The Best of Madrid
Published: June 2009
By Anya von Bremzen
At first glance, Madrid remains stubbornly true to itself—a city where patrician señoras nibble on canapes while gleefully watching a torero being gored by a bull, where wood-paneled tascas and tiled bars spin you back to the 19th century, and where, at certain tavernas, the king might dine within pass-the-salt range of couples in faded blue jeans . . .
. . . but take another look—this time at the city's avant-garde restaurants. Join the new bohemia for handmade Pyrenean cheeses and Navarra Merlots in La Latina's new breed of tapas bars. Follow the Nokia set to the fashion-forward boutiques of Barrio de Salamanca. Could it be that Europe's biggest, and often wildest, village is leaping into the 21st century?
Guided by a handful of savvy insiders, we offer the lowdown on the trustiest traditions and the latest new wave.
"Young Spanish chefs have caught a creative fever!" exclaims food critic José Carlos Capel, whose restaurant column in the country's largest newspaper, El País, flies the banner of nueva cocina. Spain's gastronomic flames are raging in Madrid's kitchens after being ignited in Catalonia and the Basque Country half a decade ago. They're turning a town once known for tapas and tripe into Europe's latest food frontier.
Few would quibble with Capel's declaration that La Broche (31 Calle Miguel àngel; 34-91/399-3437; dinner for two $95) is the city's most thrilling new restaurant. Close your eyes to the garish seventies lobby of Hotel Miguel àngel and step into the white-on-white world of Sergi Arola, the young disciple of visionary Catalan chef Ferran AdriÀ of El Bulli. Relying on AdriÀ's futuristic vocabulary of edible foams, gelatins, and savory ice creams, Arola creates an ephemeral composition of raw seafood and seawater gelée, and pays cheeky homage to the inescapable Spanish fried egg by wrapping it in an improbably light pastry envelope that bursts with runny yolk, scallops, and truffles.
"Food from another galaxy," Capel raves about the New Age menu at the old-world La Terraza in the opulent Casino de Madrid (15 Calle Alcalá; 34-91/521-8700; dinner for two $110). Here Ferran AdriÀ himself—part Einstein, part Dalí, part Philippe Starck—has masterminded an edible Oz that rivals the florid masonry along the Calle Alcalá, visible from the restaurant's terrace. Say "ravioli" and the waiter pours a shocking-green pea purée around a cloud of milk foam, ringed by translucent bundles fashioned from Iberico ham fat and stuffed with sweet peas. Ask for menestra de verduras, normally a vegetable stew, and be treated instead to a tableau of savory mousses, granitas, and ice creams in psychedelic colors, with flavors like beet, basil, and cauliflower. Each spoonful is a variation on weightlessness; each flavor an essence of vegetable.
Want more millennial riffs on tradition?At the modish minimalist El Chaflán (34 Avda. de Pío XII; 34-91/350-6193; dinner for two $85), chef Juan Pablo Felipe Pablado tackles and tickles the palate with a riveting esencia de gazpacho by cleverly deconstructing—then reassembling—the elements of the iconic Andalusian soup into mousses and glaces.
Andrés Madrigal is another young whisk being championed by Capel. His solidly moderne Balzac (7 Calle Moreto; 34-91/420-0177; lunch for two $70) resembles a Danish design showroom. But its food is Mediterranean poetry: a scoop of olive-oil ice cream floats in a martini glass filled with mouth-tingling gazpacho; a timbale of lush scrambled egg, subtly perfumed with sea urchin, arrives garlanded by a sauce blackened with squid ink.
For a classy grown-up meal, Capel recommends El Amparo (8 Callejòn de Puigcerdá; 34-91/431-6456; dinner for two $90), where the guiding spirit is Martín Berasategui, the haute couturier of the Basque food scene. The kitchen here keeps a safe distance from the cutting edge, in contrast with Berasategui's restaurant near San Sebastián. Still, homey isn't the word that comes to mind at the charming, wood-beamed restaurant when you tuck into a napoleon of caramelized apple layered with paper-thin slices of smoked eel and foie gras. Ditto for the ravioli oozing corn cream, paired with sweet shrimp and a hint of vanilla.
Despite his penchant for the unconventional, Capel hasn't abandoned old Madrid. Rather than visit the Museo Taurino, he suggests lunching on the lentil potage at Salvador (12 Calle Barbieri; 34-91/521-4524; lunch for two $28). Every inch of the taverna is crammed with bullfighting memorabilia, and the clients themselves belong in a museum.
"The fate of Spain was decided many times over at Lhardy," Capel says of the legendary political hangout (8 Carrera de San Jerònimo; 34-91/521-3385; lunch for two $55) decorated in blood-red velvets, stamped leather, and ornate silver. Lhardy's masterpiece, the cocido, is an orgy of boiled meats, sausages, and tender chickpeas preceded by a thick, smoky broth.
Incredible fish in landlocked Madrid?"All of Spain's seafood first comes to the capital," explains Capel. "When a chef from Navarra wants Andalusian shrimp, he buys it here."
Whether it's raw clams, grilled langoustines, or a whole turbot a la plancha, the seafood is nothing short of divine at O'Pazo (20 Calle Reina Mercedes; 34-91/534-3748; lunch for two $60). Fit for a king?Indeed: O'Pazo counts the familia real among its regulars, and the owner's fishery in La Coruña supplies the palace. Reportedly, even Queen Sofia, a vegetarian, can't resist the pristine lenguado (sole).
When Daniela Cattaneo, former editor of Italy's Vogue Sposa and Vogue Bambini, arrived in Madrid in 1997 to revitalize Spanish Vogue, she thought she'd landed in another era. "After living in businesslike Milan, I rediscovered the pleasure of personal contact, the cultura humana," she says. "Shopping in Madrid is a treat: the grace and skill with which they initial your shirts, iron your pleats, and wrap your purchases."
Still, in matters of fashion, Cattaneo remains a Milanese style queen at heart. She's more at home in Madrid's couture-rich boutiques of Barrio de Salamanca than amid the bustle of the El Rastro flea market or the street-fashion carnival along Calle Fuencarral.
"When I first came to Madrid, my high heels raised a few eyebrows," Cattaneo recalls. Today, more and more well-heeled Madrileñas are making their way to Lamarca (19 Calle José Ortega y Gasset; 34-91/576-6058). Infinitely smaller than Imelda Marcos's closet, Cattaneo's favorite shoe store supplies the stiletto set with slinky, feminine footwear from the likes of Richard Tyler and Miss Rossi.
Lusting after the latest tasseled Fendi bag or peek-a-toe Prada pumps?Cattaneo says Madrid is often a better bet than Milan, where fashion victims are constantly clearing the shelves. The mere mention of Ekseption (28 Calle Velázquez; 34-91/577-4353) sends Madrid fashionistas into swoons. This minimalist sanctum of style has enough Miuccia footwear to shoe a small nation-state, plus Chlo$91's embroidered jeans and stretchy Gaultier outfits in neo-primitivist patterns.
Tiny, boutique-lined Callejòn de Jorge Juan dead-ends into the arty atelier of Sybilla (12 Callejòn de Jorge Juan; 34-91/578-1322), the only Spanish designer Cattaneo truly admires. "Her clothes are whimsical, wearable, and always original," Cattaneo says of Sybilla's flowing, color-saturated evening gowns, stylishly clunky shoes, and hip girly tops in millennial fabrics. The studio also sells hats, watches, bed linens—even Gaudíesque candles.
The coffee counter beneath a Murano glass chandelier at Elena Benarroch (14 Calle José Ortega y Gasset; 34-91/435-5144) is a magnet for Madrid's film and fashion elite. Even if Benarroch's collection of luxe European couture is beyond your reach, you'll walk away with some Santa María Novella soap and sweetly scented Parisian candles, or for him, a cigar case or cowhide shoulder bag from the young design team of Conde de Cerragería.
When Cattaneo grows impatient with the beige tones and "boring" clean lines dominating Madrid's mainstream fashion, she escapes to the clubby red-walled Delitto e Castigo (3 Calle Villanueva; 34-91/577-7729). The Italian owners' rock-and-roll flair is evident with their selection of Casa Dei red denim stiletto boots and this season's must-have rhinestones and animal-print men's shirts by Roberto Cavalli.
"To appreciate the dramatic Spanish notion of femininity," Cattaneo advises, "you should visit an old-style perfumería, like àlvarez Gòmez." The best branch is at 14 Calle Serrano (34-91/431-1656). Tortoiseshell hair accessories and custom jewelry for majas with cell phones round out the parade of cosmetics sold at this century-old empire.
For serious glitter, Cattaneo suggests Barcena (18 Callejòn de Jorge Juan; 34-91/575-1519), an antique jeweler stocked with Second Empire diadems, Art Nouveau hairpins, Art Deco cigarette cases, and 19th-century Spanish pearl-drop earrings that are as big as grape clusters.
Whether they wear rubies or rhinestones, "Madrileños consider weekend shopping at Corte Inglés a sacred ritual," Cattaneo observes. She recommends zipping into this department store, which has outlets around town, to peruse the classic shoes and bags by Spanish designer Sara Navarro, and children's clothes with goofy circus motifs by Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.
What does Cattaneo bring on her occasional visits back to Italy?Serrano ham (sorry, prosciutto). "And I love watching how they slice and wrap it," she says. "Madrid shops can turn any small detail into an art form."
In Madrid, you lunch at 2 p.m., sleep all afternoon, pretend to go back to your desk, then dress for dinner at 10:30. Reset your clocks, charge your batteries. Nowhere else—except in Dalí's liquid watches—is time more fluid.
"You know you're in Madrid when you greet the day with whisky con cola instead of café con leche," say our guides to the night. Meet the Bardem family, Spain's answer to the Fondas. Actress Pilar Bardem is the grande dame of Spanish cinema, as well as sister of the legendary film director José Antonio, and mother of Javier, who starred in the dark comedy Jamòn Jamòn and Pedro Almodòvar's darker Live Flesh.
When night falls, Javier's sister Mònica draws Madrid's artiest crowds in Madrid with her famous ham croquettes at La Bardemcilla (47 Calle Augusto Figueroa; 34-91/521-4256). The restaurant and bar pays homage to her family's trade with movie stills plastered on the walls, and dishes named after the Bardems' films.
Oh, and let's not forget her brother Carlos, actor, novelist, and maestro of the 24-hour lifestyle. Have a drink at his jam-packed tapas bar, La Carpanta (22 Calle Almendro; 34-91/366-5783), and you'll find yourself at the center of the nocturnal action in La Latina, the fast-gentrifying Castilian area just west of El Rastro flea market.
"Should we tell you about the real nightspots?" Carlos asks gleefully. "You know, the clubs that get going at one—in the afternoon!" Maybe not. Revelers comfortable with the dictionary definition of night will be happy to start after dark, perhaps by surveying the dance floor from the tiered balconies of Club Joy Eslava (11 Calle Arenal; 34-91/366-3733), a theater built in the 1850's. The still-trendy Joy is ground zero among Madrid discos, according to the Bardems, while places like Palacio de Gaviria (9 Calle Arenal; 34-91/526-6069) have been taken over by tourists. (Palacio, originally a 19th-century palace, still merits a quick copa for its stunning interior.) When the younger Bardems aren't at Joy, they join the action at Kapital (125 Calle Atocha; 34-91/420-2906). With seven floors pulsating to disco, house, funk and Latin beats, a cinema, and a restaurant with a retractable roof, it epitomizes Madrid's new fascination with fusion.
Pilar, who at 62 never tires of nightlife, unwinds with a bit of funk or soul at Kingston's (91 Calle Barquillo; 34-91/521-1568). "It's an eccentric artists' bar where they sell clay statuettes that patrons can smash against the walls—wonderful for de-stressing," she declares. Her son Javier's idea of de-stressing is swinging by the town's coolest indie rock hangout, the vast El Sol (3 Calle Jardines; 34-91/532-6490), at 4 a.m.
In summer, the action shifts to outdoor terrazas, and Madrid feels like a beach town, the Bardems say. Yuppies, bad boys, and models and their torero paramours pose against the blasted-brick façade of Madrid's old train station at La Vieja Estaciòn (Estaciòn de Atocha, Avda. Ciudad de Barcelona). More theme park than summer café, the station packs in 7,000, and has an Argentine grill house, a smorgasbord of bars, and an army of DJ's who keep the dance floor rocking into the morning.
For something more intimate, the Bardems pop into Bariecomio (Plaza de la Paja; 34-91/366-6635). The name is a play on the word for "loony bin," and the interior, with furniture hanging from the ceiling, is appropriately wacky.
Eventually, in the wee hours, the family might pound on the unmarked door at Dekonya (6 Calle Don Pedro), where professional lounge lizards gain their second wind while gazing at the Op Art wallpaper.
Could it be 7 a.m.?Time for the Bardems to refuel on churros and frothy hot chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés (5 Pasadizo San Ginés; 34-91/365-6546). Now, on to the "after-hours" clubs.
José Carlos Capel, the author of a guidebook to Madrid tapas bars, is an expert when it comes to feasting on his feet. Here's his roving guide to essential tipples and bites.
Barrio de Salamanca, before and after shopping:
Nibble on Madrid's fluffiest tortilla de patatas (potato omelette) at José Luis (89 Calle Serrano; 34-91/563-0958); flamenquin (pork and ham roll) and smoked trout at the wood-paneled Hevia (118 Calle Serrano; 34-91/561-4687); anything with bacalao (salt cod) at the spick-and-span Tasca La Farmacia (9 Calle Diego de Leòn; 34-91/564-8652); seafood and canapés at the marble counter of Taberna La Daniela (21 Calle General Padriñas; 34-91/575-2329).
Around Puerta del Sol, before and after museums:
Try the croquettes and tajadas de bacalao (salt-cod fritters) at Casa Labra (12 Calle Tetuán; 34-91/532-1405), the birthplace of the Spanish Communist Party; cured ham and chorizo at Jabugo-Sol (2 Calle Alcalá; 34-91/522-1670); incredible sherries, almonds, and mojama (cured tuna roe) amid wooden barrels and weathered walls at La Venencia (7 Calle Echegaray; 34-91/429-7313); the city's best vintages, chosen by the oenophile owner at Aloque (22 Calle Torrecilla de Leal; 34-91/528-3662).
Around La Latina and Los Austrias, at night:
Snack on fancy canapés with tall drinks at the ornate Café de Oriente (2 Plaza de Oriente; 34-91/541-3974), overlooking Madrid's most dignified square; boutique wines, cheeses, and charcuterie at the trendy Cien Vinos (17 Calle Nuncio; 34-91/365-4704); egg dishes like huevos rotos in the ur-Castilian ambience at Almendro (13 Calle Almendro; 34-91/365-4252); tripe and loads of bullfighting lore at Madrid's most historic taverna, Antonio Sánchez (13 Calle Mesòn de Paredes; 34-91/539-7826).
Having drawn attention for her fancy footwork in Mission: Impossible 2, dancer Sara Baras is currently the It Girl of nuevo flamenco. Her stamping ground?The narrow streets around Plaza Santa Ana, where tiled bars and performance spaces are being reclaimed by young dancers and cantaores.
When not traveling with her troupe, Baras holds court at Casa Patas (10 Calle Cañizares; 34-91/369-3394), the preferred flamenco hangout, where dances are staged in back.
The beat at her favorite clubs, Suristán (7 Calle de la Cruz; 34-91/532-3909) and Cardamomo (15 Calle Echegaray; no phone), swings from nuevo flamenco to world music, while the grotto-like Candela (2 Calle del Olmo; 34-91/467-3382) lets rising stars break into cante jondo after 3 a.m.
WESTIN PALACE 7 Plaza de las Cortes; 800/228-3000 or 34-91/360-8000, fax 34-91/360-8100; doubles from $345. One wonders where Madrid's society weddings were held while this beloved 1912 landmark was undergoing its nine-month, $42 million renovation. It emerged from the makeover in 1997, all polish and glitz—and, at last, with a smiling staff. The Rotunda once again bustles with Madrilenian action (when did you last see a chain-smoking bride?), crowned by a stained-glass dome. Even old-timers, who quip that you need sunglasses to face the blinding hallway carpets, applaud the tasteful efficiency of the guest rooms.
THE RITZ 5 Plaza de la Lealtad; 800/223-6800 or 34-91/701-6767, fax 34-91/701-6789; doubles from $350. If the Westin Palace is a BMW sedan, then the Ritz is a vintage Bentley. Facing its archrival across Plaza Neptuno, the Ritz attracts a higher percentage of leisure travelers and exudes Edwardian civility rather than Belle Époque gaiety. (King Alfonso XIII, who commissioned the Ritz, wanted a proper British hotel in his town.) Compensating for the compact size of the standard doubles are their plushness and period details, like the 1910 marquetry, writing desks, and Ritz signature table lamps. Note: The Ritz is discreetly renovating its 154 rooms, so book judiciously and ask for a room that hasn't been redone—an entire era can vanish with the disappearance of just one faded bedspread.
HOTEL AC SANTO MAURO 34 Calle Zurbano; 34-91/319-6900, fax 34-91/308-5477; doubles from $236. While Madrid's other hotels trumpet the names of celebrity guests, Santo Mauro zealously guards their privacy—a definite draw for movie stars, statesmen, and one Seattle software tycoon. Tucked among mansions in the residential barrio of Chamberí, this Neoclassical palacio is a quick cab ride from practically anywhere. A Barcelona design team has appointed the guest rooms with Oriental rugs, sleek velveteen and Art Deco furniture, and contemporary paintings.
HOTEL BAUZÀ 79 Calle Goya; 34-91/435-7545, fax 34-91/431-0943; doubles from $108. Those who appreciate the streamlined, up-to-the minute aesthetic of the W hotel chain will feel at home at the year-old Bauzá, a stark essay in blond woods, soothing whites, and brushed steel in the posh Barrio de Salamanca. The price is so right, you might consider upgrading to one of the loft-like suites, certain to appeal to young dotcom entrepreneurs. The lobby doubles as a library. And instead of a boutique, there's an elegant glass case with Nepalese shawls, Antonio Mirò ties, and jewelry for sale.
VILLA REAL 10 Plaza de las Cortes; 34-91/420-3767, fax 34-91/420-3767; doubles from $228. A few yards behind the Palace, the 115-room Villa Real is no poor relation, just a different breed of hotel. (It belongs to a Catalan boutique chain that owns the Philippe Starck—designed Claris in Barcelona.) Regulars return for the chic, intimate air, the city's most cheerful and obliging staff, and a collection of Roman mosaics and statues worthy of a provincial museum. Regrettably, the split-level doubles and duplex suites are a touch claustrophobic. But you won't spend much time in your room—not with the Prado, Thyssen, and Plaza Santa Ana at your doorstep.
. . . getting intimate with the Velázquezes and Goyas at the Prado.
. . . renting a rowboat in Retiro Park.
. . . sipping mojitos at Chicote (12 Gran Vía; 34-91/532-6737), where Ava Gardner quaffed iced gins and Buñuel ordered his dry martinis.
. . . making Sunday rounds of El Rastro flea market, devoting quality time to the antiques in Galerías Piquer (29 Calle Ribera de Curtidores).
. . . gawking at the Gran Vía, with its dizzying lineup of early-20th-century architectural styles.
. . . catching a contemporary art exhibition at the Círculo de Bellas Artes (42 Calle Alcalá; 34-91/531-7700).
. . . dedicating a day to the blue-chip art collections of the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía museums.
. . . attending an opera at the newly restored Teatro Real (Plaza Isabel II; 34-91/516-06600).