Northern Spain may have a near-monopoly on Michelin stars, molecular cuisine and world-famous chefs, but don’t overlook Madrid. Though it’s often known more for its national pride and all-night fiestas, the capital city takes the culinary bull by the horns. From funky tapas in La Latina, to gastrotecas on rooftop terrazas, and swoon-worthy cocktails overlooking Puerta de Alcalá, Madrid won’t disappoint your tummy – or your taste buds.
Tapping the tapas market
A trip to Spain without tapas? Unimaginable. But that doesn’t mean you need to follow the herd of tourists to foreigner favourites with questionable fare. For some of the most popular small plates in town, locals instead head to Lateral (Plaza de Santa Ana 12, 914 201 582). More than just a tapas destination, they not only mix it up with creatively topped toasts, but also offer larger shareable classics such as croquetas and patatas bravas. And the fact that their prices won’t break the bank is just the icing on the Spanish tarta.
Sampling the best of ultra-traditional tapas, on the other hand, requires a jaunt through the rather untraditional Fuencarral shopping district and into hipster-filled Malasaña. Tucked behind the San Ildefonso Church, you’ll find Bodega de la Ardosa (Calle Colón 13, 915 214 979) and its floor-to-ceiling shelves full of dusty bottles and other throwback paraphernalia. Escape the crowd and any potential out-of-towners by crouching under the bar and into the back area, where you can quietly nosh on a piece of empanada or their famous tortilla española. And to be extra-Spanish in this Madrid classic, sip on a glass of fresh-from-the-tap vermouth.
No tapas expedition would be complete, however, without a stop in the city’s bar-hopping headquarters located in the La Latina barrio. Here – especially on Sundays during Madrid’s massive open-air market, El Rastro – rowdy crowds take to the streets, popping tapas and downing cañas (small glasses of beer) for hours on end. Juana La Loca (Plaza Puerta de Moros, 4, 913 640 525) claims fame for its pintxos – Basque-style tapas always served on or with a piece of bread. Go traditional with the succulent and juicy tortilla, or more avant-garde with truffle and egg. Then make like a Madrileño and repeat the process in one stop after the next.
Beyond the bitty bites
Perhaps not all excursions call for just a tapas crawl. To transition into dinner, stop by the newly renovated Mercado de San Antón (Calle Augusto Figueroa 24, 913 300 730). This all-in-one stop is less touristy and more locally trendy than its Plaza Mayor counterpart, Mercado de San Miguel. Located in gay-friendly Chueca, the three-story complex houses kiosks for tapas hopping, plus a terraza restaurant for those craving a more formal affair. Embracing Spanish culture, stop first for a drink and appetizer on the lower levels, then move your way to the rooftop for a slap-up meal.
To skip all the pre-dinner pomp and circumstance, score a table at La Gabinoteca (Calle Fernández de la Hoz 23, 913 991 500), where inventive small servings arrive in everything from baby-food-like jars to fast-food-style boxes. Think modern and deconstructed versions of Spanish favourites like gambas al ajillo, and more continental creations such as fish hamburgers or mushroom pasta. Get there early, though, as they don't take reservations, and after about 9.30pm late arrivals can expect standing room only.
To really fulfil your foodie cravings, head to hotspot DiverXO (Calle Pensamiento 28, 915 700 766). With culinary Mecca El Bulli now just a sweet-and-savoury memory, the restaurant claims one of the most coveted reservations around. Chef David Muñoz presents a molecular mash-up between east and west, with understated plates ranging from rabbit dim sum to Spanish blood sausage. While the two-Michelin-star-rated locale is situated a tad outside the central hustle, in the Nuevos Ministerios district, it’s worth the trek. If you’re tempted to capture those delicious memories, they’ll just have to be saved in your imagination, as taking pictures of the food is not permitted.
Drinks and more
Madrid matches Northern Spain’s culinary accolades with its own, equally impressive, propensity to party. For the all-important pre- or post-dinner drinks, join Madrid’s young and fashionable at the new "it" spot, Whitby (Calle Almagro 22, 913 197 088), located in the Almagro neighbourhood. The two-story corner restaurant is one part posh, another part rustic, and a dash of industrial chic, with its cabin-esque furniture and exposed steel beams. On toasty summer nights, the wall-sized windows disappear, turning the warmly lit enclave into an open-air bar. More popular for drinks than anything else, you can also nibble on modern plates.
Cocktail heaven meets foodie paradise at gastro-coctelería Le Cabrera (Doña Bárbara de Braganza 2, 913 199 457). Sergi Arola (whose two-Michelin-star-rated Gastro (Calle Zurbano 31, 913 102 169) is worth a visit too) and barman Diego Cabrera founded the Chueca-located hotspot. With dining upstairs and drinks downstairs, the venue ticks all the right boxes. Even the décor, by interior designer Luis Galliusi, ups the swank factor, right down to the uniforms – the waiters rock the Spanish brand El Ganso, which pleases even the most preppy fashion sense. While seating is rather limited, consider it the perfect opportunity to nurse a classy drink until that table opens up.
But for the cocktail bar of all cocktail bars, head straight to Philippe Starck-decorated restaurant-meets-club Ramses (Plaza Independencia 4, 914 351 666) with views of Puerta de Alcalá. Dine on nouveau cuisine in their lavish Bistro, warm up over pre-dinner mixed drinks in their Petit salon, sip on gin and tonics in their cocktail bar, or hit the dance floor in the basement club. With a year-round open-air terrace, even dining al fresco has seasonless potential. Ramses, like Madrid, offers something for everyone, so really you can't go wrong.
Written by World Travel Media.