Ever wonder the history and origin of Tapas? At some point in your life, you’ve probably enjoyed a variety of cold and hot small plates instead of one big meal. In bars in Spain, Tapas is a culture onto itself. It is a night out with friends hopping from bar to bar throughout the night. Locals also grab tapas around noon before their actual lunch later in the day. They are meant to be eaten in between the main meals, usually with a drink in a social setting. There are no tapas restaurants, just tapas bars.
The word “tapas” is derived form the Spanish verb tapar, which means to cover, or to top. Its origin has been linked to many different legends. One states that in a bar, a piece of meat such as ham, or bread was given out and it was to be placed on top of the drink to protect it from fruit flies. Another tale says that since people would mostly stand while they ate in the Spanish bar, they would need to place their plates on top of their drinks in order to eat. A third claims that when King Alfonso X was sick, he had wine and small dishes throughout the day, and believed that’s what healed him. When he got better, the king mandated all wine be served with a small snack. A fourth possibility involves Felipe III who tried to keep the soldiers and sailors in line. He passed a law that when one purchased a drink, the bartender was to place a lid containing food on top of the mug or goblet so the alcohol would not absorb so quickly. However, no matter the origin, I had a blast eating my way through Madrid just like a local!
Since there are countless restaurants and bars around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor area, I went with a company that specializes just in tapas tours! With so many options, I wanted to make sure I was trying the best! I took Devour Madrid’s Nighttime Tapas, Taverns, and History Tour and also their morning Huertas Neighborhood Food and Market Tour. So how do you know a good tapas bar? Lauren Aloise is the co-founder of Devour Madrid and says, “Most people would consider the dirty floor of a restaurant a bad thing, but not in Spain. A floor filled with crumpled up napkins, shrimp shells and olive pits is a good thing in Spain, meaning that the bar is a popular place. Stories say that one hundred years ago some not-so-honest restaurants would steal the trash from other bars’ floors, to make it look like they were popular too!” When choosing the bars for her tour, she takes into consideration the quality of the food and highlights small and medium family run businesses that have an interesting history and story to tell.
We started the morning tour with homemade porras and chocolate, a breakfast staple. The porra is a fried pastry, like a churro, just thicker. It is then dipped in a rich cup of chocolate. There’s nothing like a good sugar spike to start your day! Other traditional tapas include Iberian Ham and other cured meats. Seafood is a staple, including anchovies, sardines, octopus, cod, and shrimp, all prepared many different ways, usually either on a piece of toasted bread or in garlic, parsley and olive oil. It’s not uncommon to see a plate of octopus sprinkled with paprika and drizzled in olive oil.
On the evening tour, we first stopped in at Taberna Real in Plaza de Isabel for some toasted bread with fresh tomato and extra virgin olive oil and a glass of Vermouth on tap. The freshly fried garlic and chili shrimp is a staple at La Casa del Abuelo, which has been around for over 100 years, and not to be missed. At Bodegas Ricla, Ana lives upstairs and cooks all the tapas in her kitchen. The freshly pickled anchovies in garlic and parsley and her “off-menu” are must haves in this tavern that’s been in existence since 1867.
With so many bars and food from which to choose in a night, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the options. James Blick, the other co-founder of Devour Madrid offers the following advice on how to get the most out of your tapas experience. “The bar is the beating heart of a tapas joint. It’s where the action is. So forget sitting at a table, and thrust your way to the bar. Don’t order a million plates at once. Order bit by bit. There’s no rush when you’re out for tapas!”
Top picks for Tapas:
This bar first opened as a bodega (wine shop, selling wine from the barrel) in 1867. Back then people didn’t buy bottles of wine, but would take their container to fill it up from the barrels in bodegas, and while there, they might grab a snack of boquerones en vinagre (anchovies marinated in vinegar) or some cheese. Thirty years ago the current family took over the tavern, and now the mother Ana does all the cooking (much of the prep done in her kitchen in her apartment upstairs) and her two sons, Emilio and José Antonio, run the bar. They still specialize in wines (though no longer sell from the barrel) and the food is still very simple, reflecting the fact that the bar doesn’t have a full kitchen (as it was originally a shop). The menu consists of Madrid’s most famous boquerones en vinagre, cheeses, salt-cod and one or two hot dishes.
If you’re the more adventurous type, Casa Toni serves tapas made of body parts that are probably not on your everyday diet. In addition to some staples like the their mini green peppers and eggplant, you’ll find organ meats such as grilled kidneys, fried glands, and braided lamb intestines. Don’t worry – they offer plenty of wine and sangria to wash it all down!
Calle de la Cruz 14, 28012
La Casa del Abuelo:
This family-run bar was founded by the current owners’ great-grandfather in 1906, and was known for its sandwiches (bocadillos). But then came the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 and the conflict left Madrid devastated. In the early 1940s there was widespread hunger in the city, and a shortage of bread. This made it impossible for La Casa del Abuelo to continue selling sandwiches. So the current owners’ grandfather went to the market and bought shrimp, which were cheap. And the bar began selling grilled shrimp. These days it’s the most famous place in the city (and perhaps Spain) for gambas (shrimp) on the grill, as well as gambas al ajillo.
Calle de la Victoria, 12 and Calle de Toledo, 11
Mercado de San Miguel:
This is a great spot to sample a variety of unique and traditional tapas. The market stresses fresh and season dishes. There is a variety of food for all palates. The fish noodle known as the elver, which can be served plain, with shrimp, or in a sandwich with smoked salmon, is a must try. Centrally located in the Plaza de San Miguel and the last remaining iron market hall in Madrid, it’s a fun spot to spend an hour or two.
Plaza de San Miguel, s/n, 28005
Mercado de Antón Martín:
This two level market is stocked with organic food stalls, wine bars and Iberian ham and cheese shops. There is an area dedicated to cooking demonstrations and small art exhibits and a shop that only sells craft beers. The market reflects an indie vibe, which is a reflection of its neighborhood. The area borders Madrid’s immigrant barrio and has a distinctly bohemian personality. http://www.mercadoantonmartin.com
Calle de Santa Isabel, 5, 28012
Mesón del Champiñón: A fun atmosphere with a lively piano player, their menu consists of their famous mushrooms and regular tapas. The mushrooms are addictive, filled with olive oil, garlic, parsley and chorizo. The décor is also reflective of the fun environment.
C/ Cava de San Miguel, 17, 28005
Places to stay while exploring Madrid:
Hotel Urso: This beautiful hotel was taken over and transformed into the progressive property it is today. The 20th-century palace is close to the Prado Museum and a three minute walk from the Tribunal metro stop. The pop up restaurant, “The Table By…,” within the hotel was my favorite. Every few weeks, the restaurant is completely transformed into a new space with a chefs from various regions in Spain. The Majorcan tasting menu we had was magnificent and the decor a true reflection of the region.
Room Mate Oscar: “Do you want to sleep with me?” That is the first sign you see as you approach this hotel, which is part of a cluster of other Room Mate hotels in Madrid. Each one has its own character and Room Mate Oscar is a very reasonably priced boutique hotel in a great location just a minute from the Gran Via. Its chic rooftop bar is popular with hotel guests and locals. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful.