In Madrid On The Tapas Trail

Time Out/Spain Gourmetour  London-Madrid, 1995/2001, 1,000 words; adapted extract  

The question I'm asked more than any other by friends or family who come to Madrid is: how do people get by with so little sleep? The second question is: where can we pick up some good tapas? Here's the answer to the second question, written in a roundabout way. Today the quirks of Madrid’s bars seem more pleasurable than ever.

Also see: Across Madrid. Tapas Culture

As journalist Pedro Soleras once jokingly explained in El País, Madrid has its own tapas ritual.

"The tapa, invented in an age less obsessed with productivity, is a trick for spinning out your fino or aperitivo drinks without getting drunk. It's thus of primordial interest to visitors. If you don't want to look like an outsider, or yokel, refrain from pointing with your fingers and instead ask for one of this or one of that, and so on .... And above all don't get scared when the waiter shouts: it's not at you, it's at the kitchen. If you want the people with you to hear, shout as well. If you don't, it's suspicious. You shouldn't leave your olive stones on the plate either. Fling them away."

Madrid veteran Anselmo Santos once advised me that to tapear in the old style I should visit as many bars as there are stations of the cross (that’s 14, by the way).

It's a vital part of the ritual, too, to move from one place to another. Madrid veteran Anselmo Santos once advised me that to tapear in the old style one should visit as many bars as there are stations of the cross. (That's fourteen.)

In modern times, though, like many time-consuming things in this once leisured and now hurried city, the ritual has been trimmed - in this case to just three or four stop-offs.

The basics, though, are the same: pick just one or two specialities together with a drink matched to your tapas. You can ask for a pincho (more or less a mouthful), a tapa (a saucerful or so), a ración (small plateful) or, in some places, a medio ración, a useful half-measure for those whose eyes are bigger than their tummy. 


There is, then, the perennial visitors' question: how do you choose which tapas bars to visit? You can play it safe and follow others' recommendations, but it's more fun to try bars for yourself. Not that it's always easy, for in Madrid you are spoiled for choice. In the year 2000, there were an astounding 29,998 bars - that's more or less one for every hundred of the city's inhabitants. Not bad.

But don't be misled by the simplicity of the word 'bar'. Here it disguises an entire culture. A bar may be a tavern, also called a tasca, with an old zinc or marble bar, vermouth and soda on tap, or a tiny dining room with traditional signs on the wall forbidding spitting, dancing and singing.

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