A tapas guide to Madrid

Think Madrid, think sun-kissed squares, world-class museums and beautiful pastel-coloured buildings with wooden window blinds and little balconies.

All of that is true. But did you know that the Spanish capital is also a heaven for Mediterranean food lovers? Jamón, tortilla de patatas, calamares – Madrid is about all that and much more. The city is home not only to the oldest restaurant in the world (Botín) but also to some of Spain’s finest and fanciest diners. And of course, you can’t leave Madrid without having gone out for some good old cañas y tapas (small beers with a snack).

Having just returned from another long weekend in Madrid (the city I used to call home for several years), I figured it’s about time I put together a list of some of my favourite places in town to eat. And though I admit this list is far from complete, it’s a great start for any foodies (and non-foodies) thinking of spending a couple of days in this amazing city.

The authentic tapas experience

Ask any Spaniard about their evening plans and chances are they’ll say they’re going out for cañas y tapas: small beers accompanied by little plates of food. Tapas are more than just snacks to still your hunger – in Spain they are a way of life. Originally presented on a lid on top of your glass (tapa means ‘cover’) to keep your drink out of reach of insects and to whet your appetite, tapas are now a quintessential part of Spain’s culinary culture. So, whether it’s your first time in Madrid or you’re a regular, a trip to this city is not complete without going out for cañas y tapas.

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Dive in!

Almost any bar in Madrid offers small plates of food, either in the form of small bites (tapas) or bigger portions (raciones or media raciones). Although there are places where your tapa comes for free with a drink, such as El Tigre in Chueca, the best food is usually served in bars where you pay a few euros for your tapa. One of my favourites is Bodega de la Ardosa in Malasaña. This tiny bar has been around since 1892 and has some of the best tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelette) and salmorejo (thick cold tomato soup) in town (ask any local). They also do amazing grilled artichoke and tuna salads!

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Tapas at Bodega La Ardosa: just yummm

A bit more off the beaten track in Malasaña is El Pez Gordo. It may not have the elegant vintage décor of La Bodega Ardosa, but there’s more space to sit down here and the food is just as good. Try their croquetas (croquettes) and jamón (cured ham) – simple but delicious!

If you’re in Madrid on a Sunday then make sure you head to La Latina. Going for cañas y tapas in this lively neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon is a ritual amongst madrileños. The area is filled with many great tapas bars, but the oldest and most well-known ones are located in the Calle Cava Baja. Simply hop from one bar to another to try as many tapas as you can!

Best authentic tapas experience:

Traditional madrileño food

As Spain’s capital and largest city, Madrid has culinary influences from all over the country. So don’t be surprised to find paella from Valencia here alongside gazpacho from Andalusia and octopus from Galicia. But there are plenty of places to try the city’s local cuisine, too.

The madrileños love a good stew and the most typical regional dish is cocido madrileño, an earthy stew made of beef, chickpeas, vegetables, potatoes and sausage. It’s mainly eaten in winter but these days it’s served throughout the year.

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Cocido madrileño at Taberna de la Daniela

The restaurant serving the best cocido in Madrid is naturally contested among locals. I’ve only ever been to Taberna la Daniela and can say the cocido there was great. Other popular places are Malacatín (apparently so good that there’s a waiting list) and La Bola (who have been serving cocido for more than 150 years).

Best cocido madrileño:

Contemporary style tapas

Fancy tapas with a contemporary twist? Or are you simply looking for a quieter bar where you don’t have to fight for a bar stool? Luckily, tapas are not just something that can be found in the older, more traditional bars of Madrid. In fact, more and more contemporary tapas bars have been setting up shop in town in recent years.

One of my long time favourites is Lateral. Their first restaurant was such a success that they have since opened various other locations in Madrid and Barcelona. But with each of their restaurants having a different look and feel, they have managed to maintain some of its originality. Tapas at Lateral include all the classics but they also do their own creations. Add to this great cocktails and a warm, modern décor and you understand why I’m hooked to this place.

Many other nice bars that do modern takes on tapas can be found in the neighbourhoods of La Latina, Malasaña and Huertas/Letras. Places such as Juana la Loca (La Latina), La Musa (Malasaña and La Latina) and Taberna del Chato (Huertas) offer brilliant tapas in an often contemporary but intimate setting.

There are plenty of other great tapas bars I haven’t heard of or been to, so if you happen to come across an amazing new find, please do share your discovery in the comment section!

Best contemporary tapas bars:

Seafood all the way

Did you know that Madrid has the second biggest seafood market in the world, after Tokyo? You probably wouldn’t expect it in a landlocked city, but the Mercamadrid market in the outskirts of Madrid covers 22 hectares of seafood stalls. It’s just for wholesalers though, so unfortunately not accessible to curious seafood-loving-tourists such as (you and) I.

After being shipped overnight from the Spanish coast, most of the seafood sold at Mercamadrid goes directly to retailers and restaurants in Madrid. That’s why Madrid is the ideal place to taste some of Spain’s best seafood dishes.

Across town you will find tapas bars offering calamares (fried squid rings), gambas fritas (fried gambas) and pulpo (octopus). However, for the real deal you need to head to one of Madrid’s many specialised seafood restaurants. Some of the most well-known include Ribeira do Miño and Casa Gallega (both old-fashioned but brilliant Galician restaurants). And although I’ve never been there, El Cucurucho del Mar and Marisequería Rafa are supposed to be great spots for seafood as well. Do go and check them out for me!

Best seafood:

Tapas in an unconventional setting

Does having your caña and tapa in a former slaughter house sound creepy to you? Well, go and check out Matadero Madrid and you’ll likely change your mind. This huge former abattoir has been converted into an arts and cultural centre and is THE place to be not only to discover new and upcoming artistic talent, but also to go for a drink and a bite in an unconventional, industrial setting. Every last weekend of the month the massive courtyard area of Matadero turns into a farmers market and food fair called Madrid Productores, with great food and dishes from the Madrid region. An übercool location, lovely food, good vibes… What more could you wish for?!

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Fancy tapas in a former slaughter house?

If a former slaughter house doesn’t float your boat and you prefer something slightly more fancy, then maybe Platea could be your thing. This giant former cinema in the up-town neighbourhood of Salamanca has been converted into a posh-looking food court with high-end food stalls and wine bars. The stage is often being used for live shows. Bring on that bottle of cava!

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For the posher backpackers among us there’s Platea

Best unconventional setting:

Something different altogether

If you can’t see any more tortillas and croquetas and fancy something different but still quintessentially Spanish then you might be in for a treat at La Tasquería. It’s not a place for veggies though because La Tasquería is all about meat. More specifically, the tapas dishes here all evolve around organ meat… Now I know this may not sound very appealing to many people, but in Spain organ meat is considered to be a delicacy. From legs, livers, ears to brains – rather than being thrown away, every single part of an animal is used in the kitchen in Spain (go to the meat section at any Spanish supermarket and you’ll see I’m not kidding).

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Don’t get scared away by the ingredients: La Tasquería has some fabulous tapas style dishes

La Tasquería, headed by the awarded chef Javi Estevez, has its own take on some of these traditional organ meat dishes. Locals have been raving about the restaurant since it opened a few years ago and I have to say that I was positively surprised as well. Although I’m normally not a fan of organ meat, the way some of the dishes at La Tasquería were prepared and presented is innovative and appealing (though I would not order the rabbit head…). The food here is really quite delicious and the experience is worth making the short detour for.

Best alternative tapas experience:

Dessert o’clock

Finally, time for dessert, or postre as the Spanish would say. Spain is not really well-known for its sweet dishes (apart from crema catalana perhaps), but one thing they do really well is churros. These long fried doughnut-like sticks originated in Madrid and although they might not be super healthy they are oh-so delicious! Especially when dipped in a thick chocolate sauce, like they do at the Chocolateria San Ginés, an institution in Madrid. San Ginés is open 24 hours a day, so if you are craving sugar after your night out this is the place to go to!

If you’re in the mood for something more elegant, then head to Mama Framboise for Madrid’s best pastries.

Best places to still your sugar craving:

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