One of my favorite Spanish customs is eating tapas. There are several legends about how tapas originated, but today it involves going to a bar, ordering a few tasty bites with a drink and enjoying them with your friends, then perhaps moving on to another bar, and maybe another. You can do this all over Spain, but this article focuses on tapas in Madrid. Since Madrid has an astounding number of tapas bars, if you are there, you’ve got to check out the tapas scene. If you’re staying in the city center, you won’t have to go far to find the yummy morsels. All of the main plazas and streets have tapas, and you’ll find some cool places on the side streets as well. It never ceases to amaze me how many people come out every night of the week. Late Sunday nights might be less crowded, but there’s usually a big party happening all over Madrid.
How to Eat Tapas in Madrid
Don’t be intimidated. Just dive in! You can begin your tapas crawl as early as 5:00 p.m. and continue into the night. Some of the bars have outdoor seating, so if you want to sit outside and people-watch, grab a table, and a waiter will come to you. Otherwise, go inside. You usually have a couple of choices. 1. You can hang out at the bar if there’s room. It’s easy to order and eat right there. Some bars have their tapas selections on display, so you can just point to what you want, while others will have menus, which may or may not have an English translation. 2. If you you’d rather sit at a table, ask to be seated and they’ll bring you a menu. 3. If the place is packed, you’ll make your way up to the bar to order, and then find a place to stand. Depending on the place, they’ll either bring your food and drink to you or signal you to come and get it. Many places have little counters along the wall to set your drink and plate down. Some places get pretty crowded, but people tend to be very patient while waiting for a table and use the time to enjoy socializing.
Many bars offer tapas and raciónes. Raciónes are larger portions. You don’t have to order everything at once. Order one or two things, plus your drink. Afterward you can decide if you want to stay put and order more or if you want to move on to another place. If you’re at the bar, signal that you’re ready for the bill. The international hand signal of pretending to sign a check works well if necessary. Pay the bill — most take credit cards but some take only cash. For a tip, just round off to the nearest euro or leave a few coins. If you’re sitting at a table with friends, don’t ask for separate checks. It’s just not done over there. Pay the bill and settle up later.
We usually start around 7:00 and hit two or three places, then walk all over the city to see what we can see. If we’re hungry again later, we’ll go to another bar.
What to Eat and Drink
First the drinks.
You can always get sangria. It seems to be mainly a touristy thing, but it feels so right when in Spain and it goes with everything. Vermouth is very popular with locals in Madrid. (Pronounce it Ver-moot when you order.) It’s delicious, pairs well with tapas, and is refreshing and comforting at the same time. Some places have the old Martini and Rossi, but many places serve a delicious brown vermouth that I fell in love with. There are many brands, and all of them were good, but I particularly liked Lacuesta Reserva and Fernando Rodriguez Selecciónne Gran Vermouth, which I was able to track down and buy a couple of bottles to take home. You can taste different types of vermouth at the Mercado San Miguel, and La Concha has a delicious special house vermouth that practically got me addicted. (I’ll give more details on those bars below.) Another thing that goes very well with tapas is Jerez, or sherry. Wine in Spain is almost always delicious, so that’s another option. If you want a glass, ask for una copa de vino tinto (red) or blanca (white). As far as cocktails, gin and tonics seem to be pretty popular in Madrid.
In the hot summertime, locals often order a tinto de verano. This is sort of a light, refreshing take on sangria made by pouring a glass of red wine, adding a squeeze of lemon, and either clear soda water or something like 7-up. (I prefer soda water.) Try it yourself at home this summer — it’s really good. You can also get a clara, which is beer mixed with lemon soda or lemonade. I’m not a beer lover, but I’m told it’s refreshing. If you want a small glass of beer, order a caña. A popular local beer is Mahou.
Now the food.
There are two types of tapas: traditional and modern. Some bars specialize in one or the other, and some offer both. One of the most traditional items is jamón (ham). You will see a lot of ham. It will be on every menu. You will pass a few Museo de Jamón stores where you can buy ham to go. (You can’t bring it to the U.S., so don’t buy more than you can eat while you’re there.) You will marvel at how incredibly expensive it is and wonder how people can afford it. You have to try it, because when in Rome… Jamón Ibérico is the higher quality of ham, and if you see Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, it’s the best and most expensive. It is dark in color and sliced very, very thin. The pigs lived off a diet of acorns, which gives it a sweet taste. Jamón Serrano is pinker in color, also sliced extremely thin, and to me tastes a bit more salty and meaty than Ibérico. Both are good and are different from Italian Prosciutto. What goes with jamón? Queso (cheese). Queso Manchego, a delicious sheep’s milk cheese, will surely be on the menu. You’ll find lots of sheep and goat cheeses in Spain. Aceitunas are olives, and anchoas are cured anchovies, but boquerónes are marinated anchovies. Pimientos de Padrón are blistered green peppers. Some are mild and some are hot, so eating a plate is sort of like the Russian Roulette of tapas eating. Gambas al ajillo is peeled shrimp cooked in garlic oil. Bread is served for dipping. In fact, bread is served with most tapas. Gambas al la plancha is shrimp with the heads and shells on that have been cooked in a hot pan with garlic and salt. Navajas are razor clams. They aren’t available in every place, but they’re good when you find them. Tortilla Española is a cake made of potatoes and eggs. Patatas Bravas are potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce. Setas are mushrooms. Potatoes, peppers, and mushrooms are the main veggies you’ll find in bars. There’s not a lot of veggie variety. Restaurants serve salads and you can get asparagus, but it’s often white asparagus from a jar. I once asked a woman why they don’t have broccoli or other vegetables on menus, and why there’s rarely chicken on a menu, and she said, “Because we don’t want to eat that stuff when we go out. We can eat it at home.”
Modern tapas are often served on top of a thick slice of crusty bread, like the ones from Erre que Erre shown in the main feature photo. There are numerous artistic combinations, and they change all the time. They look good, taste good, and are quite filling. A couple of these can make a very inexpensive dinner. One warning: you might see what looks like a pile of pasta on a piece of bread, but it’s probably angulas, or baby eels. If I were you, I’d want to know before I put it in my mouth.
Where to Eat Tapas in Madrid
We’ve eaten tapas all over Madrid, and there are too many good places to list. Here are just a few ideas to get you started, divided by area.
Mercado San Miguel. This market is located in Plaza San Miguel, in walking distance from Plaza Mayor and La Latina. Inside you will find some groceries, but the big draw is many stalls selling different types of tapas, from traditional to modern. You can get freshly cooked seafood, olives and anchovies, sweets, sangria, vermouth, wine, beer … there’s really something for everyone. You can buy things from various counters and then find a place to set your plate down and eat. It can get pretty crowded sometimes, and it’s also a very popular lunch place.
La Latina. The tapas bars on Calle Cava Baja will keep you busy for a night. Here are a few of my favorites:
- La Concha. Get the special house vermouth and anchovies with pesto.
- La Chata. Traditional tapas.
- Erre que Erre. Excellent modern tapas. They’re filling, so don’t order too much.
- Juana la Loca. Modern tapas. This one was “cash only” at the time of this writing.
- Los Galayos. You can have tapas or a full meal here. There are outdoor tables, indoor tables, and a bar.
Plaza Santa Ana
- Casa Alberto. Traditional tapas. This place has been open since 1827, and it’s really cool. It seems that it’s no longer open every day, but if it’s open, go inside!
- Ana La Santa. Fairly new. We’ve had very good tapas here, but service was fantastic one day and horrible the next time. I’d give them a try though.
- Vinoteco Barbechera. A classy wine bar with excellent tapas.
Taberna Kaixo. We stopped here for late-night gambas al la plancha and vermouth.
El Rincon del Prado. We love this place. The restaurant is supposed to be very good, but we always have tapas in the bar. They have good navajas and a really nice grilled veggie platter.
If you have room for dessert, head over to the Chocolatería on San Gines for churros and chocolate!