Madrid, the capital of Spain and the melting pot of the various cultures found within the Spanish region. Filled with sites, historical locations like palaces and monuments, standing as the center of finance and cultural arts in Spain, offering active sports complexes, and featuring luxury shopping along its beautiful boulevards, plus a vivid nightlife it is not unexpected that Madrid is also a central hub for food and drink.
Within Madrid, the flavors of Spanish cuisine of the past that were influenced by the Roman, North African and Iberian cultures still exist today. However, these traditions are now combined with influences from the various customs and traditions that were brought into the newly established capital city in the 16th century after the relocation of the Spanish Empire during the reign of King Felipe II.
Modern Madrid has hundreds of dining experiences that feature both regional and international cuisine making it a gastronomic destination for both foodies and the typical foreign visitor looking to experience both the sophisticated and the popular dining experiences.
Worth noting is the difference in dining schedules from other regions of Europe. Similar to many other European regions, breakfast is typically a quick bite late in the morning. However, the mid-day meal of lunch is typically eaten between 2 and 3:30 pm local time with restaurants opening around 1:30pm for the largest meal of the day. The Madrilenian typically have a late afternoon/early evening snack (merienda) around 6 or 7 pm and then finish the day with a light dinner usually around 9 or 10 pm.
From savory to sweet, tapas to full dining experiences, you will find the local dishes are centered around stews and soups while the tapeo (tapas) are a bar hopping experience and the center of the Madrid nightlife. Walking into a local tavern, ordering a beer or glass of locally sourced wine or cider and accompanying it with a hot or cold Spanish snack before moving on to your next gastronomic experience.
With so many options and the various dining experiences, read on for a some recommendations for the best dining experiences in Madrid:
Formal dining at it’s finest, white tablecloths and the highest gastronomic experiences within the city. Offering some of the staples of Madrilenian foods like croquetas (filled fried rolls) to enjoy as an appetizer before delving into one of the many enjoyable soups, stews or meats that Madrid is known for. Featuring set menus with a la carte options or shared plates, the restaurante’s can offer both a cultural and historic dining experience.
Sobrino de Botin
One of the oldest restaurants in Madrid, is also considered one of the world’s top 10 classic restaurants. Restaurant Botin began serving in 1725. Well noted for its cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and Castilian lamb (cordero asado), which are slow cooked over wood in the original ovens. The menu is popular for traditional Spanish cuisine also offering additional starters and main courses to appeal to various tastes and interests.
This historic establishment is not just known for its history and its menu. Distinguished by some popular figures of the past, Ernest Hemingway, a frequent visitor, left his mark by including the wood paneled dining room in his final scene of The Sun Also Rises. Additionally, famed Spanish painter Francisco de Goya worked as a waiter in his early days as a struggling artist.
Serving lunch daily from 1pm – 4pm and dinner starting at 8pm, tours of the facility are available for an additional look into the past of the landmark restaurant. Due to its popularity, reservations are highly recommended.
Another classic Madrileno experience, this award winning restaurant opened its doors in 1839. A popular establishment for fine dining with the Spanish aristocracy of the 19th century, the venue has not changed since it’s design in 1880. From your arrival at the front doors, the unassuming store front welcomes you into an elegant white tablecloth dining experience.
The fixed price menus feature Spanish comfort dining influenced by French cuisine. A traditional menu of stews and soups, roasts and daily special menus are offered in addition to an appetizer and a dessert. Lhardy is well known for the locally popular Cocido Madrileno stew, a vegetable and beef dish created with chickpeas and sausage that is served in three courses.
First course is bone marrow based broth, the second course of beans and vegetables is then served and the third course is made up of stewed ham, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, chorizo and blood sausage in a tomato sauce to finish off the experience.
Open daily for lunch from 1 – 3:30 pm and 8:30pm to 11pm for dinner, reservations are a must to guarantee a dining experience.
Where the restaurants have been established within Spanish aristocracy, Literary cafes appealed to the everyday patron. Cultural experiences in themselves, cafe’s are more informal than the restaurants as locations where the locals come for inspiration, to meet to discuss current events and literature and to socialize with their peers while sharing experiences. Referred to as tertulias (social gatherings), cafe’s are more sophisticated than a coffee house yet less formal than the restaurante’s. Open in the morning for simple breakfasts throughout the day and into the late afternoon or early evening for between meal snacks. A popular local item found at the Madrid cafe’s is the Tortilla de patatas (potato omelet) handcrafted by each cafe in it’s own unique style.
Considered to be one of the original literary cafes of Madrid was opened in 1888. Cafe Gijon has always been a leader in the local Madrid Cafe experience and was a centerplace for the literary movement in the city starting post Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. This location has been historically documented in books, movies and paintings and many tertulias (social gatherings) have occurred within the walls of the historic cafe.
Popular in the mornings for breakfast, the cafe features coffee, pastries, baguettes and breakfast sandwiches throughout the day and multi course tapa menus in the afternoon/evening.
A great place to come for experience, but also to people watch as you can still find animated Castilian enjoying a social experience inside at one of the small cafe tables or outdoors on the terrace.
Typically a rustic Madrid bar featuring tapas, wines, ciders, sherry, vermouth among other options to relax and indulge after a long day of touring. Comparatively they are the Spanish version of a French bistro or Italian trattoria where the locals go for spirited beverages and conversation. This is where you will go when you embark on a bar hopping experience in search of the best tapeo (tapas) in Madrid.
One of the oldest taberna in Madrid, circa 1827, the history and nostalgia can be seen just upon entering through the fire red door. Once inside the Spanish atmosphere is seen in the metal and wood bar, ornate wood trim and the grouping of white tablecloth tables set up throughout. As you look around you can see the walls are filled with Spanish culture and nostalgia of almost 200 years of service at this very location.
The tapas menu is as interesting as the popular libation vermouth which is served on tap here. Featuring classic house specialities like Madrilian Tripe (callos a la madrileña) and rabo de toro (oxtail stew), meatballs and cod among other tasty starters, the artistic presentation is as enjoyable as the dishes.
A visit to a taberna is all about tradition and if you are interested in literary history, it is worth noting that Miguel de Cervantes, author of the novel Don Quixote, once resided within the historic building that Casa Albert continues to serve from.
Other Dining Musts
Madrid dining experiences go well beyond the best taberna’s, cafes and restaurante’s and offer traditional popular food options that can be found nearby the cities most popular attractions.
Bocadillo de Calamares
Madrid’s most famous sandwich can be discovered at one of the popular sandwich bars found around the city’s equally popular shopping and sightseeing regions.
Fresh fried calamari (squid) rings are loaded into crusty bread with specialty sauces or custom crafted aioli and served with a lemon wedge. The perfect accompaniment to a cold beer for a filling and refreshing early evening merienda (snack).
The most popular location for locals to enjoy one of these Madrialano treats is La Campana. Located on a side street near popular Plaza Mayor. It is not uncommon to find a line in the late afternoon of equally hungry people patiently waiting to sample and enjoy their Bocadillo de Calamares.
Churros con Chocolate
A visit to Madrid would not be complete without sampling one of it’s most famous treats, the Spanish donuts, aka the churro. A staple for locals post bar hopping and for late night treats, these are popular really anytime of the day when the desire for a sweet and decadent snack is in order.
Commonly served with hot sipping chocolate, you can find many locals enjoying one for breakfast or during the early evening merienda to tide them over until dinner hour.
The most popular location for enjoying a plate of churros is at the Chocolateria San Ginés’. San Ginés’ can be found in central Madrid within an alleyway appropriately named San Ginés’. One of the most historic locations in the city, the Chocolateria has served the thin and crunchy churro since 1894. Also serving porros it’s thicker and softer big brother, coffee’s, ice cream and many offerings of chocolate based treats, this is a local experience that is highly recommended and available 24 hours a day.
With so many options, it is clear why Madrid is known for its gastronomic experiences. We have not even touched on the many bars or bar de copas throughout the area that are the very center of Madrilonian nightlife or the markets where you can sample some of the local street cuisine. One thing we can say is that these are also experiences that will only enhance an already visit worthy itinerary.
There are many options for planning a visit to Madrid. Our favorite option is post a 7 night river cruise along the Douro river through Portugal and into Spain. Check here for more information on cruising the Douro.