The Drinker's Guide to Madrid
Our man in Spain's capital offers his top spots for sipping and eating.
Fifteen years ago, when I decided to move to Madrid, a friend asked me why I didn’t choose Barcelona. In his view, my pick was a provincial town. Culturally and gastronomically, the Catalan capital was the cosmopolitan option, he said. And it had a beach! Madrid was in a weird position: It was the biggest city in one of the most-visited countries in Europe but most travelers treated it as just a layover on the way to their final destination. For those on the food-and-drink beat, this meant spending a few days in the Basque Country or Seville and actively trying not to spend a night in Madrid.
I’m happy to report my friend was wrong and I was right. In the late aughts, Madrid was already a fascinating city, vibrant day and night, 7 days a week and worthy of a longer stay. It seems people are now catching up: The city has become a hot touristic destination, with big luxury hotels and hospitality groups moving in, raising fear that the city’s fabric will be lost. Right now, though, I would say Madrid is better for visitors than it has ever been. Spain’s capital still offers plenty of the charms of its ‘provincial’ days but overall quality and diversity has raised considerably with the influx of new talents and, why lie, money.
To the Everyday Drinker, Madrid offers one of the best opportunities in the world for… All Day Drinking. There’s a strong tradition of vermouth and sherry bars catering for the lunch trade and many cocktail bars open relatively early (from 4pm) to catch the post-lunch crowd. And while only five years ago the city had very little dedicated wine places, we’re going through a wine bar boom, where young sommeliers showcase some of the best of the upcoming generation of Spanish winemakers. Even coffee, long a shameful black mark on Madrid’s reputation, is going through a golden age!
Bar crawls start early in Spain. Back in the 19th century, Andalusians invented a lovely tradition, ‘Las Onces’ (The Elevens), named after the hour you’d head to the bar for a glass of manzanilla and a few almonds to see you through until lunchtime. Alas, at eleven, Spaniards now go for coffee and tortilla. But wait until 12.00 and it’s vermouth time! The city centre is filled with century-old taverns, and all serve cheap vermouth on tap and a small snack. In Malasaña, long central Madrid’s alternative district, La Ardosa is one of the best known stops on the vermouth route, and offers stunning tortilla or artichoke confit so the aromatized wine doesn’t go to your head. The nearby Casa Camacho is also a must-visit, if only to taste its Yayo, their house ‘cocktail,’ based on a mix of draft vermouth, (no sugar) lemon soda and cheap gin. Bodegas Rosell (near the Reina Sofia Museum), La Dolores (a stone’s throw from the Prado) and Casa Alberto (in lively Huertas, also a great spot for a ‘light’ lunch of tortilla with tripe and oxtail stew) are other household names.
There’s also a new wave of aperitivo spots are now opening up, chief among which Hermanos Vinagre (three locations) for a modern (and pricey) take on traditional pre-prandial fare. We would also be remiss not to mention one of Madrid’s best kept secret: the Media Combinacion at Lhardy. Lhardy is a Madrid institution, a 184 year-old restaurant, and its ground floor shop is a common stop for locals who want a rest from shopping downtown: a consommé topped with a few drops of sherry, a croqueta, a small sandwich…But people in the know order the Media Combinacion, once Madrid’s favorite cocktail, a mixture of vermouth (obviously), gin, orange liqueur and bitters served over ice in a short glass.
Last but not least, impossible to talk about aperitivo in Madrid without a mention to La Venencia, Madrid’s beloved sherry spot. Opened in 1928, the bar has been owned for about forty years by the same family. The sherries they source from a couple of providers and stock in barrels behind the bar are excellent, but it’s the vibe that makes the place. It looks like what you’d expect: dusty, dark, filled with barrels and bottles. The waiters don’t suffer fools, tips are forbidden and so are photos. The only drinks they serve are tap water and sherries. You’ll feel welcome.
New Wine Bars For New Wines
I know it sounds crazy but it’s the truth: For the longest time in Madrid, only select restaurants had a good wine selection. The very concept of a wine bar on the European mode was alien to the city. Thankfully, this has changed, with a new wave of (relatively) young sommeliers launching their own businesses. There are now too many options to mention and Eric Asimov recently did a good selection of wine bars for the New York Times but here are our favs.
DisTinto, a 5 minute walk from the Prado, is the ideal place to think about all the art you’ve just seen. Its wine selection is wide and fairly priced, the food is tasty, slightly updated Spanish tavern classics and you won’t find a better by-the-glass sparkling wine list in town. Berria, right by landmark Puerta de Alcala, is distinctly more upscale. With more than 100 wines by the glass and 2,000 references on the list, this place offers good value for old vintages from Spain and beyond. The food is also very good, with consulting chef Juanjo López, of produce temple La Tasquita de Enfrente, in charge of the menu.
For fans of fermented options in general, La Canibal, in diverse Lavapies neighborhood, is another must: Strong on beer, wines (often natural) and cheese, this local wine lovers’ favorite is an offshoot of the family’s Galician restaurant that’s still thriving next door.
Our favorite place, however, is Angelita. Not that it’s a better wine bar than the other ones we’ve just mentioned, mind. It’s just because of all the options it offers under just one roof. Angelita is owned by two brothers, one a sommelier, the other a bartender. The wine bar/restaurant on the ground floor has one of the city’s most interesting by the glass selection with about a 100 rotating picks, but you don’t really need to know that: the trick here is to let the staff know what you feel like and they will surprise you.
The food is also noteworthy, with most vegetables (including life-changing tomatoes in season) sourced from the owners’ family garden. The only downside is that, victim of its success, Angelita is a wine bar where it’s difficult to come drink if you don’t have a lunch or dinner reservation. Downstairs is also worthy of an extended visit, as the cocktail bar has one of the most fascinating programs in Spain. Mostly low in alcohol, all cocktails are based one the same self-grown produce as the restaurant and so vary with the seasons. Wine also plays a big part in many of the recipes. Angelita is also a flagship of the no-waste movement: No ice is harmed in the making or serving of cocktails here and quite a bit of the ingredients are made on site with the waste from the kitchen.
Mixing It Up
Angelita is not the only game in town when it comes to cocktails. Whether you’re into classics, old school service, neighborly vibes or all-out creativity, Madrid’s got you covered. One of the best known bars is the multi-awarded Salmon Guru, logically on the wishlist of most people spending a few days in the city (be prepared to queue). But nearby Viva Madrid, under the same ownership, is another jewel and with its authentic 19th century mosaics and well preserved interiors, probably one of the most beautiful bars in the world. You can get some classics and some more creative drinks here, but you should really get a Media Combinacion, the typically madrileño aperitif cocktail we’ve discussed above, with a gilda, a vinegary olive/anchovy/peppers skewers that will put you in the mood for more food.
Fans of classics well executed are also spoiled for choice, with 1862 Dry Bar, The Dash, or Savas all offering excellent drinks, some strictly by the book, others a bit more creative. Try, respectively, the Adonis with extra old sherry at 1862 Dry Bar, the sensational Espresso Martini at The Dash and the smoked Whisky Sour at Savas.
For more creative drinks that are still perfectly balanced (something that’s unfortunately less and less common in modern cocktail bars), Momus is a great little place where, much like Angelita, many of the ingredients are made on the spot and used in playful twists on known templates —their version of the Kingston Negroni is already a city classic. And Isa, inside the Four Seasons hotel, is one of the leading lights of the less-is-more movement, with simple drinks elevated by one, two at the most house-made ingredients, whether it’s fermented pineapple and coconut or clarified kiwi.
We cannot close this section without a thought for Dry Martini drinkers: Madrid is probably one of the best Dry Martini cities in the world. There’s the lunchtime Dry at the (very, very) old school, “aristocratic” Milford or Richelieu, or at the more modern, inclusive lobby bar at the Edition hotel (where both Punch Room and Peruvian bar Oroyoa are well worth a visit, the latter for its stunning Pisco Sour). There’s the late afternoon Dry at the swanky Pictura Bar at the Ritz. Above all, there’s the early evening Dry at Del Diego, made exactly as Buñuel loved them by the sons of a man who use to make them for the famed Spanish director: bone dry, with the slightest hint of vermouth and perfectly chilled. And you could also end the night with one last Dry at the riotous, gothic looking and very loud Santos. But maybe that’d be one too much.
So much to drink! Where’s the food? Luckily, all the aperitivo and wine places we’ve listed do have a full kitchen and offer great fare. Many of the cocktail bars do too, with the food at Salmon Guru (fusion), Isa (Japanese) and Oroya (Peruvian) deserving a special mention.
Away from bars, we’d like to recommend three restaurants where readers of this newsletter should find their happy place. Vinoteca García de la Navarra offers fantastic, produce-based food with dishes that err on the conservative side but never disappoint. The wine list is fantastic. Taberna Verdejo also has great produce, with a focus on homemade charcuterie and escabeches (food cured in vinegar), and a superb sherry selection. Lakasa offers produce-based Spanish cooking with a French twist and a lovely wine selection. Produce and great wines sensibly priced: here’s a pattern we can get all behind.