On a night of tapas-hopping in the Spanish capital, Gustasp and Jeroo Irani recognise the city for the spectacle it is – an unscripted play, sizzling with dramatic moments
The Madrileños’ (a native of Madrid) body clock decrees that they never have dinner before 10 pm, and that weekends are meant to be largely sleepless and filled with nights of frenetic partying.
When we went tapas hopping on our first trip to Madrid many years ago, we did not have the faintest idea of what to expect. We certainly did not imagine that our foray into the Spanish capital’s tapas bars would start at 9 pm and that we would fall into bed at 2 am, feeling like we had run a culinary marathon. More sturdy souls keep at it, moving from one atmospheric pub to another, grazing on tapas, downing glasses of beer, house wine or sidra (golden cider). After a hard day’s work, the partying carries on into the wee hours – the most romantic time, perhaps, for the emotional Spaniard to bare his soul and declare his love for his lady. While tapas-hopping happens throughout the week, it is particularly intense over the weekends, explained our young guide.
As dusk descends and Madrid is clad in neon, entire families set out on the tapas trail, down the long avenues like a river in spate. The young in modish hairdos and stilettoes; couples with babies in their arms; and older folk on a post-dinner stroll… And visitors to the city fall in line, following the locals and the metal plaques on pavements that declare an establishment’s heritage.
Music swirled around us, as wandering street musicians strummed our senses with guitar riffs and soulful arias from unfamiliar operas. Music streamed out of bars and restaurants as if to set the mood for a fun weekend. Anticipation surged through us like an electric current as we stumbled down the city’s cobblestone streets, away from Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor and Plaza de Santa Ana. Most locals head to bars where the staff knows them and serves them their favourite dishes at the first discreet signal – like an arched eyebrow or a barely discernible nod. Our guide advised us to savour just a couple of snacks at each bar, so we could gorge in at least three to four bars that night.
We were initiated into this Spanish ritual (which started as free morsels of a typical Spanish snack with a drink) at the legendary Casa Labra, a 19th century restaurant off the famed Puerta del Sol. We pushed our way to the zinc-top counter and the locals good-naturedly gave us way as we ordered deep-fried cod croquettes and salt cod strips fried in batter, for which this eatery is famous. The menu was scribbled on a blackboard, and the marble-top tables and wooden chairs were all occupied. But the highlight for us was to sit outside and nibble on our tapas and watch the world stream past.
“Madrid moves, move with Madrid,” our guide nudged us, as we had lost ourselves in watching the spectacle that is the Spanish capital – an unscripted play, sizzling with dramatic moments. At one watering hole, we met a group of spirited young men, one of whom was dressed in a period costume. They were celebrating his last day of bachelorhood with a tapas crawl. Later, a stretch limo glided down the lively Gran Via with a bevy of screaming young girls, one of whom was probably revelling in her last day as a singleton, too. When a tasca, or bar, of our guide’s choice was full, we would move on to another. We found that often, inverted beer barrels would serve as tables; but in one bar, a deep well had been covered with etched glass, on which we placed our plates of tapas and glasses of non-alcoholic beer! Sometimes we had to stand and eat in a convivial circle, as other patrons pushed past; and at others, the pace was slower, with seating available inside or in a courtyard outside.
Off the atmospheric Plaza Santa Ana, festooned with bars, we stopped at neon-lit Las Bravas, famous for its patatas bravas – fried potatoes cloaked in a piquant sauce, a dish that this particular bar claims to have invented. Some say the sauce is concocted from hot paprika, saffron, sherry, vinegar, tomatoes, garlic, sugar and other ingredients the chefs refuse to reveal. Initially, this 1930s’ eatery used to serve only sardines, but around the 1950s, the owners got adventurous. Fried potatoes with the zesty sauce started to appear on their bill of fare. The dish became so popular that there are now me-too versions of the delicacy available not only in Madrid but all over the country!
There were more surprises on our tapas trail. In an atmospheric alley, Cava Baja, the cellars of vintage mansions had been transformed into funky restaurants. In one of them, the speciality was grilled mushrooms sautéed in their own juice, which we pierced with toothpicks and popped into our mouths. We weren’t as skilled as the locals and sent some flying across tables and on the floor. Instinctively, we bent down to retrieve them, but our guide stopped us with an amazing insight: “The messier a bar when it finally shuts shop, the better. It is a measure of its success.” Little wonder, then, that some of the popular taverns, by the time they shut, looked like a tsunami had hit them. Not surprising in Madrid, a city where you must go with the flow and celebrate the gift of life.