The country that gave the world paella offers an impressive and mouthwatering bounty of cuisine – or more properly speaking, cuisines, with regional variations and specialities. And its capital, at the heart of Castile with a culinary history dating back many centuries, is no exception. While Madrid‘s culinary offering includes all of Spain‘s regions as well as an increasingly international tinge, visitors who appreciate good food as well as fascinating history should definitely make time to dine at some of the oldest and most traditional restaurants (including the oldest still operating restaurant in the entire world). Here are seven of the most prominent, in order of “seniority”. ¡Buen provecho!
Madrid’s most famous dining spot was founded in 1725 and is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records not merely as the oldest in Madrid and Spain but also the entire world. Located on the traditional-restaurant row of Calle Cuchilleros, just below the Plaza Mayor, its premises exude history and literature, from the brick arches of its basement dining area to the floors above, decked out with wood beams, historic paintings, ornate tilework and wood wainscoting (and speaking of history and literature, the legendary Ernest Hemingway had his own table on the second floor whilst living in Madrid as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s; he even wrote here after knocking back a couple of bottles of fine Rioja, and mentioned Botín in The Sun Also Rises. The longtime stars of its wide-ranging classic menu are cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and cordero asado (roast suckling lamb) from Segovia. Calle Cuchilleros 17.
Just off the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s Times Square, this was Madrid’s very first true fine-dining restaurant (back in the day, it was mostly taverns and bars with a rustic, casual atmosphere). In 1839 Frenchman Émile Lhardy imported a concept then in vogue in Paris: a fixed menu, proper tables, and a rather elegant ambiance meant to seduce the bourgeoisie seeking refined fare and long after-dinner conversations; it also became the salon of royalty, aristocracy, politicians, and sundry celebrities throughout the decades (historic decisions were taken in its Japanese Salon). Lhardy perfected classic local recipes such as cocido madrileño (a hearty chickpea stew with a variety of meats and other vegetables) while also offering a selection of French and other Continental dishes like confîts, vol au vent, and fine pastries (which you can still buy at the shop on the ground floor), playing an important part in turning Madrid into a cosmopolitan capital. Although cocido is the top house speciality, other famous ones worth try are glazed venison with pear confit and rabo de toro (wine-braised oxtail). Carrera de San Jerónimo 8.
Established in 1860 as an unpretentious pub where workers sipped wine from tumblers, Casa Labra – also around the corner from the Puerta del Sol – is especially known in Spain as place where the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (which by the way currently governs the country) was founded in 1879. Behind its dark-wood façade it evolved over the years into a proper restaurant and retains its old-timey décor – more restrained and less “busy” than many of is contemporaries. As for the menu, the main name of the game here is bacalao (codfish), from golden fritters and croquettes to mains both battered/fried and in an array of rich sauces. Accompany your meal or tapas with a selection of fine Spanish wines (including a couple from the Madrid region) and top it all off with a classic sweet touch of French toast, chocolate con churros (thick hot chocolate with fried dough), or pears poached in wine. Calle Tetuán 12.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, this stalwart on a quiet street several blocks east of the Oriente Royal Palace may have been founded decades after Lhardy, but it’s akin to a more refined successor to the old-school taverns I mentioned above, with a laid-back decor of wooden wainscoting and vintage photos adorning wood-paneled walls. La Bola’s menu features many Madrid and Castilian classics, with top specialities including suckling lamb and callos a la madrileña (another chickpea based stew, but one including beef tripe and blood sausage – not everyone’s cup of tea). But the top star here is Madrid’s most famous (and many say best) version of cocido madrileño, from a recipe unchanged since 1870 and served in individual clay pots where it’s been left to simmer for several hours. Sunday-afternoon dinner is a tradition for many local families. Truly it doesn’t get more castizo (old-style Madrid) than this! Calle de la Bola 5.
Wine of course remains inextricably intertwined with Spanish history and culture, and this atmospheric little spot in the Malasaña neighbourhood (several blocks north of Gran Vía, the Broadway of Madrid and known for its bar scene) has kept the tradition alive among Madrileño tipplers since opening in 1892 as La Taberna de Goya (after the famed painter whose engravings still adorn the walls here) – especially when it comes to vermouth, the sweet, fortified, and herb-infused wine that has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years and is served on tap. La Ardosa’s other speciality is beer, which particularly since the 1980s has become the go-to tipple for many Spaniards, especially on hot summer days, with a selection of both domestic and international cerveza. But this post is about eating, so what makes this a real must is the varied tapas menu, on which the tortilla madrileña definitely stands out. The tortilla de patata (potato omelette) is a ubiquitous Spanish classic, but here it’s filled with a dose of that particularly Madrileño dish, callos (which, as you’ll recall, includes tripe and blood sausage) – perfect for pairing with a crisp pint. The two-room premises are cosy, with high tables and walls lined with beer cans and vermouth bottles – and you have to duck under the bar to get to the back room. A great local experience! Calle de Colón 13.
¡Olé! Back in the day, Madrid’s bullfighting scene was the talk of the tabloids and matadors were treated like rock stars everywhere they went. After a corrida, they would gather in tabernas taurinas to hobnob with other celebrities as well as fans; Malacatín was one of these taverns, and has remained largely unchanged since Julián Díaz opened its doors in 1895; a short stroll south of the Plaza Mayor in the La Latina neighbourhood, its atmosphere is relaxed and its walls are packed with bullfighting images and paraphernalia above colourful tiled wainscoting. Under Julián’s great great grandson José Alberto Díaz, the main star here, too, is cocido madrileño – served in such generous portions that anyone who’s able to polish one off entirely doesn’t have to pay for it (this allegedly hasn’t happened in a century, however). But there’s also a great selection of tapas along with classic dishes such as callos a la madrileña, confit of cod, and fillet of veal in red-wine sauce. Calle de la Ruda 5.
Another La Latina stalwart, the “baby” of our list was founded in 1945 by Lucio Blázquez, who started out as a kitchen assistant and came to own and rename the restaurant where he worked. Today, in the cosy dining rooms with white and red-brick walls and arches, chef Aurelio Calderón serves up Lucio’s classic fare – with star dishes being huevos estrellados (fried eggs and chips), pan-fried steaks (some of Madrid’s best), ensaladilla rusa (the savoury Spanish take on potato salad), and pan tumaca (crusty bread annointed with olive oil, tomato pulp, and garlic). Besides excellent service and a great Spanish-wine list, other keys to the restaurant’s success are its coal-fired oven and the first-class quality of its olive oil, free-range eggs, beef, and other ingredients brought in from historic Ávila (where the Blázquez family are cattle ranchers and where Lucio was born) as well as Andalusia. That plus the excellent service continue to draw not just loyal regulars and out-of-town visitors but also celebrities including Spanish, Hollywood, and world literary royalty. Calle Cava Baja 35.
For a look at some of the most historic restaurants of Barcelona, click here.
Samir Mendoza is a non-fiction writer and translator based in Madrid. He specializes in travel writing and has also lived in several other countries, including Mexico, France, and the Netherlands.