Madrid boasts the most richly varied cuisine in Spain. Its national eating spots cover everything from Andalusian gazpacho and Valencian paella (most famed of all Spain's rice and seafood dishes) to Galician pulpo (octopus), Asturian fabada (rich pork stew), and Basque bacalao (cod). And let's not forget Madrid's very own cocido (lamb and vegetable stew), callos (tripe) and, lesser known perhaps to visitors, oreja (ear: yes, you heard right). Plus neighboring Castile's outrageously delicious infanticide dishes: lechona (roast suckling pig) and corderito (baby lamb, best sampled in Segovia).
The region's dishes are both hearty and logical given the setting and winter climate, but the big surprise is that though Madrid is a landlocked city, surrounded by a vast arid plateau, it receives a daily supply of fish which is transported from the Atlantic north in large containers to supply top restaurants like La Trainera and Cabo Mayor with the country's best and freshest seafood.
Add to all that a new wave of sophisticated polyglot fusion cuisine, deft, brilliant, and light years away from the full-bodied traditionals mentioned above -- and the scene takes on another dimension. Thanks to highly inventive and imaginative chefs like Sergi Arola, Santi Santamaria, and -- latest newcomer to Madrid -- Ramon Freixa the city's cuisine is now truly considered international. Ground-breaking Ferran Adriá in particular has gained such fame (the New York Times recently described him as the "dean of molecular gastronomy") that for a while he eclipsed even Gallic giants like Paul Bocuse. His much vaunted El Bulli restaurant in the northern Costa Brava will close for good in 2011, when he is scheduled to start a two-year tour of Asia in search of new culinary ideas. The restaurant will reopen at some later date as a school for chefs but never again to the public. In Madrid, however, Adriá's centrally located Terraza del Casino still continues to delight the public with its inventive dishes.
International restaurants are also growing in numbers, and you can take your pick from a range of European, Latin American, North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian eating spots. Among the latest of these to open are the charming Ethiopian Mesob, which has introduced a whole new realm of exotic dishes to Madrileños and passing visitors alike, and ultrachic Ingrid y Gaston, which now provides the city's best Peruvian cuisine.
While browsing through this guide, keep in mind that restaurants are categorized by the average cost of one entree, an appetizer, and a glass of wine. Very Expensive means a meal averages 40€ per person and up; Expensive, 25€-40€; Moderate, 15€-25€; Inexpensive, under 15€.
Breakfast (desayuno) is taken in cafes or in your hotel between 7:30 and 10am, though if you want to make a very early start you'll find the occasional bar open around 5:30 or 6am.
It's the custom in Madrid to consume lunch (almuerzo) as the big meal of the day, from 2 to 4pm. After a recuperative siesta, Madrileños enjoy tapas -- and indeed, no Madrid culinary experience would be complete without a tour of the city's many tapas bars.
All this nibbling is followed by a lighter dinner (cena) in a restaurant, usually from 9:30pm to as late as midnight. Many restaurants, however, start serving dinner at 8pm to accommodate visitors from other countries who don't like to dine so late.
Most restaurants close 1 day a week, so be sure to check ahead. Hotel dining rooms are generally open 7 days. Generally, reservations are not necessary, except at popular, top-notch restaurants.
Types of Restaurants & Menus
Cafeterias usually are not self-service establishments but restaurants serving light, often American, cuisine. Go for breakfast instead of dining at your hotel, unless it's included in the room price. Some cafeterias offer no hot meals, but many feature combined plates of fried eggs, french fries, veal, and lettuce-and-tomato salad, which make adequate fare, or snacks like hot dogs and hamburgers.
Restaurants share one thing in common that cafeterias do not: By law, they must offer a fixed-price lunch menu that includes two main courses, a dessert, and (usually) wine. In simple, basic budget-priced economicas, these may cost as little as 10€ all-inclusive, while in top-quality deluxe eating spots with famous-name chefs -- where more exotic and esoteric "tasting menus" are offered -- they can be as high as 150€ to 200€ per head (often without wine). In between these two extremes -- though distinctly nearer the economicas in price -- comes a middle (15€-35€) range that includes historic tabernas, all-purpose eating spots serving an eclectically national and international choice of dishes, and regional restaurants that concentrate on the specific cuisines of different parts of Spain (Asturias and Galicia are most commonly represented here).
Order the menú del día (menu of the day) or cubierto (fixed price) -- both fixed-price menus are based on what is fresh at the market that day. These are the dining bargains in Madrid, although often lacking the quality of more expensive a la carte dining. Usually each will include a first course, such as fish soup or hors d'oeuvres, followed by a main dish, plus bread, dessert, and the house wine. You won't have a large choice. The menú turístico is a similar fixed-price menu, but for many it's too large, especially at lunch. Only those with big appetites will find it the best bargain.
Picnic, Anyone? -- On a hot day, do as the Madrileños do: Secure the makings of a picnic lunch and head for Casa de Campo (metro: El Batón), those once-royal hunting grounds in the west of Madrid across the Manzanares River. Children delight in this adventure, as they can also visit a boating lake, the Parque de Atracciones, and the Madrid zoo.
Your best choice for picnic fare can be bought right in the center at Rodilla, Barquillo 8 (tel. 91-523-90-10; www.rodilla.es; metro: Chueca), where you can find neatly prepared, squeaky clean European-sized (smaller than the huge old Spanish half loaf size) sandwiches, pastries, and takeout tapas. The sandwiches, including vegetarian, meat, and fish, begin at 1.50€. It's open Monday and Tuesday from 8:30am to 10:30pm; Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 9am to 11pm; Friday and Saturday from 9am to 11:30pm.
Tipping & Local Customs
Meals include service and tax (7%-12%, depending on the restaurant) but not drinks, which add to the tab considerably.
In most cases, service can seem perfunctory by North American standards. Waiters are matter-of-fact, do not fawn over you, or return to the table to ask how things are going. This can seem off-putting at first, but if you observe closely, you'll see that Spanish waiters typically handle more tables than their North American counterparts and they generally work quickly and more efficiently.
Follow the local custom and don't overtip. Theoretically, service is included in the price of the meal, but it's customary to leave an additional 10%.
Top restaurants, such as Zalacaín, have a formal dress policy (jacket and tie for men). Call ahead if you're unsure.
Smoke-free Dining in sight?
At the time of writing this guide, after a lightly restrictive law passed, cafes, bars, and restaurants are still allowed to use their own discretion when deciding whether smoking on the premises should be allowed or not. Unwilling to lose customers, the vast majority opted for the former, much to the dismay of Spain's anti-smoking lobby. Though premises over 100 sq. m (1,100 sq. ft.) in area are required to have a small nonsmoking zone, entirely smoke-free locales remain in a distinct minority. Nicotine haters can nevertheless find solace in the occasional clear-aired oasis such as the inimitable and increasingly ubiquitous Starbucks and the vegetarian restaurant Elqui.
A radical change is on the horizon, though. In June 2010, parliament voted by a huge majority to approve a new law enforcing stricter rules on smoking similar to those currently operating in France, Italy, Ireland, and Great Britain. The final decision -- due in January 2011 -- could well see the end of smoking in a multitude of public areas not covered by the present law. These include restaurants, which would be totally smoke-free inside but allow smoking in open-air terrace areas.
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.