There are plenty of high-end and Michelin starred restaurants in Madrid. But the best way to get inside the city is to sample the countless traditional tapas bars. Look for restaurants with a plaque in front of them. These are awarded by the City of Madrid to restaurants that have been in operation for at least 100 years. You don’t get to the century mark by serving slop!
No one is 100% certain who or when tapas was invented. But, the tapas origin story from Cadiz in Andalusia is my favorite, so that’s one I go with. According to the legend, King Alfonso XIII was traveling through Cadiz when he stopped for a glass of wine. The waiter covered the glass with a slice of ham to keep the sand from windy Cadiz out of the royal cup (variations of the story say it was to keep out fruit flies). His Majesty liked the practice so much that he asked for a “tapa” (a cover) with his drink.
No matter where tapas was invented, Madrid has perfected the tradition of bars serving little plates of food with a drink. My absolute favorite thing to do in Madrid is to pick a neighborhood and go from place to place, ordering a tapa or two along with a drink, and then heading to the next place, never spending more than half an hour in any one tapas joint.
In fact, I love this Spanish tradition so much that I try to practice something similar called The Grazing Method whenever I visit a new city.
One tip: Tapas often come free with a drink. Tapas bars usually don’t advertise this fact so the best way to find out is to order a drink and wait. If a tapa shows up, you’re golden! If not, you can always order one.
Each tapas place has their own specialty. Look at what everyone else is getting or ask your waiter, and jump right in.
So, here’s the six must-try tapas dishes along with our recommendation(s) on where to get each!
Mesón del Champiñón has been cranking out their famous mushroom tapas since 1964. There is a cavern-like restaurant in the back, but the way to experience this place is to sidle up to the bar and order a plate of their famous mushrooms. The cap is filled with a piece of chorizo, but vegetarians can order the dish without.
The plate arrives with each fungi having two toothpicks sticking straight out. Confusion ensues until you watch another patron carefully use the toothpicks to lift the toadstool to their mouth and devour it in a single bite. Or, copy the guy in the painting on the wall.
2. Padron Peppers
Padron Peppers are little, wrinkly green peppers that are quick-fried and salted. They come piled on a plate with their stems conveniently attached for grabbing and eating while they’re still hot.
Speaking of heat, Pardon Peppers usually aren’t spicy hot. Usually being the operative word. Maybe one in twenty or one in fifty Padron Peppers packs a punch. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a caña, a small glass of beer, nearby.
There must be hundreds of tapas joints where you can get a plate of hot Padron Peppers, but like mushrooms, my favorite is Mesón del Champiñón.
Patatas Bravas is a famous potato dish, sort of similar to what we know as Home Fries in the U.S. Potatoes are cubed, par boiled, and fried until crisp. Nothing especially unique there, but what makes the Patatas Bravas is the sauce. A smooth and spicy tomato sauce is served for dipping.
The sauce is key. All the good places make the sauce in house and each has their own twist. The Bravas Sauce gets its kick from smoked paprika, not cayenne, which gives the dish a nice depth of flavor, but not too much heat.
A lot of people who I like and respect say Docamar makes the best Patatas Bravas in Madrid. And yes, they do a fine job.
But, allow me to offer up Casa Toni. This place is rustic in the best way possible with tables crammed into the tiny dining room and bar. There are tables upstairs, too, but why go there and miss all the action downstairs?
The potatoes here are crispier than Docamar’s and I really like Casa Toni’s Bravas Sauce. And, their fried eggplant is to-die.
Casa Toni is my absolute favorite tapas bar in Madrid.
4. Gambas Al Ajillo
Back in the day (before the Spanish Civil War), La Casa del Abuelo thrived selling sandwiches. But bread shortages during the war forced them to diversify and now Abuelo is famous for their Gambas Al Ajillo (Garlic Shrimp). The dish comes sizzling in a ceramic bowl with oil and garlic.
But, I enjoy going to Abuelo for their house sweet wine. It’s fruity and intense and goes nicely with their Salmorejo Cordobes, a garlicky tomato soup thickened with bread. Delightful.
5. Huevos Rotos
Huevos Rotos (literally, Broken Eggs) is a fast and tasty combination of french fries topped with a fried egg. The dish is also served with jamon (ham) or chorizo. Served hot, the “Broken Egg” moniker comes from the the way the dish is eaten. Once served, the egg yolk is pierced with the customer’s knife, spilling it all over the hot potatoes.
Los Huevos de Lucio has eggs in the name (Huevos), so you know it’s good. And Taberna La Carmencita makes a nice Huevos Rotos as well. Carmencita’s spin is that in addition to offering jamon or chorizo, they also have Huevos Rotos with Morcilla (Spanish Blood Sausage).
For vegetarians, just request yours “Vegetariano.”
First things first, we’re not talking about the tortillas you get in Mexican and Tex Mex joints. The Tortilla in Spain is an omelette. Yes, the Spanish love their eggs and eat Huevos all day long.
The traditional Tortilla is served with potatoes (Tortilla de Patatas), and sometimes onions (Cebolla), but lots of places are experimenting with Tortilla recipes to create new and exciting dishes.
My favorite place is Pez Tortilla. They offer the traditional Tortilla (with onion) but also a Mozzarella & Pesto Tortilla and a Shrimp & Tortilla. Best of all, you can top it with their famous Bravas Sauce!
For more things to eat and drink in Madrid and fun things to do, check out our