One of the things I’ve discovered during my travels in Spain is that every city, and region, seems to be quite different. Free tapas were the name of the game in Granada, which is part of Andalusia… but Sevilla, the capital of Andalusia, operated with the pay-for-tapa scheme. I can’t say that this is why I preferred Granada over Sevilla, but free tapas is a definite selling point for me. I had heard that a few restaurants in Madrid followed Granada’s lead, but I was still expecting things to be a bit more like Sevilla.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that free tapas were very much a thing in Madrid, especially outside of the touristy areas. You couldn’t sit down in the Plaza Mayor and expect free tapas, for example, but anywhere outside of the high real estate areas? There were copious restaurants offering up free snacks with your drink.
I did a Sandeman’s New Madrid walking tour on my first full day in the city and they offered a few extra, paid tours with multiple discounts for doing more than one. I was interested in the Majestic Madrid tour and I had met a few people who were doing the Tapas Tour that night, so I signed up for it as well. The Tapas Tour cost €14 and when I spoke to the guide he assured me that there would be tons of food, especially at the first stop since they always made sure to fill people up right away.
I’m going to be blunt – the Tapas Tour was great for socializing, terrible value for money in terms of food and drink.
I don’t even know the name of the first bar we went to, and the food offered here was better than what we found elsewhere, but it was really just some meat on a piece of bread, some cheese and a bit of chorizo. We were given a free drink at each stop, but everything (beer, sangria) was caña sized which means that they usually cost around €1.50. Quite a few people ordered sangria at this first stop but later complained that each glass had much more juice than alcohol. Another win for beer – you can’t really water it down too much!
The second stop was El Museo de Jamón, which basically translates to Ham Museum. This would have been a great spot for a small group, but the Tapas Tour had over 30 people who had to be served. There are no tables, no perches… there wasn’t even enough room for people to stand on the floor as people were squeezed onto the stairs leading to the second floor. We had to pass drinks hand over hand, which was a bit frustrating, and the tapas basically consisted of a few potato chips and some chorizo… that also had to be passed hand to hand. Which is even more difficult when you’re trying to hold onto a drink at the same time.
craziness and crowds at the Ham Museum
Our last stop served us, again, more chorizo and some cheese. I’d post a picture – but why bother? The only thing special, or unique, about this stop was that we were told to drink the cider. It was pretty hard to get a normal glass of alcohol here because the cider was part of the show… the waiter, and our Tapas Tour guide (who was very pleasant – I have no criticisms of her, just of the venues we went to and how boring the food was) started pouring the cider for us. Basically they held the bottles really high and poured the cider into cups – the height was necessary in order to mix the cider as it entered the glass. I don’t know what they needed to mix, but we all found the cider to be… well, not that great. Definitely not like any cider I’ve had, or enjoyed. But there were free refills!
I went out with a few of the people I had met and we walked towards the Mercado San Miguel. This building used to be a real market, selling fruits and vegetables and meats to locals, but had transformed into a trendy, tourist “market” that had one fruit stand, a place to buy some meat and a souvenir shop. The rest of the market consisted of tapas and beverage stands. I had already visited this market, earlier in the day, and found it to be really touristy, busy and slightly expensive. Some of the prices seemed to have dropped a bit in the evening – likely because they were trying to sell things off before closing up for the night. It was still very touristy, however. The people who had recommended it, an Australian couple, had raved about how it was really local and authentic but the only people who seemed to speak Spanish were the employees. It was impossible to find a seat both times that I visited, meaning that this is a great spot for some snacks but would probably be exhausting – especially after a day of sightseeing – if you wanted a full meal.
This was the last “touristy” food experience which I embraced in Madrid. The Tapas Tour was disappointing, especially after the amazing food that had been available to me in the south of Spain, so I was determined to find something a bit more authentic and a bit more interesting. Google provided a plethora of results for “Madrid tapas bars”, which taught me two things. First of all, there are a lot of traditional tapas bars in Madrid serving up free snacks with your drink. Secondly, I just have to stay out of the touristy squares and off the Gran Via and they will make themselves known to me. The only tapas bar that I ended up going to, thanks to Google, was one called “A’Cañada” that I went to after visiting the Prado, on Canada Day. I think it’s pretty clear why I selected this option.
I had a couple of beers at A’Cañada, taking advantage of the stool, the World Cup game on the TV behind me and the relaxed atmosphere. The bartender didn’t really speak English, which is always a plus when I’m looking for something reasonably authentic, and the tapas on offer were fairly generous. My favourite places in Granada didn’t have a free tapas menu and neither did A’Cañada, so I just took whatever was on offer and was pleasantly surprised. My first plate included meat, manchego cheese (mmm) and some omelette. The second was a delicious marinated salad with cheese, meat, eggs and peppers. This is the kind of stuff that should have been on offer during the Tapas Tour as, based on my limited experience in Spain, this is what a lot of the smaller, more interesting tapas bars actually serve up. Man (or woman) cannot exist on semi-soft cheese and chorizo alone!
I stopped in at a wine bar that looked interesting and moderately upscale – at least compared to the tapas bars I had been frequenting – and although the wine was reasonable (and reasonably priced), they only gave me a sad looking little tapa with a piece of meat on some bread. Next!
The tapas bar to end all tapas bars, however, was found extremely close to my hostel. I had looked in while walking by, assuming that it wouldn’t be that great because there were a lot of pictures of food on the wall and the menu had all sorts of special with raciones (the full tapas plate) or media raciones (half tapas) and beers. Well, you can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge a tapas bar from its confusing special menu and pictures of food on the wall. I shouldn’t even share its name (it was the Cerveceria Padron), because it was that awesome.
I sat at the bar and quickly discovered that the bartenders didn’t really speak English. That’s fine – my rudimentary Spanish would definitely stand up to the rigors of ordering a beer. Then, the tapas started. It was normal, at first, with some fries, bread and a fried egg. Then some Spanish omelette. Then paella. Then a savoury pie. Then another dish appeared in front of me, containing a mysterious food item that I thought was maybe seafood. I tasted it, wondering what I was eating, and then finally, halfway through the dish, I asked what it was. Rule number one of eating random food? Don’t ask what it is until you’re finished…. because I was eating pig ear.
Some Australian girls checked into my hostel on my last night in Madrid and asked for a recommendation of a decent, cheap restaurant close to the hostel. Where did I bring them? Cerveceria Padron! I recommended that we sit at the bar and after we ordered our first drinks, the food just started flowing. There was no pig ear, but we had all sorts of savoury, delicious treats. The bartenders didn’t even wait for us to order drinks, they just kept bringing more food and we dutifully dug in, taking advantage of the flow of delicious, free snacks. I’m sure that the people sitting at the tables didn’t get this level of service – or free food – but it was a never ending parade of tapas for us!
Finally, they asked if we needed more… I had already eaten that day, so I was feeling pretty full, but the Australians wanted to know if there was a dessert menu. I asked and they seemed to forget about us, which surprised me a bit, until a plate with three little cakes and forks appeared in front of us. Amazing. The total bill, for three beer and tons of food? A little less than 8 euros. Spain… this is why you’re the best.