Best Food in Madrid
Despite having what guide books call an “unexciting local cuisine,” Madrid is known the world over as a food capital. Paris may have been the crown bearer last century, but move over mon amour, because Madrid esta aqui. Due in no small part to the eventful history of the Spanish capital and the empire that was governed from it, food in Madrid has always had the unorthodox and wonderfully creative feel of a patchwork cuisine. This is not the city to dive into deeply rooted traditional fare – or, at least, not only. In Madrid, you can sample food from all regions of Spain brought here by the masses of people who migrated to the capital once it was established: Galician empanadas, Riojan wine, Basque tapas, and the freshest seafood, delivered from the coastal regions to landlocked Madrid, fresh every day. Then there is also the influence gathered from more distant shores the world over: food and spices that were brought back from the countless expeditions. All of these things serve to create a cuisine that isn’t quite Madrid’s own but still rings very true.
As you may imagine, in Madrid, anything goes. Well, almost: The only thing you shouldn’t eat, in fact, is paella. You will find it, here and there, but it won’t be the real deal. While other foods that did not originate in the capital are just as good and acceptable to eat in Madrid, paella is universally agreed to be substandard. We cannot say with authority that we know the reason for this, but in matters of food, it is best not to argue with the Spanish.
Though this won’t be discussed further in the article, if Madrid is your last stop on your Spanish holiday, and you are inexplicably tired of all the culinary variety and flavor, the capital is also the perfect city to seek out a good old U.S. fast food chain. Five Guys, Taco Bell, Domino’s, Papa John’s, and every other franchise you could possibly think of, including of course all the classics, are represented in the Spanish capital. But enough about cheap food of dubious quality and negligible nutritional value: if you’re hitting multiple cities in Spain, you might want to plan the biggest blow-the-budget dinner for Madrid. As we mentioned above, this city is the place to be if you’re into fine dining. And with choices like these, you will be, even if you weren’t before. As of 2018, there are seventeen Michelin Star restaurants in Madrid, a city with a population of 3.3 million. One with three, six with two, and ten with one star. If you have recently won the lottery and would like to spend a chunk of it on fancy food, this is where you ought to do it.
Below, we will also go into some more bizarre choices of food, which you may either consider worthwhile or avoid even think about. Pig’s ear makes an appearance, as do snails and tripe. If that doesn’t sound like you, skip the second entry and stick to your patatas bravas. But enough introduction, let’s get to the eating: here’s the best food in Madrid and the best places to eat it.
This dish is one of the most emblematic of the capital, not least because it is one of the few dishes that actually originated in the area. Madrid stew is made by combining chickpeas, carrots, potatoes, sausages, and other meat with a broth. This is cooked together and then served separately, dissected into three courses: first, the clear broth is eaten as a soup, followed by the vegetables, finally ending on the meat. Due to its dense, weighty nature, this is a typical meal eaten in the colder months, though you can find it all year round if you’d like to try it in the heat of August. A word of warning: while originally an adaptation of a Sephardic dish, pork was forcibly incorporated into it during the times of the inquisition. The best place to have this is at Cruz Blanca Vallecas, no matter what anyone tells you.
Oreja de la plancha
This dish may not be the obvious choice, but if you’re the kind of person who likes food others are hesitant to try, Oreja de cerdo is your order. This meal is the ear of a pig, cut up and crispy. If you like your meals softer, snails are eaten too – watch for an item called Caracoles a la Madrilena on your tapas menu and order at your own peril, for dinner is not always the best time to be brave. Also worth a mention are Gallinejas, or sheep intestines, mostly found in the sort of place where the previous two can be sampled. The best eatery for offal and animal protein weirdness of all kinds is La Tasqueria, a place that approaches these traditional recipes and ingredients with a modern hand.
Bocadillo de Calamares
A true-blue Madrid classic, and an uncontroversial one, too: this is basically fried calamari in a bun. Simple. But saying there’s nothing to it is like saying to a New Yorker that there’s nothing to a hot dog. Accompanied most often by a cana (a small glass of beer) this sandwich is made fresh when you order it, so you’ll never have a soggy squid ring. Have one of the best at Bar La Ideal. We call it one of the best because like with mothers, everyone thinks they’ve got the very best bocadillo, so all we’re saying is that the one at this basic, easy bar is pretty darn good, too.
Ah yes, churros. Any time of day or night, except for dessert, strangely, you can have churros, and you’re going to want to. The history of the humble churro is anything but: some say it came to Spain from the Orient via Portugal, others say Spanish shepherds came up with the recipe. But all that is behind us, now. What matters is that this fried, crispy, doughy pastry is the best thing ever. Have it with thick, dark drinking chocolate. While the best place to have this too is subject to personal opinion, there is one place that deserves a churro-related visit merely due to its respectable age: the Chocolateria San Gines has been serving churros since 1894. You can’t argue with that: there is really nothing like having churros in a place where people have had them for more than 100 years.
Also called a Spanish omelet to avoid confusion with Mexican tortillas, a Spanish tortilla is an egg dish often featuring potatoes and often served cold. Not chilled, just not warm. Tortillas can come with many other additional ingredients, such as peppers or chorizo, but a “plain” tortilla is mostly understood to feature potatoes. The best preparation in town remains a hotly debated topic, and we suggest you join the battle: Casa Dani is a classic choice, and you pledging allegiance to it is unlikely to raise any eyebrows. Txirimiri is the Basque option, Meson de la Tortilla is the local’s darling, and Juana la Loca is the wildcard, where you won’t know a tortilla by looking at it but will be glad to have tried it because it’s a thing of its marvelous own.
Yes, tapas are a thing here, too. The differences between Barcelona tapas and Madrid tapas are few but significant: in Barcelona, you always pay by plate, whereas in many cases, Madrid tapas are more like Italian aperitivo, in that you get a drink and can then have several small plates at no additional cost. There are really too many places to settle on one, and the custom dictates you go from place to place anyway: try Vi Cool, TriCiclo, Mercado de San Miguel, Celso y Manolo, Casa Gonzalez, the downtown authentic Casa Toni, or better yet, try them all. The great thing about tapas bars is that you can try most dishes mentioned in this article without having to commit to a plate of something that seems daunting and can sample as many different things as you wish. Have five plates, have ten or have twenty if you’re in the business of tempting fate.
La Hora del Vermut
You’re in Madrid. It’s just before lunchtime. What do you do? Drink, of course. Like in Barcelona, vermouth is a respected tradition in Madrid. And just like in the Catalan city by the sea, it went out of style for a while here, too, only to come back stronger. If anything, it has become more popular than it ever was: you can now have it at any time of day or night, not just before lunch. That is, however, the traditional way to have this fortified wine enriched with a variety of different things from spices to orange wedges. Vermouth is what is on tap (really) in most Madrid bars – all you need to do is pick one: we strongly recommend an unbeatable classic from 1827 called Casa Alberto, humble Casa Gerardo with free tapas to go along, or La Violeta for budding connoisseurs to try every variety under the sun in one go.
If you’re more into unfortified wine, you won’t regret travelling to Madrid, either. The city is surrounded by three zones of designated origin, namely Arganda, San Martin, and Navalcarnero, together amounting to over 20,000 hectares of pristine, fertile wine country. Plus, you can find any wine produced anywhere in the country in Madrid, from intense, unforgettable Rioja to jammy, charming Tempranillo. Wine bars abound, and every tapas bar and restaurant will serve a selection of wines, including the one from the house, which is bound to be great since you’re in Spain.
Enough about booze, you may be thinking, what will the little ones drink? Well, Horchata. Introduced to Madrid by the Valencian community that settled here, Horchata is a beverage made of the milk of the tiger nut, known in Spanish as chufa. This drink is popular in most Spanish language countries in the world, though it is often made with another base, such as a rice milk variant popular in Mexico. This drink is vegan and widely available, most popular as an ice-cold refreshment in the merciless heat of Madrid summers. The Horchateria Alboraya is the most classic choice, and their ice cream is really worth sampling, too.
DiverXo is a play on the Spanish word for different, and it sure is. This place is the finest of fine dining and is the only restaurant in town, at the time of writing, to have three Michelin stars. For a more relaxed vibe, head to StreetXo, their slightly more affordable and marginally less fancy offshoot. For other options in the genre of top-tier dining, there is La Terrazza del Casino which sits in the glorious Casino de Madrid, Lakasa, a place blending rustic and modern on the menu and in the decor, or La Tasquita del Enfrente, which is similar in budget but more traditional, meaning that things look closer to their original form in nature and foam is not considered decorative. It should also be noted that Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world still in operation, has been serving the best sucking pig in town since 1725, and though it has become wildly popular with tourists, still remains an authentic Madrid dinner choice.
Meat, Meat and More Meat
Jamon may mean ham in English, but it is quite certain that the Spanish version is a more serious business. There are important distinctions in the categorization, for one: Jamon Iberico is the fancier kind of superior quality, while Serrano is a still magnificent second. Iberico comes from the Iberian pig, which is fed acorns and shown a great time on the town before being, well, processed, whereas the Serrano pig, a white-coated hybrid, receives mixed food and generally less special treatment. Both are fantastic, and once you’re sitting at a bar, having a plate of either accompanied by Manchego cheese and Spanish wine, it won’t matter which is which. Since we’re on the topic of meat, you might want to check out Sala de Despiece, an old butchery repurposed to become an endlessly chic lunch spot.
The best place to have all the above: Platea
It is hard to describe the feeling that entering Platea Madrid gives you. Even the pictures of the place, which are gorgeous, don’t do it justice. First of all, it is massive. And the lighting is gorgeous, as are the people who come here, quite obviously. This erstwhile auditorium was recently converted into a sort of food hall, with international food served on the lower level, tapas and drinks on the ground floor, and a Michelin star restaurant on the balconied top. The stage hosts musical acts of all manner, with big-name DJs and musicians scheduled to perform regularly. While the restaurant isn’t exactly cheap, it won’t break the bank to have tapas here, and the experience is sure to stay with you for a lifetime.