Traditional Madrid fare is hearty stuff, aimed mainly at combating the cold winters. Eating is a social activity, whether that means eating out late at night or having large family gatherings for lunch. If you're just having tapas you'll never be short of high-calorie, high-cholesterol items like tortilla (omelet), callos (tripe), and chorizo (spicy sausage), and if it's a main meal traditional favorites like cocido (a dry stew of lamb, chickpeas, and veal generously strewn with chunks of lard), lechona (roast suckling pig), which reaches its apex of fatty sublimity in nearby Segovia, pierna de cordero (leg of lamb), and chuletones (huge cutlets of beef from the nearby Castilian stronghold of Avila) still dominate. The portions are immense, but the prices, by North American standards, can be high.
The city is also nationally and internationally eclectic, with dishes available not only from every province in the country but also abroad, encompassing everything from Galician percebes (goose barnacles) and Greek moussaka to Japanese sushi and German bratwurst. Pioneering chefs have made fusion all the rage and though in some restaurants you need an overdraft to indulge in their exquisitely dinky "tasting menus," there are certain spots like Ferran Adrià's Fast Good Madrid where quality and affordability merge.
Vegetarian eating spots are on the rise and another budget-style newcomer -- maybe less healthy -- is the hybrid Asian local. A recent place to open near me in what was once a standard nonsense tapas bar is called the "Alhambra Turkish Indian Kebab café bar" and more of this ilk are appearing everywhere. And on the shining new light front, hygienic sandwich bars like the Rodilla chain, so sparkling and clinical it's hard to believe, provide small, neatly wrapped non-loaf-sized bocadillos containing inventive mixtures like pineapple and cabrales blue cheese or kiwi fruit with jamón serrano.
Breakfast -- The day starts with a continental breakfast of coffee, hot chocolate, or tea, with assorted rolls, butter, and jam. Spanish breakfast might also consist of churros (fried fingerlike doughnuts) or sometimes porras (basically larger churros, which Madrileños habitually down in threes -- though you should be wary of eating more than a couple yourself as they're very filling). Either version can be accompanied by hot chocolate that is very sweet and thick, but most Spaniards simply have coffee, usually strong, served with hot milk: either a café con leche (half coffee, half milk) or cortado (a shot of espresso "cut" with a dash of milk). If you find it too strong and bitter for your taste, you might ask for a more diluted café americano.
Lunch -- The most important meal of the day in Spain, lunch is comparable to the farm-style midday "dinner" in the United States. It usually includes three or four courses, beginning with a choice of soup or several dishes of hors d'oeuvres called entremeses. Often a fish or egg dish is served after this, then a meat course with vegetables. Wine is always part of the meal. Dessert is usually pastry, custard, or assorted fruit -- followed by coffee. Lunch is served from 1 to 4pm, with "rush hour" at 2pm.
Tapas -- After the early evening stroll, many Spaniards head for their favorite tascas, bars where they drink wine and sample assorted tapas, or snacks, such as bits of fish, eggs in mayonnaise, or olives.
Because many Spaniards eat dinner very late, they often have an extremely light breakfast, certainly coffee, and perhaps a pastry. However, by 11am they are often hungry and lunch might not be until 2pm or later, so many Spaniards have a late-morning snack, often at a cafeteria. Favorite items to order are an empanada (slice of meat or fish pie from Galicia) or the aforementioned tortilla (Spanish omelet with potatoes) accompanied by a copa of wine or a caña (small glass) of beer. (If you want a larger beer, ask for a doble.) Many request a large tapa, such as calamares (squid) or callos (tripe), also served with bread and wine (or beer).
Dinner -- Another extravaganza: A typical meal starts with a bowl of soup, followed by a second course, often a fish dish, and by another main course, usually veal, beef, or pork, accompanied by vegetables. Again, desserts tend to be fruit, custard, or pastries.
Naturally, if you had a heavy and late lunch and stopped off at a tapas bar or two before dinner, supper might be much lighter, perhaps some cold cuts, sausage, a bowl of soup, or even a Spanish omelet made with potatoes. Wine is always part of the meal. Afterward, you might have a demitasse and a fiery Spanish brandy, orujo (equivalent of the gritty French marc or Italian grappa), or anis (a more digestive anise-flavored liquor, a specialty of nearby Chinchón). The typical dining hour is 10 or 10:30pm.
Soups & Appetizers -- Soups are usually served in big bowls. Cream soups, such as asparagus and potato, can be fine; sadly, however, they are too often made from powdered envelope soups such as Knorr and Liebig. Served year-round, chilled gazpacho, on the other hand, is tasty and particularly refreshing during the hot months.
In the paradores (government-run hostelries) and top restaurants, as many as 15 tempting hors d'oeuvres are served. In lesser-known places, avoid these entremeses, which often consist of last year's sardines and shards of sausage left over from the Moorish conquest.
Eggs -- These are served in countless ways. A Spanish omelet, a tortilla española, is made with potatoes and usually onions. A simple omelet is called a tortilla francesa. A tortilla portuguesa is similar to the American Spanish omelet.
Fish -- Spain's fish dishes tend to be outstanding and vary from province to province. One of the most common varieties is merluza (sweet white hake). Langosta, a variety of lobster, is seen everywhere -- it's a treat but terribly expensive. Gourmets relish their seawater taste; others find them tasteless. Rape (pronounced "rah-peh") is the Spanish name for monkfish, a sweet, wide-boned ocean fish with a scalloplike texture. Also try a few dozen half-inch baby eels. They rely heavily on olive oil and garlic for their flavor, but they taste great. Squid cooked in its own ink is suggested only to those who want to go native. Charcoal-broiled sardines, however, are a culinary delight -- a particular treat in the Basque provinces. Trout Navarre is one of the most popular fish dishes, usually stuffed with bacon or ham. Among the superb shellfish brought in daily from Spain's Atlantic coasts, gambas (prawns) and mejillones (mussels) are widely available. Gambas al ajillo (prawns cooked in garlic in a small earthenware dish) and mejillones al vapor (steamed mussels) are two popular variations.
Paella -- You can't go to Spain without trying its celebrated paella. Flavored with saffron, paella is an aromatic rice dish usually topped with shellfish, chicken, sausage, peppers, and local spices. Served authentically, it comes steaming hot from the kitchen in a metal pan called a paellera. (Incidentally, what is known in the U.S. as Spanish rice isn't Spanish at all. If you ask an English-speaking waiter for Spanish rice, you'll be served paella.)
Meats -- Try the spit-roasted suckling pig, so sweet and tender it can often be cut with a fork. The veal is also good, and the Spanish lomo de cerdo, loin of pork, is unmatched anywhere. Tender chicken is most often served in the major cities and towns today, and the Spanish are adept at spit-roasting it until it turns a delectable golden brown. However, in more remote spots of Spain, "free-range" chicken is often stringy and tough.
Vegetables & Salads -- Through more sophisticated agricultural methods, Spain now grows more of its own vegetables, which are available year-round, unlike days of yore, when canned vegetables were used all too frequently. Both potatoes and rice are staples of the Spanish diet, the latter a prime ingredient, of course, in the famous paella originating in Valencia. Salads are often made simply with just lettuce, onions, and tomatoes.
Desserts -- The Spanish do not emphasize dessert, often opting for fresh fruit. Flan, a home-cooked egg custard, appears on all menus -- sometimes with a burnt-caramel sauce in a version known as Crema Catalana. Ice cream appears on nearly all menus as well. But the best bet is to ask for a basket of fruit, which you can wash at your table. Homemade pastries are usually moist and not too sweet. As a dining oddity -- although it's not odd at all to Spaniards -- many restaurants serve fresh orange juice for dessert.
Olive Oil & Garlic -- Olive oil is used lavishly in Spain, the largest olive grower on the planet. You may not want it in all dishes. If you prefer your fish grilled in butter, the word is mantequilla. In some instances, you'll be charged extra for the butter. Garlic is also an integral part of the Spanish diet, and even if you love it, you may find Spaniards love it more than you do and use it in the oddest dishes.
What to Drink
Drinks -- An excellent non-carbonated drink for the summer is called Tri-Naranjus, which comes in lemon and orange flavors. In summer you should also try an horchata. Not to be confused with the Mexican beverage of the same name, the Spanish horchata is a sweet, milklike beverage made of tubers called chufas. In hot weather granizados (crushed-ice drinks) of lemon, orange, or even coffee are very popular, but watch the price if you're having one in an outdoor cafe in the Castellana Avenue or Retiro Park.
Coffee -- Even if you are a dedicated coffee drinker, you may find the café con leche (coffee with milk) a little too strong. I suggest leche manchada, a little bit of strong, freshly brewed coffee in a glass that's filled with lots of frothy hot milk. If you're really desperate for American style coffee, you can now opt for Starbucks, which has opened several Madrid branches in the past couple of years.
Beer -- Beer (cerveza) is now drunk everywhere and rapidly superseding wine as the most popular tipple. Domestic brands include San Miguel, Aguila, Cruz Blanca, Cruzcampo and, last but not least, Mahou (which is made in Madrid). Bottled or draft versions of the latter are widely available, usually in the form of a caña, which is a small glass drawn from the barril or cask.
Note: There is an old Madrid ruling that alcoholic drinks -- beer, wine, vermut -- must be accompanied by a nourishing tidbit in order to "lessen their noxious influence," so you usually get a small free tapa thrown in with your tipple, especially in the cheaper, more traditional bars.
Wine -- Sherry (vino de Jerez) has been called "the wine with a hundred souls." Drink it before dinner (try the topaz-colored finos, a dry and very pale sherry) or whenever you drop into some old inn or bodega for refreshment; many of them have rows of kegs with spigots. Manzanilla, a golden-colored medium-dry sherry, is extremely popular. The sweet cream sherries (Harvey's Bristol Cream, for example) are favorite after-dinner wines (called olorosos). While the French may be disdainful of Spanish table wines, they can be truly noble, especially two leading varieties, Rioja and Navarra. Wines from westerly Extremadura are also beginning to make an impact and several Extremeño wine bars have recently opened in the capital. If you're not too exacting in your tastes, you can always ask for the vino de la casa (house wine) wherever you dine. (This is likely to be a quaffable drop from Toledo or La Mancha.) The Priorat of Catalonia, meanwhile, is heavy, though its rival Penedés comes across as a more subtle vino. From Andalusia comes the fruity sherrylike Montilla. There are some good local sparkling wines (cavas) in Spain, such as Freixenet and Codorniú, especially the Non Plus Ultra variety. One brand, Benjamín, comes in individual-size bottles.
Thanks to irrigation, improved grape varieties, technological developments, and the expenditure of billions of euros, bodegas and vineyards are sprouting up throughout the country, opening their doors to visitors interested in how the stuff is grown, fermented, and bottled. These wines are now earning awards at wine competitions around the world for their quality and bouquet. Even Madrid province wines, ignored for years and still straining at the leash to prove themselves, have improved. The Jesús Díaz bodega from Colmenar de Oreja, south of the capital near Chinchón, has already won several prizes for its fragrant reds.
Interested in impressing a newfound Spanish friend over a wine list? Consider bypassing the usual array of Riojas, sherries, and sparkling Catalonian cavas in favor of, say, a Galician white Albariño from Rias Baixas, which some connoisseurs consider the perfect accompaniment for seafood. Among reds, make a beeline for vintages from the fastest-developing wine region of Europe, the arid, high-altitude district of Ribera del Duero, near Burgos, whose alkaline soil, cold nights, and sunny days have earned unexpected praise from winemakers (and encouraged massive investments) in the past 5 years.
Sangria -- The all-time favorite refreshing drink in Spain, sangria is a red-wine punch that combines wine with oranges, lemons, gaseosa (seltzer), and sugar. Be careful, however; many joints that do a big tourist trade produce a sickly sweet Kool-Aid version of sangria for unsuspecting visitors. Other places may also add an unwelcome amount of cheap coñac or anis to the drink.
Spirits -- Adventurous imbibers can try orujo, a fiery liquor or aguardiente (made from the stalks and skins of grapes) that tastes like a rough grappa and is sometimes offered free after a meal. Pacharán is a rose-purple anise-flavored sloe gin spirit from Navarra, a conventional after-dinner drink.
Whiskey & Brandy -- The Spanish reign supreme with brandies and cognacs (though Spanish coñacs tend to be sweeter and darker than their French counterparts). Try Fundador, made by the Pedro Domecq family in Jerez de la Frontera. If you find this a bit raw and want a slightly smoother coñac, ask for the "103" white label, while for something yet more mellow -- and pricey -- Magno or Carlos III are an appreciable step up. If money is no object, splash out on a Lepanto or Gran Duque de Alba, both of which are served from decanters and guaranteed to send you floating in a mellow haze up the Gran Vía.
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.