Spanish cusine is a combination of different regional qualities of Galicia, Castilia, Valencia, the Basque regions, and the rest of the Mediterranean. The flavours are rich, expansive and varied. For the Spanish, eating well and drinking well is a way of life.
Eating out in Madrid is cheaper than in most European capital cities, and the locals do so with great frequency.
Breakfast is usually eaten on the run at a bar, and is nothing more elaborate than a milky coffee, “cafe con leche”, and a sweet roll or croissant.
At around 10:00 AM, the locals might leave the office for a plate of “churros con chocolate”, curls of fried doughnut-like batter eaten with hot melted chocolate. This is the ultimate in decadence. As far as restaurants that serve “Churros con Chocolate” go, there is the world-famous, and extremely crowded, Cafe San Gines. However, the Valor and Cacao Sampaka have better chocolate minus the hype.
Lunch is eaten between 1:30 and 4:00 PM, and is the main meal of the day. Most restaurants will offer a lunchtime menu, often called “Menu del Dia” for 8-16 Euros. This consists of a fixed 3 course meal which includes a cheaper house wine. Of course, you can always pay a bit more for a premium wine, although the house wines are often quite good. This fixed meal is, many times, better than the a la carte menu, and it makes it possible to try out the best restaurants in Madrid at reasonable prices. Stay away from the “touristy” areas, like Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, and try the little side streets instead. Better yet, ask the locals where they like to eat, and like us, discover some gems that way. The Spanish love their food, and eating badly is not an option, so actively seek out their recommendations. The Madrid locals are a friendly lot, and are only too happy to help.
Dinner is eaten between 9:00 and 11:00, no earlier, particularly on the weekends and the Summer. Only the tourists eat between 6:00 and 8:00 PM. Most of the locals have just a light meal, consisting of “tapas”.
Tapas are a Madrid institution. Nearly every bar offers these small morsels for just a few Euros a piece. The trick is to remain disciplined when doing a “tapas tour”, giving yourself a limit of no more than two tapas per bar before moving on. This is easier said than done, though, as you eye the tasty morsels deliciously displayed before you at the bar. The areas of Plaza de Sta. Ana and Chueca are great areas to explore the tapas bars. Chueca is less touristy.
By far the best tapas bar in all of Madrid would have to be “El Bocaito”, which means “little bocado” or bite-sized morsel in Andaluz. It is situated in no. 6 calle de la Libertad, in Chueca (near Calle Infantas). As well as eating at the bar, you can reserve a place at the restaurant so that you can eat sitting down. However, all the action is at the bar, if you can manage to grab a spot that it. The cacophony of laughter and animated conversation, combined with the sounds of good food and wine being savoured, lets you know that you are at the epicentre of an authentic Madrid experience. All tapas at “El Bocaito” are prepared on the spot — no reheating, no microwave. This would be the only tapas bar where I would break the “only-two-tapas-per-bar” rule.
Regarding paellas, a word of warning here. For those of you who have been lucky enough to have been born into a Spanish family (like I have), or have great Spanish friends who have cooked you an awesome paella, then you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment if you expect to find the same experience in Madrid. If you are hell bent on having one anyway, then do yourself a favour and ask the locals where they would eat a good paella, and respect their advise. Most restaurants that offer paellas in Madrid cater to the tourist, particularly in the Sta. Ana quarter, and they will not serve you anything better than a microwaveable paella of “yellow rice’ lots of salt, throw a few mussels in, and charge you plenty for it. We fell for it on our last trip, where we ate the worst paella of our lives. Big mistake.
Best “goodies” for a picnic, weather permitting, can be found at another Spanish institution, the fabulous supermarket and department store, El Corte Ingles. Make sure you go the the basement level of the Puerta del Sol branch.
Other good restaurants that the locals frequent are the following:
– “La Trucha”. Situated in the Sta. Ana district, this unpretentious restaurant has good tapas and fish dishes.
– “Manduca de Azagra”. Situated in Calle Sagasta 14, (near the Alonso Martinez metro), this restaurant features good Navarra cooking (80 Euros for 2 and worth it).
– “Restaurant Los Arrieros”. Situated in a little side street called Calle San Nicolas, near Plaza del Oriente, my husband and I enjoyed a very simple, rustic and delicious Menu del Dia of fish and a bottle of red at this restaurant. A real local hang out.
– “La Bola”. Situated in Bola 5, close to the Palacio Real, this restaurant is famous for it’s cocido. It’s non-smoking, which is such a rarity in Spain.
– “Sidreria Carlos Tartiere”. Situated in Calle Menorca 35 (metro station Ibiza), 15 – 30 Euros will get you a full and very good meal.