Where to eat in Madrid: discover the city's most authentic markets and local restaurants

Good food isn’t hard to come by in Madrid, but the sheer variety can overwhelm the uninitiated. For a unique flavour of the Spanish capital, dig a little deeper to discover thriving local markets and historic castizos bristling with tradition.

By Stephen Phelan
Published 9 Jun 2021, 14:19 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:25 BST
El Doble, a bar on Calle Ponzano famous for its seafood.

El Doble, a bar on Calle Ponzano famous for its seafood.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

I’ve been told to turn up hungry. Lunch is cocido madrileño, a multi-platter stew that’s Madrid’s signature dish, but attempting to eat it in one sitting is like climbing K2 after a Couch to 5K. “As far as we know, only two diners have ever finished a full cocido madrileño in 125 years,” says Jose Rodríguez, fourth-generation manager of Malacatín.

This former backstreet wine shop has specialised in the stew since 1895, when the owner’s wife started serving her own recipe in three stages, or vueltos: first the noodle broth, then the chickpeas and potatoes, then the heaped meats (chicken, blood sausage, pig’s trotters etc). You can still try it that way, or have it all dished up at once, but either way you’ll have passed out face-down in salty oblivion before you ever reach the peak.

Malacatín might be the very definition of a castizo, a Spanish term that applies only here in the capital, and only to the city’s most authentic, classic taverns. “It has to be very traditional, very typical,” says Jose. “Madrid has plenty of Michelin stars now, but there aren’t many true castizos left, where you can still feel at home while eating out.”

Visitors can easily miss them amid the generic tapas bars around nearby Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol; Rodríguez estimates some 90% of his clientele are locals. It’s the same across town on Calle Ponzano, an increasingly trendy row of gastropubs and cocktail joints in the Chamberí district, where you can also find essential castizo establishments like El Doble and Fide. Favourite small plates at landmarks like these include Cantabrian anchovies and white prawns from Huelva, served and eaten straight from the can.

“Madrid has plenty of Michelin stars now, but there aren't many true castizo places left, where you can still feel at home while eating out.”

by Stephen Phelan

Fide barman Dani Verdugo says the gourmet quality of that product, and the ferocious appetite for seafood in this thoroughly landlocked city, can be a real eye-opener for people from countries “where they mainly feed tinned fish to cats”. He also reminds me that tapas culture came to Madrid from Andalucia, just like his own father did, opening Fide in 1958.

The capital has a sort of vortex effect at the centre of Spain, drawing recipes and restaurateurs from every corner of the peninsula. Former lawyer Manuel Ventura relies heavily on Asturian cuisine at his simple, minimal modern taberna Badila, often described without irony as Madrid’s best-kept secret by the multitudes who tend to recommend it.

“I don’t have any connection to Asturias,” says Manuel of the green and hilly northwest, “I just love the food.” So, there’s usually some regional farmhouse favourite like pork fillet in a Cabrales cheese sauce on a menu that changes by the day, depending on what looks good at the market that morning.

Tacos at Cuxta, a Mexican stall at Mercado Tirso de Molina.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

The markets themselves have become more gastronomic and cosmopolitan, too. Iron-and-glass palace Mercado San Miguel gets the most attention, but at less touristy neighbourhood food halls like San Fernando and Tirso de Molina, crowds gather in old buildings that still bear scars from the Spanish Civil War, and eat their way around the world at counters run by Japanese, Senegalese or Mexican vendors.

“That’s the thing about Madrid. Most people here don’t come from Madrid,” shrugs Rafael Riqueni at Bar Melo’s in Lavapiés, which has been a local fixture and secret spot for almost half a century. Rafael himself is from Seville and loves Melo’s so much (particularly its trademark shoebox-sized zapatilla ham and cheese toasties) that he bought the place with a few friends when original owner became too old to run it. Their business plan was and is to keep the place the same as it ever was. “Tradition, yes,” says Rafael, “but I also think the ideal castizo isn’t so serious. It’s just somewhere in Madrid to eat, drink and relax with your friends. A place you want to be.”

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 16-17 July 2022 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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