I very much feel like Madrid might be my spiritual home. It's a culture and a city where standing around drinking cañas (little glasses of beer) or a glass of wine warrants a small, free dish of food coming alongside it. If you want something a little more substantial, you can order from a menu, sometimes in half portions (media), or you can move on to another bar. There's no stress. In a more formal restaurant environment, often there's still a bar you can perch at if you don't want to commit your entire appetite to it. And then! Then you go down for a nap between the hours of 5pm and 8pm, before you start it all again. I mean, what's not to love?
The streets are wide, clean and tree-lined; its a very green city. We spent a very enjoyable Sunday cycling around Retiro park and going across the lake in a rowing boat. The services like the Metro and the buses are cheap and frequent, rarely crowded, certainly not to London's standards. I fell in love.
We had a lot of restaurants, bars and markets all marked out on a map; there was no way we'd ever have ben able to visit them all, but my theory is that it's good to have options. Here are our top eats:
Day 1, and how better to orient ourselves than this market is bang smack in the middle of Madrid's city centre, by the Plaza Major. It's in a big shiny building, and is full of food producers' stalls. We particularly liked the shop selling things on cocktail sticks for a Euro a go - usually olives, with anchovies or sun dried tomatoes, skewered together. We also tried melba toast topped with a generous wodge of smoked salmon, or a quenelle of bacalao, creamed together with potato. Bocadillos stuffed with Iberico jamon went for €3 a pop, and people wandered the alleys absentmindedly picking pieces of jamon from a greaseproof paper cup. We stopped off for a little beer, bolstered by tortilla which we had cold as we hadn't learnt what 'caliente' meant yet (hot). I discovered salmorejo in Seville and fell it love with it; it's just like gazpacho with the addition of bread to make it creamy, and it would turn out to be the only vegetable we'd eat in days.
Mercado San Anton is also looks to be worth a visit; unfortunately we went on a Sunday after lunch when more snacking wasn't possible, purely to have a drink on the roof terrace.
We came to Albora, a recently Michelin-awarded restaurant, only because we were promised that this place would have some incredible jamon. It's not my usual vibe on holidays - it was a bit sleek and snazzy, but the bar area was more casual than it looked. We had the 3 types of jamon, the Joselitos trilogy that came in three tiers and featured jamon across the ages. For €30 this was no trifling matter, but indeed it was some of the tastiest ham I've eaten. For good measure, we tried some croquetas but I fear nothing will beat Barrafina's; these were a little cold in the centre.
3. La Venencia - Calle de Echegaray, 7:
No pictures here, as they're not allowed. I'm not sure why. This is a sherry bar, and it's so typically Spanish. A dish of olives and a plate of peanuts were devoured as we worked our way through the Manzanilla and Fino options.
3. Casa Gonzalez:
As soon as we walked into Casa Gonzalez we both went "OOOF". The pong of cheese hits you full in the face as you walk in. The front of the place is a deli, selling cheeses and meats. Out back, tables and chairs to seat around 30. Unbeknownst to us, the menu is 70% cheese. We were overwhelmed with choice. A Galician cheese with honey came slathered on crunchy bread, while another fonduta-type melty cheese, studded with quince jelly, was pure comfort. All the bars we'd been to before were absolutely rammed with men, so much so a drunken stag placed his face in my hair in order to give it a good sniff - I KNOW - and we discovered where all the Madrilenian women were hiding - they were eating cheese on toast.
4. Street XO, El Corte Inglés de Callao, Calle de Serrano, 52
I wouldn't recommend staying out till 5am, dancing like a dickhead in a dodgy club, and then attempting to go to Street XO for your first meal of the next day. It's everything it could possibly be to be the most unfriendly to those with a hangover. But Asian Spanish fusion curiosity got the best of me. Firstly, it's tricky to locate - Google Maps says off the Gran Via, and Google also says is closed. After a bit of digging, we found it on the tenth floor of El Corte Ingles in Calle Serrano, a posh part of town. We walked into a queue at 3pm - no big deal, we're Londoners, we know queues - except banging beats are blared at you while you wait.
Once in, diners are sat around a large bar. In the middle of it, the chefs cook the dishes. I love this type of dining, as you get to have a good nosy at what everyone's cooking. Mirrors lining the bar above your head facilitated having a peer at what everyone had ordered, too.
Weirdly their chefs whites are held together with fastenings as how might get on a straight-jacket, which made me feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Woks are flaring, grills are flaming and it is pretty hot. Everyone is SHOUTING too. Hangover at DEFCON 9.
It was our ordering, I'm sure, but the first thing served to us was this still-warm razor clam with coconut cream and ponzu jelly. It was challenging. We slurped it down bravely though.
We were back in more familiar territory with Iberico pork belly ssam, and it was glorious, though I would have liked more lettuce and I'd have chucked the tartare-like sauce out. Less successful was the Kentucky fried quail, which was completely overpowered with flavour, mostly left untouched. 'Singapore laksa' made using those big, juicy red prawns, carabineros, were 'fusioned' by using large pasta shells instead of noodles, though to what better effect I'm not sure. More of an Asian bouillabase. The chef pulled the head from the body of the prawn to dish it up and held it up with his chopsticks, gesticulating towards us. "You must suck this." HANGOVER.
We paid the not inconsiderable (for Madrid) bill and went straight to the nearest park for a lie-down. It doesn't sound like I enjoyed it much, but I did really - I liked the idea behind it, I liked the madness of the menu. It was just all so... flavoursome.
The menu is pretty full-on. Ingredients are listed with provenance and cooking technique. It really tested my (lack of) Spanish, so happily the waitress did the ordering for us.
A signature dish, this tomato was peeled and topped with deep-fried basil. What you can't see is an absolutely phenomenal amount of salt buried under those basil leaves. It was delicious, but WOW it had some salt.
Another signature dish was the carpaccio, sliced like someone had taken a sliver off a sirloin steak. It was demonstrated to us by the chef - you smear the truffle paste down it, followed by a tomato pulp, and oh yes, a giant sprinkle of salt, before you roll it up. Our own concoctions, salt excluded, were far sweeter and more flavoursome.
Mange tout! Oh, dear vegetables, I hadn't seen you in a while by this point. Hello, greenery! Here, they were charcoal grilled and then drizzled with ponzu and chilli pepper. We reached up to a swinging basket above our heads, avoided showering ourselves with knives, and furnished ourselves with chopsticks to pick away at them.
Chiperones are some of my favourite creatures of the sea and now I'm not sure I can ever eat them again because here they are, so lightly seared on the grill, that when you pull the tentacles from the body what can only be described as 'goo' soon followed. Hangover.
I wish we'd eaten more here, or had more of us to be able to try more dishes, because they were really interesting; a beef dish, served tableside with raspberries and blow-torched in particular was brilliant, and we saw other couples having a dish of incredible-looking steak. They seriously like their salt though.
6. La Tagliatella
Yup, we went to an Italian restaurant in Spain. Once we'd left Sala de Despiece we realised we hadn't eaten any carbs, and once we got near our Air BnB apartment we saw the word 'carbonara' and we became rabid for a second dinner. Hangover. We didn't know it was a chain, and actually we never got that vibe. The prices are pretty punchy, coming in at around €13 - €15 per pasta dish. We soon realised why though, and we were relieved we'd been restrained and decided to share - the portions were enormous. The taglierini carbonara was just brilliant - hand-made pasta, cooked al dente, with plenty of sauce. I think it might have been once of the best pasta dishes I've ever had. Hangover.
7. Chocolateria San Gines
Down a small alleyway near the Plaza Major, Chocolateria San Gines is famous for the best churros and hot chocolate in town, as well as being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's large - you queue up to order, take your receipt and sit down, giving it to a waiter to then fetch your order. It's a nice system. Two people don't need two orders of 6 churros, and one hot chocolate is enough. After four each we were more than done. But they are heavenly, crisp sticks of light and airy dough. A perfect breakfast.
8. La Castela:
La Castela reminded me of Barrafina in atmosphere. After a solid morning flea market shopping at El Rastro (Sundays only), we headed here for some sustenance. Marble-topped high tables were ideal for perching around, and on a Sunday afternoon it was packed. We had the best tapas here; not just your usual olives (I was a bit over olives at this point), we also had fried truffled arancini balls. There is a restaurant out the back but the front bar was where it was at.
Clams cooked in Manzanilla, creamy with asparagus, were served with a hunk of bread to mop up the juices. Oxtail stew had been deboned, rich and sticky, with boulangere-like potatoes on the side. More extravagantly priced than your standard, we nevertheless declared this one of our favourite places to spend an hour, slurping on glasses of wine and eyeballing fellow diners' pork belly skewers until they take pity on you and gift you one. Yup.
9. Casa Julio
On a Sunday night, somewhat bereft of dinner plans and discovering quite a few places were closed, we headed to La Latina. So THIS is where all the young people hang out. Out in street corners, tables and chairs are set up outside bars for dozens of people to see the weekend away with. Behind drawn white curtains, Casa Julio turned people away time and time again for being fully booked. We propped up the bar with a beautiful plate of jamon and a tapa of boquerones, a crisp glass of white wine, topped up gratis.
10. Hotel Emperador
City breaks are hard, SO HARD! Sob wibble wail. After 4 solid days of sight-seeing, eating and shopping we decided a day of slobbing around was needed, and the rooftop pool at Hotel Emperador was ideal. (I'm also told this place is good, but doesn't open till July) Sure, it's €35 a head for the whole day. SURE, they charge you through the nose for drinks and food. But the pool is large and refreshing, the sun loungers are reclined, and the view is wonderful.
Madrid, te amo.
(With thanks to @jesusfdezprieto and @hermanoprimero for the tips!)