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A social event, hopping from bar to bar, eating the best a place has to offer, and laughing along the way—this is tapas in Madrid. We fell in love with the tradition of tapas on our first trip to Spain over eight years ago, and it continues to be one of our favorite experiences in the country.
Whether we’re eating crunchy patatas bravas or savoring delicious jamon, we love everything about eating our way across one of Spain’s great cities. On this trip, a Madrid food tour with Devour Madrid was our choice for visiting some of the city’s best tapas bars that we missed the first time around.
We’ve taken a food tour in Barcelona and in San Sebastian with the same company, so we knew we were in for some great tapas and good stories at local establishments (i.e., not chains) who really know what they’re doing.
An added element on this food tour was history. In between the taverns and tapas bars, we stopped in Madrid’s squares, gazed at the royal palace, and our guide Oliver told us about local legends and rumors at notable spots around the city. But the real focus was the amazing food and the education we got about eating in Madrid. Here are just a few of the interesting things we learned along the way.
The dirtier, the better
We don’t usually think of a dirty floor as the sign of a high-quality restaurant, but a tapas tour of Madrid might require you to change your thinking. In Spain, how good a tapas bar is can often be measured by the amount of trash on the ground. Olive pits, shrimp shells, toothpicks, and more strewn on the floor is a sign of good food, good times, and lots of patrons.
And we were encouraged to join in the litter-making. There are even tales about servers bringing trash from nearby restaurants into their bars to make the place seem more enticing. When in Spain…
Open kitchens are where it’s at
Open kitchens are fashionable in some of the best restaurants around the world. Guests can see all the activity among the chefs and prep cooks and actually watch the artistry and skill as their food is being made. It’s almost like a form of entertainment.
When it comes to tapas, though, open kitchens are an expectation, no matter how basic the establishment may seem. In Madrid, having an open kitchen is a sign of quality and transparency. Not only can guests see their food being prepared, they know it’s being cooked as they order it—not before.
They can also see the cleanliness of the workspace and the quality of the ingredients so they know they’re getting exactly what they ordered, prepared in expert fashion. Of course all four places we visited allowed for the behind-the-scenes view.
Fewer choices can be the best
When you’re unfamiliar with a cuisine or restaurant, sometimes choosing a place with a long menu and lots of option seems like a great idea. Not so in Spain.
In Madrid, an exhaustive menu can be a sign that an establishment lacks focus or just caters to tourists. They may make lots of items OK but nothing great. On the other hand, a more focused menu is an indication that a restaurant does a handful of things really well, and those are what they’re known for.
On our Madrid food tour, we visited one spot that’s been in business for over 100 years focusing primarily on garlic shrimp and another that’s known for its fantastic chorizo-stuffed mushrooms. So it’s true—stick to places with a specialty for some fantastic bites.
It’s the time to be adventurous
One of the great things about tapas (and food tours, in general) is that there’s no commitment. Portions are small, and there are often several dishes to choose from. It’s the perfect opportunity to be adventurous and try something a little outside your comfort zone. If you don’t care for it, there will be plenty of other dishes to try and you haven’t invested a lot of money.
On this food tour, I was encouraged to try lamb sweetbreads, something not even on the same planet as my comfort zone. Guess what. They taste like chicken!
Madrid is the place for seafood
The Iberian peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides, so Spain has lots of perfect places to try fresh seafood. Landlocked Madrid – in the middle of the country – may not seem like one of them. But, surprisingly, it is.
Thanks to all the business connections in the capital city, many companies ship their seafood to Madrid first before it’s redistributed around the country. That means Madrid may sometimes have even fresher fish than a place by the coast, so it’s the ideal place to dive into oysters, cod, garlic shrimp, or anything else that’s calling your name.
Take a Madrid Food Tour
Timing: The Tapas, Taverns & History of Madrid Tour is offered at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 most evenings; it lasts about four hours
Location: Starts in Plaza Isabel II and ends in Puerta del Sol
Cost: €99 for adults, €85 for teens
For more details, check out their website: https://madridfoodtour.com/
We were the guests of Devour Madrid for our Madrid food tour. All opinions of the garlicky and fresh are our own.