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One of the reasons Madrid is one of my favorite cities in the world is because of it’s amazing food, especially tapas. Spanish tapas are small plates of food ordered in bars to “picar” (snack on) for dinner or lunch-it’s possible to “tapear” at any point of the day or night. Who better to ask than Madrid based TPG contributor Lori Zaino to give us her picks for the top 5 best tapas spots in Madrid!
To preface, I must explain that each tapas bar falls into a category, either gourmet or hearty. The gourmet tapa is usually small, and with something a bit more delicate, for example, foie with a cranberry sauce. Usually this small tapa is meant for one person only. Tostas fall into this category-a small food item on a piece of toasted baguette. Typically, this can be meat, fish, cheese, pate, the options are endless. The other category is hearty. This is a larger plate left on the table for a few people to share, though not to be confused with a “racion” which is an even larger plate meant to share. Hearty tapas include servings of paella, cheese, ham-usually a “comfort” food.
In the south of Spain, often times when you order a drink (even just a bottle of water) there are places which will give you a free tapa to snack on as you have your drink. A few beers later, you realize you’ve eaten a full dinner at no extra charge! When you consider how much drinks may cost in the US, this doesn’t seem like a great deal. However, a glass of wine or beer is rarely above 2.50 euros in Madrid and it becomes evident how amazing free tapas are. The free tapas bars are a rarity in Madrid, but I do have one place on my list which actually offers free tapas when you order a drink!
You can find tapas at almost every bar or restaurant in Madrid, so it was tough to narrow it down, but here are my top picks for tapas in Madrid.
1. Mercado De San Miguel: Gourmet Tapas
Plaza de San Miguel, s/n, 28005 Madrid
The Mercado de San Miguel is one of my favorite spots in Madrid for tapas and for ambiance. Conveniently located next to the Plaza Mayor, these is easily accessible and right in the city center. The market used to be a food market where people would come to actually do their grocery shopping. Threatened by the growth of larger supermarket chains, the market began to suffer. It was “saved” and renovated into a gourmet market in 2009. It is the only steel structural market in Madrid, which is interesting as all the others are now gone.
The market is open from 10 am to midnight every day, except it stays open until 2 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There are 33 stalls dedicated to serving all kinds of tapas, cheeses, meats, seafood, pastries and let’s not forget the drinks: all types of wines, beer and cocktails. My personal favorite is a small section in the back. One end serves a selection of tostas and delicious wines and just across, the pastry stand! This is a great place to come around the holidays too, as they change some things around and you can purchase all sorts of gourmet food items as gifts as well. This was also the site where TPG accidentally squirted an elderly woman in the eye with a “percebe” (a Spanish seafood delicacy translated as a “goose barnacle”) a few years ago. Still laughing.
Tips: As it’s located right in the main tourist area, this spot is the most touristy of the bunch. So expect crowds. Also, there are not a lot of places to sit, as is the case with many tapas bars, so be prepared to stand for awhile as you drink and eat (this is common in Spain).
2. Mercado de San Anton: Gourmet
Calle de Augusto Figueroa, 24, 28004 Madrid
The concept of the Mercado de San Anton is completely different than that of the Mercado de San Miguel. Located in the trendy neighborhood of Chueca, the market is divided into the 3 parts. The first floor is for shoppers. You can go in and buy your fresh fruit, meats, fish and more. The products are all fresh and high end-this isn’t your neighborhood chain grocery store.
The second level of the market is where things start to get fun. There are several different stands of tapas and food, but not just Spanish tapas. They also offer small plates from other types of cultures as well, like Greek tapas, sushi, and more in addition to plenty of Spanish tapas. In fact, my personal favorite is the small plate of feta cheese and peppers from the Greek tapas stand, complete with a Mythos beer.
The third level, though it isn’t really for tapas, is a rooftop bar and restaurant. The restaurant isn’t anything to rave about, but sitting rooftop on a sunny spring day with a wine spritzer in your hand after you’ve had a few tapas on the second floor, well I’d consider that heaven. In the evening, things get classier with a trendy crowd hanging out upstairs at the rooftop bar.
Tips: Prices are still reasonably however slightly higher than the Mercado de San Miguel-you pay for the “cool” atmosphere. Be ready to stand here as well, chairs are hard to come by in the tapas section.
3. Entre Caceres y Badajoz: Hearty
Calle de Don Ramón de la Cruz, 109, 28001 Madrid
This place opened about a year or two ago in the “Upper East Side-esque” neighborhood Barrio Salamanca in Madrid. Structured like a true Spanish neighborhood bar, it’s fairly small with stools to sit on around giant round barrels as tables, with a small separate room for reserved dinners and lunches. The first time I ever went in, I ordered a vino tinto (red wine). They brought it over, along with a small plate of paella. I explained I didn’t order the food, and the waiter then said “No, es una tapa.” I couldn’t believe my ears! Free tapas in Madrid! I had stumbled upon a gold mine. Slowly this place has become so popular that it’s packed every single night of the week. Spanish dinnertime is between 9-10;30 pm, and if you don’t arrive by 8, there’s no way you will get in. Word has spread, and everyone wants a piece of their free tapas.
The “racion” plates are so cheap anyway that if you are still hungry after a few drinks and some tapas, it won’t break your budget to order some more. I highly recommend the huevos rotos (broken eggs over a plate of fried potatoes with ham) or the plates of Iberian ham or Manchego cheese.
This place is virtually unknown to tourists. The waiters do not speak English, and this bar is a typical neighborhood Spanish bar, so if you are looking for authentic, you’ve got it!
Tips: They close between 5:30-7:30 to clean between lunch and dinner. You have a small window to arrive for dinner before the crowds take over-go for it!
Plaza de Santa Ana, 12. 28012 Madrid
Lateral has several locations around Madrid, and while I usually don’t opt for chain restaurants, this place is special. It’s known around Madrid for having the best “tostas” and almost all their locations have great outdoor terraces. I recommend heading to the most famous one, the location in the Plaza Santa Ana near Sol.
A nice option to order is the “Degustacion” which is the tasting platter. It comes with several different types of tostas, including my favorite, the “solomillo con cebolla caramelizada”-it’s a small piece of sirloin with caramelized onions on a toasted slice of baguette. The tasting platter is perfect for two.
Tips: This place also fills up, especially the outdoor section. I recommend arriving by 8-8:30 on a weekend if you want to get a table quickly. The house Rioja wine, LAN, is a good and economic choice. Also, make sure to keep an eye on your personal belongings at the Santa Ana patio seating. This area, while not dangerous, is notorious for pickpockets.
5. Vi Cool: Gourmet
Calle de las Huertas nº12 28012 Madrid
Vi Cool is a restaurant especially dedicated to tapas. It’s a Sergi Arola restaurant, who is a Spanish Michelin starred chef. Most of his other restaurants are much pricier, so Vi Cool is a great way to sample some amazing Sergi Arola cooking without waiting months for a reservation or breaking your bank account.
Located in the funky, punk rock Huertas neighborhood, this restaurant offers a tapas tasting lunch menu for just 20 euros ($27). The name Vi-Cool stands for Vi as in the first syllable in Vino, the Spanish word for wine, and cool, because the place is cool!
Make sure to try the grilled “cocas” which is a type of pizza from the Catalunya region. It’s their specialty.
Tips: Try to make a reservation beforehand to make sure you get a spot. Even with a reservation, you may have to wait for a bit at the bar, so be prepared.
6. Cava Baja Street: Hearty and Gourmet
Instead of a particular place, I thought including the entire Cava Baja Street was valid for this post. Every Sunday, the entire city of Madrid comes out mid afternoon to enjoy beers and tapas in sunny La Latina along Calle Cava Baja.
“A Sunday in La Latina”. Honestly, I have never seen anything like this on a Sunday in any other city of my life. This experience will show you just how much fun and happy Madrid is. Everyone is out and enjoying life. There isn’t even one specific place to hit up, I recommend just strolling along and seeing where the street takes you and popping in and out of spots to try different tapas.
Tips: If you aren’t one for crowds, or day drinking, I would suggest going here on another night of the week, like a Thursday or Friday. There will still be people out and about, but it won’t be packed and if will give you a chance to experience different places without the crowds.
Your Tapas Cheat Sheet:
Jamon Serrano: Specialty Iberian ham
Jamon Serrano de Bellota: Acorn fed specialty Iberian ham
Queso Manchego: Manchego Cheese
Paella: Seafood rice
Adobo: Mixed fried fish
Tosta: Small slice of toasted baguette bread
Patatas Bravas: potatoes in a mildly spicy tomato based sauce
Huevos rotos: Fried eggs over potatoes
Migas: Literally translated to “crumbs”, is fried breadcrumbs with other ingredients like sausage or eggs.
Queso de cabra: goat cheese
Croqueta: A fried stick of cheese, fish or ham
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