Among food-savvy Madrileños, it’s become fashionable to limit the tapeo to a couple of quality places per night. Normally these are bars attached to small chef-driven restaurants in upscale neighborhoods away from the historic center—for instance, the elegant leafy streets around the Retiro park. I never come to Madrid without snagging a decadent canapé of whipped blue cheese and cured-duck ham at La Castela, which still generously honors the ritual of serving a free nibble with each new drink order. Having to balance plate in hand at this jumping taberna patinated by time is small gripes compared with the luxury of the plush revuelta (egg scramble) of fava beans and wild asparagus, or milhojas de ventresca, a luscious, glossy layering of tomato confit, roasted peppers, and tuna belly in a green puddle of basil oil. Around the corner and run by the same Andalusian family, La Monteria offers a warm salad of partridge and bitter greens scattered with pomegranate seeds that I’d choose for my last meal on earth.
One night, my pal Juan Manuel Bellver, the editor of El Mundo newspaper’s culture and dining supplement, urges us on to Taberna Laredo, a block from the Retiro. One bite, and we’re blown away, by featherlight tempura of baby vegetables highlighted with a sweet-tart reduction of sherry vinegar. It seems incongruous, feasting on truffled beef tartare and porcini-and–foie gras risotto in a plain brown joint where only a pile of fresh morels on the counter betrays the kitchen’s ambition. The ingredient-obsessed David Laredo is at the stoves; his brother features pioneering producers on his 250-label carta de vinos. As Juanma holds forth on the deep straw color of a biodynamic Albariño called Sketch, a famous chef, with an equally illustrious food critic in tow, shows up for supper, post-bullfight. Clearly, Laredo is this season’s insider secret.
Madrileños are omnivorous in their tapas enthusiasms. Truffled foie gras bombón?¡Fenomenal! Yet they remain loyal to the roster of iconic counter fare: ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-y potato salad), jamón-studded croquetas, moonlike tortillas. And above all, callos, that great Madrid specialty of tripe braised forever with smoky charcuterie. When my friend José Carlos Capel, food critic for the newspaper El País, publishes his "best of" dish list, Puerta 57 usually wins in most of these categories. Neither folksy nor funky nor fashionable, this brightly bourgeois bar swathed in polished wood is attached to the restaurant inside the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, home to the Real Madrid soccer team. A perfect order here unfolds like this: after a few crisp, plump croquetas, move on to a plate of coquinas (dime-size clams), and pulpo gallego, slices of both octopus and supremely buttery yellow potatoes under a dusting of paprika. Follow that with the city’s definitive callos and/or a fabada, an Asturian white bean–and–smoked meat pot, here rendered as light as cuisine minceur. With an order of fried green Padrón peppers, please. Eat it all while watching Zidane’s greatest goals on the video screen. If only every sports bar served wondrous "white shrimp" from Huelva and seafood rice that smacks of the Mediterranean. Yes, yes, you must try those too.
Anya von Bremzen is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor and author of The New Spanish Table.