No one is really sure where the Spanish tradition of eating small plates of food rather than a full meal comes from. The word tapa means “lid” and it may be that tavern keepers of old would put a saucer on top of a glass of beer to keep the flies out. Then they started putting a snack onto the saucer to encourage the next drink. Whatever its origins, madrileños’ capacity to consume tapas seems almost unlimited. You’ll see people ordering a saucer of boquerones (marinated anchovies) or a slice of tortilla (Spanish omelet) at all hours of the day and night. Tapas are ideally eaten standing at the bar and should be a movable feast; enjoy the specialty of the house, then move on to the next stop. It’s a good way to try things you’re not sure you’ll like (like callos, or tripe), or delicacies (like top-quality jamón) that are expensive for a full plate. In some bars, you’ll get a free tapa when you order a drink, so wait to see what appears before ordering more. Many don’t take credit cards—cash keeps things moving. The literary neighborhood of Las Letras is a good place to start, but seek out some other gems too.

Calle Jesus in the old newspaper district (Metro: Antón Martín) is a great place for free tapas with your drink. The bars here pour the Mahou caña in the old style for maximum creaminess and serve a generous tapa with each. You could drop in to any of a few options—El Diario, La Dolores, Cervezas La Fábrica, Los Gatos—and skip dinner.

Calle Ponzano in fashionable Chamberí has so many good tapas bars it has spawned its own verb and hashtag, to go #ponzaning. This is where young madrileños go. Hop from classics like Cervercería El Doble (Calle de Ponzano, 58) to youthful hot spots like La Malcriada (Calle de Ponzano, 38) or El Arrogante (Calle de Ponzano, 46), a long way from that old taverner keeping flies off his drinks.

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