How to eat and drink in Madrid

There can be few places in the world where it is easier to eat and drink than Madrid. After all there’s a bar or restaurant every few metres, catering to the madrileños endless and compulsive desire to socialise. However, how to actually order what you want, and how to know what you are ordering can be confusing. This isn’t usually a linguistic problem. Most bar workers can grasp a little bit of English these days, and there’s always google translator. The real challenge is learning how to navigate your way around the many different ways to consume.

First of all let’s deal with the annoying word “tapas”. Visitors from London seeking to recreate their overpriced bowl of olives in Shoreditch experience may be alarmed to discover that there is no such thing as a tapas bar. In fact if you are in a bar in Madrid advertising itself as a tapas bar, then you have just been caught in a tourist trap. Tapas have a long and complex history in Spain. Essentially the word simply means “lid” or “cover”, and refers to the centuries old tradition of serving alcoholic drinks with a small bite to eat which was traditionally placed over the glass. But the protocol for tapas has evolved and diverged into all kinds of regional variations. In large parts of Spain there is no tradition of tapas at all. In Barcelona, and along much off the northern Atlantic coast the concept does not exist (outside purpose built tourist traps) and you get nothing with your beer, or wine. In Granada you get half a meal. In Almeria and Cadiz you are expected to pay a little extra for the tapas. In Madrid however, tapas are gloriously free, and in any half decent bar when you order a drink, at the waiter’s discretion you will be given some food with it which may vary from a small plate of olives, a morsel of ham, or cheese, or anchovies, and in the worst places some crisps or nuts. Searching out the most generous tapas bars is an art and an adventure in itself.

But of course to get your free tapas, first you have to order a drink. Here it can get confusing. If you are drinking wine then as long as you know the Spanish for red, white, and rosé, then it’s pretty straightforward, and many bars have a chalk board with the different options available. However, once you are in the world of beer, then things suddenly get complex. Not because Madrid bars serve a huge variety of beers, because they don’t. Although craft beer bars are starting to spring up, 90% of Madrid bars serve one basic type of beer, which is refreshingly cold lager made in Spain. Mahou is the classic Madrid brand, but Estrella Galicia surprisingly from Galicia, is also very common, and arguably nicer, as is Cruzcampo from the south, Estrella Dam from Catalonia, or the ubiquitous Amstel and San Miguel. The key issue is how big a beer do you want?

If you’re going for bottled beer then a small 25 cl bottle is called a “botellín” which goes down nicely with a tapa. More popular with the thirsty Brits is the “tercio” a larger 33 cl bottle, but it’s only called a tercio in Madrid. Travel outside the capital and they are likely to call it a “mediana.” For draft beer the smallest unit is a “caña.”, From there then you can go upwards to a “doble”, or in some bars further still to a “jarra” . If you find yourself in one of the city’s many “Irish” pubs then you can relax and ask for a “pinta.” The exact relative size of the “caña” or “doble” varies from bar to bar. If you are in a concert or street party you might also find the option of a massive vat of beer designed to be consumed communally, confusingly called a “mini.” If you’re on a tight budget you can wander into any number of shops and buy a “litrona” which is a litre of beer, usually mahou, but be warned, it is illegal to consume your own alcohol in the street, and the Spanish police enthusiastically impose fines as an alternative means of financing the state.

If you are bravely going to hit the spirits, then be warned that there are no foul optics here. Waiters will usually pour direct from the bottle, and can be alarmingly generous. Spirits, like rum, whisky, and gin are usually referred to as “copas” although you can also ask for a “chupito” in most bars, which is a tiny glass, usually consumed after a meal. Asides from the standard international brands Spain also specialises in its own “licores” which are made from anything from herbs, to coffee, various fruits, sloes, or honey.

Before getting into the complex question of ordering food, it can also be useful to learn the difference between different types of establishments. The word “bar” is ubiquitous, and refers to anywhere that sells drink, and usually something to eat. Some bars have restaurants incorporated into them, others don’t, but there will always be something on offer. Also some bars call themselves “cervercerías” which literally means a beer place. Lots of bars have “terrazas” where you can sit outside. The waiter usually comes to you, eventually, and it’s generally considered bad form to buy your own drink at the bar and take it outside.

The words “taberna”, “mesón”, and “posada” are more or less interchangeable, and are all places that sell drinks, and also a substantial choice of food. The lines between some of these establishments, and a restaurant are blurred, and seem to depend mainly on what the business owner fancied calling the establishment.

Anything calling itself a “pub” is likely to be more focused on nightlife, and less on food. Pubs will usually have music, and will have given a certain amount of thought to the decor. Many Spaniards Strat the evening in bars and then move on to the pubs, often in the early hours. There are of course also dozens of “Irish pubs”, not exactly the same thing, but a good place to watch televised sport. A “club” on the other hand is a brothel, and likely to be expensive, and not very salubrious. If you want to dance the night away then you are probably looking for a “discoteca” but many late night places just call themselves by their name, with entrance fees varying on the fashionability of the place at any given time.

A “cafetería” surprisingly serves coffee, and usually breakfasts, or sweets such as buns and cakes where you sit down to eat as opposed to a “pastelería” which is usually a take-away. Many cafeterias also serve beer and wine, and even spirits.

Onto the minefield of food: If you go to the right bars, and finding the right bars is a great way to explore Madrid, you can get just about get by on drinks and tapas alone. The more health conscious visitor, however, may wish to focus on the food. Next step up from tapas is a “pincho”, or a “pintxo.” In contrast to tapas you are expected to pay for these. They are usually larger portions than tapas, and bars serving pinchos will have a bar menu or a board. It’s a way of eating more generally associated with northern Spain, especially the Basque Country, but Madrid being the capital has it all.

From tapas and pinchos your next step up the culinary ladder is the “ración.”.Again most bars will have a list of “raciones.” A “ración” is a plate full of one type of food, designed to be shared by various people. A group of Spaniards will often order several raciones which come with a fork per person, and thereby you end up sharing plates full of octopus, cheese, ham, squid, or whatever you feel like trying. It’s a pleasant sociable way to eat, and allows you to explore different aspects of Spanish cuisine.

If you’re looking for a full meal then again you have options. Many, usually cheaper bars offer “platos combinados” often with photos of the choices available. These tend to be things like ham, egg, and chips, fish, salad and chips etc. Mid-week, and in some places also at weekends at a higher price your best bet is to go for the “menu del día”, a fixed price menu consisting of a choice of first course, often salad, soup, but many other things too, and then a more substantial protein based second course, plus dessert, and wine. In cheaper bars the cheap and cheerful wine is often served with lemonade called “casera.” You can still find plenty of great value menu del dias for under 10 euros, but you can pay up to 40 euros if you’re after something a bit more sophisticated. Like tapas, the quality varies enormously from bar to bar, and knowing which places do the best menu del dia is part of the wonderful experience of living in Madrid. If you insist on having a wider choice then you can just order from the “carta” or menu, and eat whatever your heart desires, but for a higher price.

Beyond that, Madrid is your gastronomic oyster. You can discover all of Spain’s immensely varied regional gastronomy in the city, as well as increasingly international food from Japanese to Ethiopian. There are also a growing number of excellent vegan restaurants. The ins and outs of Spanish cuisine is a whole other topic, but a few key words will help you. If a restaurant calls itself an “asador” it specialises in Castillian style roast meats, typical of central Spain. A “sidrería” is an Asturian cider house, selling cloudy pungent cider and usually a range of Asturian dishes such as the famous fabada bean stew. A “marisquería” will be focused on Galician shell fish, and sea food in general. A “ freiduría” serves Andalusian style fried fish. An “arrocería” will serve you Valencia style rice, dishes and if you’re lucky even a proper paella. And many places will serve you all of these things and everything in between. Whatever you fancy, if you go hungry it’s because you don’t really like eating, or you have an urgent need to open your mind to the endless possibilities of what this gastronomic stronghold has to offer. Once you’ve eaten and drank your way around Madrid you’ll never want to visit a London tapas bar again!