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An Early-Evening Tapeo

What's more fun than a pub-crawl in London or Dublin? In Madrid, it's a tapeo, and you can drink just as much or more than in those far northern climes. One of the unique pleasures of Madrid, a tapeo is the act of strolling from one bar to another to keep yourself amused and fed before the fashionable Madrileño dining hour of 10pm.

Most of the world knows that tapas are Spain's delectable appetizers, and restaurants around the world now serve them. In Madrid they're served almost everywhere, in tabernas, tascas, bars, and cafes.

Although Madrid took to tapas with a passion, they may have originated in Andalusia, especially around Jerez de la Frontera, where they were traditionally served to accompany the sherry produced there. The first tapa (which means a cover or lid) was probably chorizo (a spicy sausage) or a slice of cured ham perched over the mouth of a glass to keep the flies out. Later, the government mandated bars to serve a "little something" in the way of food with each drink to dissipate the effects of the alcohol. This was important when drinking a fortified wine like sherry, as its alcohol content is more than 15% higher than that of normal table wines. Eating a selection of tapas as you drink will help preserve your sobriety.

Tapas can be relatively simple: toasted almonds; slices of ham, cheese, or sausage; potato omelets; or the ubiquitous olives. They can be more elaborate too: a succulent veal roll; herb-flavored snails; gambas (shrimp); a saucer of peppery pulpo (octopus); stuffed peppers; anguila (eel); cangrejo (crabmeat salad); merluza (hake) salad; and even bull testicles.

Each bar in Madrid gains a reputation for its rendition of certain favorite foods. One bar, for example, specializes in very garlicky grilled mushrooms, usually accompanied by pitchers of sangria. Another will specialize in gambas. Most chefs are men in Madrid, but at tapas bars or tascas, the cooks are most often women -- often the owner's wife.

The Best of the Tascas

Don't starve waiting around for Madrid's fashionable 9:30 or 10pm dinner hour. Throughout the city you'll find tascas, bars that serve wine and platters of tempting hot and cold hors d'oeuvres known as tapas: mushrooms, salads, baby eels, shrimp, lobster, mussels, sausage, ham, and, in one establishment, bull testicles. Keep in mind that you can often save euros by ordering at the bar rather than occupying a table. Here are six of my favorites:

    Casa Alberto  -- One of the oldest tascas in the neighborhood, Casa Alberto first opened its doors in 1827 and has thrived ever since. On the street level of a house where Miguel de Cervantes lived briefly in 1614, it contains an appealing mixture of bullfighting memorabilia, engravings, and reproductions of Old Master paintings. Many visitors opt only for the tapas, continually replenished from platters on the bar, but there's a sit-down dining area for more substantial meals. Specialties include fried squid, shellfish in vinaigrette sauce, chorizo in cider sauce, and several versions of baked or roasted lamb.

    Casa Labra  -- Founded in 1860 and run by the Molina family for the past 6 decades, the mellow brown-walled Casa Labra is located a mere stone's throw from the Puerta del Sol. Said to have started up as a favorite meeting spot of the 19th-century Socialist party, it's one of the center's oldest and most popular tapas bars, invariably crowded and full of atmosphere. Of the many tidbits on offer, don't miss the croquetas de bacalao (deep-fried cod croquettes) -- so cheap and delicious that they often create lines of eagerly panting aficionados. Accompany them with an equally low-priced caña (small glass) of cold Mahou beer or the house's white Valdepeñas wine. The adjoining restaurant provides a relaxed and secluded eating experience and is priced accordingly.

    Casa Mingo  -- Casa Mingo has been known for decades for its cider, both still and bubbly. The perfect accompanying tidbit is a piece of the local Asturian cabrales (goat cheese), but the roast chicken is the specialty of the house, with a large number of helpings served daily. There's no formality here; customers share big tables under the vaulted ceiling in the dining room amid a virtually all-wood decor and a wall lined with huge wine barrels. In summer, the staff sets up tables and wooden chairs on the sidewalk, and they open a terrace on the roof for dining. This is not so much a restaurant as a bodega/taverna that serves food.

    Cervecería Alemana  -- Just round the corner from Casa Alberto directly on one of the liveliest little plazas in Madrid, this place earned its name because of its long-ago German clients. (It was also a great Hemingway favorite.) Though the bar clings to its turn-of-the-20th-century traditions, young Madrileños are fond of stopping in for a mug of draft beer. You can relax in the atmospheric old lounge or -- depending on the weather -- sit at one of the outside tables leisurely sipping your chosen tipple, as the waiters make no attempt to hurry you along. If you're feeling peckish, try the fried sardines or a Spanish omelet. Many of the tascas on this popular square are crowded and noisy -- often with blaring loud music -- but this one is quiet and a good place to have a conversation.

    Cervecería Santa Bárbara  -- Unique in Madrid, Cervecería Santa Bárbara is an outlet for a beer factory, which has in fact been producing beer since the early 19th century. Today, to keep up with the times, the management has done a lot to make it modern and inviting. Hanging globe lights and spinning ceiling fans create an attractive ambience, as does the black-and-white checkerboard marble floor. You go here for beer, of course: cerveza negra (black beer) or cerveza dorada (golden beer). The local brew (Mahou) is best accompanied by homemade potato chips or fresh shrimp, lobster, crabmeat, or barnacles. You can stand at the counter or go directly to one of the wooden tables for waiter service. In summer, you can sit outside at terrace tables overlooking the small tree-lined Santa Bárbara square.

    La Taberna de Antonio Sánchez  -- Named in 1830 after the founder's son, who was killed in the bullring, this charismatic tasca -- rated the oldest in central Madrid -- is full of bullfighting memorabilia, including the stuffed head of the animal that gored young Sánchez. Also featured on the dark-paneled walls are three works by the Spanish artist Zuloaga, who had his last public exhibition in this restaurant near Plaza Tirso de Molina. A limited array of tapas, including garlic soup, is served with Valdepeñas wine drawn from a barrel, though many local guests ignore the edibles in favor of smoking cigarettes and arguing the merits of this or that bullfighter. It's also becoming increasingly known to international visitors, so it's not unusual to see groups of animated young German or Italian tourists sampling the goods, too. A restaurant in the back serves Spanish food with a vaguely French influence.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.