the melee to and from the bar. Food is passed out from the kitchen through a narrow hatch to one side, adding further to the chaos. Downstairs, in the basement, there’s more seating and a marginally quieter tempo. Where? Almendro 13, C. Almendro, 13. (Metro: La Latina.) When? 13:00-16:00, 20:00-01:00 daily. How much? Modest. House speciality: Manzanilla or fino to drink, ham and smoked chorizo roscas (filled rolls), huevos rotos (eggs and potatoes fried). Mix with the crowd: Relaxed young professionals, enjoying themselves and not making statements—nobody’s trying too hard. Gaggly, gregarious and very Madrileño. Time to move on: spoilt for choice (La Latina unless otherwise stated)—Zapatero, Tempranillo, La Gorta, Matritum, Ficcione, La Musa Latina, Los Cabales (Santa Ana), Costa Vejer (Santa Ana), Torre de l’Oro (Pl. Mayor). Tell me more: t. +34 91 365 4252.

2 La Musa Latina (District: La Latina). Big, brash, loud and fun. A key venue on sloping Plaza de la Paja that’s won a lot of fans. Bang up to date and urban—stripped wooden floor, abstract art, slatted chairs, chunky iron and lots of brass—La Musa does breakfast café, wine bar, cocktail joint and full-on eats as well as tapas of noteworthy style. It’s even adopted the noble and disappearing tradition of providing free pinchos as you drink at the bar. During the day the café-bistro side comes to the fore, but after dark it’s standing room only with the La Latina tapas crowd. The sandy-floored cellar bar often has a bit more room to breathe. Second branch in Malasaña. Where? Costanilla San Andres 12. (Metro: La Latina.) When? 09:00-17:00, 19:00-01;00 Mon-Fri, 13:30-02:00 Sat and Sun (24:00 closing Sun). How much? Moderate. House speciality: Riojas Penedes or cocktails, deep-fried manchego cheese with plum sauce, bacalao with honey and pine kernels. Mix with the crowd: Hip (but not over-hip) Spanish twenty– and thirty-somethings out with friends. Time to move on: lots of options (La Latina unless otherwise stated)—Cerveceria San Andres, Tempranillo, Zapatero, Ficcione, Almendro 13, Ene, Viuda Blanca (Austrias). Tell me more: t. +34 91 354 0255.

3 La Costa de Vejer (District: Santa Ana). A slice of unreconstructed Andalucian fishing village in the heart of Madrid serving the best gambas al ajillo in the city. The whole crew (and probably half the customers) of this strictly utilitarian bar come from the small town of Vejer de Frontera in the far south of Spain—and they’ve got the photo on the wall to prove it. Costa Vejer serves a good range of Andalucian seafood favourites, but, above all, the gambas al ajillo are to die for—sizzling garlicky prawns in a pool of melted butter. Not a place for lingering, the form is to stand at the bar ankle-deep in discarded paper serviettes and shrimp peelings (a compliment to the cooking). If you want to sit down, there’s a canteen-like back room, but you’ll almost certainly be enjoying the pleasure of your own company. Where? C. Nuñez del Acre, 16. (Metro: Sol.). When? Tues-Sun only to approx. 23:00, closed August. How much? Budget. House speciality: aside from the gambas, calamares or shellfish washed down with beer or raspingly dry white wine. Mix with the crowd: Ageing blue collar, small town, heavily male fashion-free zone. Whatever you wear you’ll be overdressed. Time to move on: you’re just round the corner from the joys of Plaza Santa Ana—Vinoteca Barbechera, Los Cabales, Miali, Cerveceria Santa Ana, Torre del Oro (Pl. Mayor), Almendro 13 (La Latina). Tell me more: 10m off NW corner of Plaza Santa Ana.

4 Terrabacus (District: Salamanca). Relatively recent addition to the swanky Salamanca scene creating innovative and original tapas as upscale as the surroundings. With clean, contemporary lines dominated by unadorned wood and modern lighting, this long, narrow tapas bar, shoe-horned into one of Salamanca’s quieter streets, could equally be in London, New York or Copenhagen. The food, though, is wholly Spanish—an exciting exploration of the best of the country’s artisan produce prepared with imagination and clarity, and sized in handy tapas portions: Carpaccio of octopus with grilled bacon and asparagus is a typical suggestion. Platters of fine cheeses and hams are a further speciality, as are the excellent tapas-sized desserts. Where? C. Lagasca, 74. (Metro: Serrano.) When? 13:00-24:00 daily (to 01:00 Fri & Sat.) How much? Expensive. House speciality: innovative flavour combinations featuring lightly or uncooked ingredients, jamon ibérico ’Cinco Jotas'. Extensive range of Spanish wines by glass or bottle. Mix with the crowd: Moneyed impeccable good breeding of all ages taking a break between Prada and Emporio Armani. Time to move on: (Salamanca unless otherwise stated)—Alkalde, O’Caldino, Jose Luis, Hevia, Teatriz, El Espejo (Recoletos), La Tradicion (Chueca), Santander (Chueca). Tell me more: t. +34 91 435 3718, www.terrabacus.com.

5 Taberna Al Gorta (District: La Latina). Don't ask for tapas here—the word you need is pintxos. A fantastic community atmosphere, comfily rustic furnishing, and authentic Basque specialities make this unpretentious bar a La Latina winner. Al Gorta certainly wears its Basque heart on its sleeve—or in this case neck, with the enthusiastic young staff all wearing white and red Euskadi bandanas; and the red, green and white of Basque flags covering most of the wooden walling. But the proclamation is cultural rather than political, with the small bar crowded even at 11:00 pm with whole Basque families (complete with babies in strollers) and groups of young friends doing nothing more than having a great time – there’s not a trace here of the menace found in the tougher bars of Bilbao or San Sebastian. The pintxos are mainly montados—with a good range of creative and mainly seafood toppings in classic Basque tradition. Highly recommended. Where? C. Cava Alta. (Metro: La Latina). When? 13:30-16:00, 20:30-01:45 daily (Sun. lunchtime only). How much? Modest. House speciality: seafood montada—spider crab and langoutines especially, washed down with tart txakoli (Basque wine) or cider. Mix with the crowd: Young families, young professionals and students, surprisingly mainly Basque in origin. Time to move on: La Latina is full of great places to move on to: Almendro 13, Taberna Matritum, El Tempranillo, La Corolla, Cerveceria Sa Andres, or Torre del Oro (Pl. Mayor), Los Cabales (Santa Ana). Tell me more: 50 m from bottom end of the street, on the right as you walk uphill (SW).

6 Santander (District: Chueca). Slap bang in the middle of Madrid’s artiest neighbourhood, this austere Franco-era stalwart, unchanged since the 1950s, has bags of character notwithstanding zero design input. Your choice of 93 claimed varieties of tapas is either laid out in the wood-framed glass counter-cabinet (also original to the 1950s) or can be rustled up in moments. No fanciness here, all permutations are along the deeply traditional lines of huevos rellanos (eggs stuffed with tuna) or ensaladilla rusa (potato salad with mixed vegetables and other stuff thrown in). Every offering is a bargain; each an adventure—generally a very positive one, despite the school dinners presentation. Sticking to the knitting clearly pays dividends as during the lunchtime rush you’ll be hard-pressed to get within ordering distance of the bar-cum-serving counter. Even at the busiest times, though, you’ll probably find plenty of space in the linoleum-surfaced backroom (but perhaps no-one to take your order). Where? C. Augussto Figueroa, 25. (Metro: Chueca.) When? 11:00-16:00, 19:00-23:00 Mon-Sat. Closed August. How much? Budget. House speciality: loads of different montados (open sandwiches) and homely classics—defiantly ‘old wave’. Mix with the crowd: Local shop- and office-workers and residents of the surrounding very mixed neighbourhood. Older rather than younger (but not exclusively so). Time to move on: La Tradicion (Chueca), El Boaito (Chueca), El Espejo (Recoletos), Alkalde (Salamanca) Los Cabales (Santa Ana), Costa Vejer (Santa Ana). Tell me more: t. +34 91 522 4910.

7 Los Cabales (District: Santa Ana). One of the best of a clutch of tapas bars and restaurants lining Plaza Santa Ana. Come here for the very agreeable outdoor terrazas extending out onto this freshly refurbished, central but quiet square. Plaza Santa Ana is definitely at the touristed end of Madrid’s tapas spectrum, but it’s very pleasant for all that—especially at the beginning or end of the evening. (It’s also good for weekend brunch.) Amongst Madrileños—also plentifully evident—Plaza Santa Ana attracts a slightly more mature (and sedate) group than the trendy tearaways over in La Latina. Of the wall-to-wall bars along the square’s southern side, menus and the uniformly leisurely approach to service are much of a muchness wherever you go, but Los Cabales appeals for its authentic tiled interior and period fittings: the shelves of bottles behind the old-fashioned counter bar are watched over benevolently by a portrait of the Blessed Virgin. Where? Plaza Santa Ana, 8. (Metro: Sol/Anton Martin.) When? 11:00 to approx. 23:30 daily. How much? Moderate. House speciality: montadas (open sandwiches) and classics. Mix with the crowd: Foreigners and locals in equal measure, all ages and all budgets (above InterRail). Time to move on: Plaza Santa Ana has enough variety to fill a whole evening: Vinoteca Barbechera, Cerveceria Santa Ana, Miali, Costa Vejer; further afield: Almendro 13 (La Latina), El Espejo (Recoletos), Torre del Oro (Plaza Mayor). Tell me more: t. +34 91 429 8630

8 Ene (District: La Latina). The place to do Sunday brunch after a long, long night; a Tokyo-meets-New York island of style that equally serves up a cracking modern tapas selection. Urban creations, such as squab with foie gras and mango, and a hefty sprinkling of oriental ingredients adorn the selection of thoroughly modern tapas at this seriously uptown lounge bar of vivid vinyl sofas, smoked glass, futuristic ceiling lamps, and sanserif menu. There’s a restaurant upstairs, but the more casual approach to eating best suits the laid-back styling, and come day rather night, unless you’re looking for a full-on clubbing experience with live DJ in residence. Where? C. Nuncio 19, (Metro: La Latina). When? 12:00-00:30 Sun-Wed, 12:00-03:00 Thurs-Sat. Sunday brunch to 16:00. How much? Expensive. House speciality: exotic oriental combinations served on Japanese tatami matting, coffee, fresh juices and cocktails. Mix with the crowd: Madrid’s most beautiful twentysomethings: media creatives, architects, designers & fellow travellers. Time to move on: For more of the same: Viuda Blanca (Austrias), otherwise: La Musa Latina, (La Latina), Cerveceria San Andres (La Latina), Tempranillo (La Latina), Vinoteca Barbechera (Santa Ana), Terrabacus (Salamanca). Tell me more: t. +34 91 366 2591.

9 Alkalde (District: Salamanca). A little stuffy, but worth preserving with for some of the finest Basque pintxos south of Vitoria. By common consent, the Basques are the master-chefs of Spain. Through some peculiarity of genetics or culture, they show especial genius in the creation of pintxos—sublime morsels of mainly fishy flavour. To sample this art at a heavyweight level, head for Alkalde, a local institution in business for over 40 years. Not the sort of place that aims for a buzz, it measures success more on the murmer of contented gourmets. The heart of the operation is the basement restaurant, but you’re very welcome to stand at the bar with a selection of exquisite delicacies and, for the full Basque experience, a tumbler of txakoli. As you eat, contemplate the wicker pelota paddles on the dark wood walls, used to whip a hard ball up to 190 mph in pelota vasca—the world’s fastest and, for the inept, most painful ball game. Where? C. Jorge Juan, 10. (Metro: Serrano.) When? 12:00—24:00 daily. How much? Expensive. House speciality: elegant Basque classics: mushrooms stuffed with liver, clams in white wine, artichoke hearts with salsa verde. Mix with the crowd: lawyers and bankers—expense account at lunchtimes, exercising their own wallets evenings. Time to move on: Mallorca (Salamanca), Terrabacus (Salamanca), O’Caldiño (Salamanca), Jose Luis (Salamnca), La Tradicion (Chueca), El Espejo (Recoletos). Tell me more: t. +34 91 576 3359, www.alkalderestaurante.com.

10 La Torre del Oro (District: Plaza Mayor). Madrid’s Plaza Mayor isn’t by any means the best place to indulge your tapas cravings: for a start you can reckon on paying more or less double the going rate elsewhere. But the setting—the capital’s front room—is so wonderful, it’s worth at least a brief stop. Of the options on offer, la Torre del Oro stands out. A longstanding Andalucian transplant that’s never bothered to go native, its wild interior of stuffed bull’s heads, mosaic walls and bullfighting photos (including graphic hospital shots—make sure you’ve eaten first), is an Aladdin’s cave of Andalucian specialties—fried whitebait, baby squid, grilled prawns—alongside more universal Spanish tapas standards. There’s a fair range of local Andalucian wines too, should you be feeling foolhardy. To its credit, La Torre attracts a good share of locals, chatting at the counter of the cramped bar; but this is one time when it’s worth paying the extra to do the tourist thing by sitting outside in the stunning square. Where? Plaza Mayor, 26. (Metro: Sol.) When? 08:00-15:00, 18:00—24:00 daily. How much? Expensive. House speciality: traditional Andalacian favourites, if you want to follow the bullfighting theme, try the rabo del toro (tomato and bull’s tail stew). Mix with the crowd: leathery locals of advancing years standing inside, tourists sitting outside. Time to move on: El Soportal (Plaza Mayor), Almendro 13 (La Latina), La Corolla (La Latina), Costa Vejer (Santa Ana), Los Cabales (Santa Ana), Viuda Blanca (Austrias). Tell me more: t. +34 91 366 5016.

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