Madrid, a lively city home to 3 million people, is a great destination for a weekend getaway from London. The capital city is rich of history and culture with plenty of things to offer: from art museums, beautiful parks, charming neighbourhoods and fantastic food. One of the main reasons we go to Madrid are the tapas, but how do you “do tapas” like a local? I learnt just that on Devour Madrid Food Tour.
Discerning Madrid’s best restaurants and taverns among the average touristy spots can be a daunting task so I enlisted the help of an expert guide. I joined the Tapas, Taverns and History Tour and spent an evening visiting five of Madrid’s most loved family-run tapas taverns.
Devour Madrid is the number #1 tapas tour in the city; they also organise food tours in other Spanish cities like Barcelona, Seville and Malaga. I picked the Tapas and Taverns tour because of its combination of food tastings and a guided tour of the historic city centre.
The meeting point was Plaza Isabel II where our guide Debbie was waiting for us with a clear sign. Debbie is originally from London, but her knowledge of Spanish culture and of Madrid’s food and history could rival that of any Madrileños. She was absolutely amazing: smart, fun, experienced, passionate – one of the best guides I have ever had on a food tour.
The Tapas, Taverns and History Tour takes you to Madrid’s most loved family-run establishments: the bodegas, tabernas and casas. While hopping from one tavern to the next, the guide tells you the history of palaces and squares you walk by and shares quirky anecdotes about Madrid and its inhabitants.
Our tour lasted a bit longer than 4 hours and included a visit to five historic tapas bars. Mostly we stood at the bar drinking a glass of sherry or wine and eating tapas, but at the last stop we sat down at a table to taste a selection of foods from sharing platters. By the end of the evening we knew how to eat tapas like a pro!
Taking a Madrid Food Tour is like visiting a fellow foodie friend and letting them take you to their favorite spots, as well as giving you lots of tips for doing it yourself! [Devour Madrid]
The first thing you need to know is that tapas are the one-portion snacks you get at the counter, but you can also order raciones: a full plate, usually for sharing. Another thing to know is that normally people eating tapas at the counter throw olive pips, skewers and tissues on the floor – that’s totally ok and also is a way to tell which bars are the best and most popular: the ones with more rubbish on the floor. One last tip to enjoy a tapas tour: taverns get very crowded of people standing, pushing and trying to grab a space on the counter so don’t be upset if they invade your personal space.
Bar-hopping following a tapas trail is a lot of fun and as the evening progresses you will feel at home in Madrid.
1. Taberna Real – Plaza Isabel II, 8
Opened in 1997, Taberna Real is a historic bar housed in a building that used to be residence for the staff of the Palacio Real. The tavern is spacious with several tables inside and outside.
We started with a taste of Spain’s world-famous acorn-fed Iberian ham: Jamón ibérico de bellota. For vegetarians there was pan con tomate (toasted bread with fresh tomato and extra virgin olive oil) and local Campo Real olives.
All accompanied by a glass of delicious Spanish sweet red “Miro” vermouth. The ritual of drinking a glass of vermouth (tomar un vermut) with tapas is part of the tradition. Vermouth is served both straight up or mixed with soda (tinto de verano) or in cocktails.
From Taberna Real we walked towards the Palacio Real and to Plaza de la Villa, and all the while Debbie was giving us a lesson on Madrid’s history.
2. Bodegas Ricla – Calle de los Cuchilleros, 6
We arrived at Bodegas Ricla just as it was opening for the evening, so there was plenty of space to stand by the bar. This tavern is owned by Senora Ana, who still cooks everything in her home kitchen above the bar, and her two sons. The space is so small, I bet as the evening goes on people gather outside with their drink and food.
We ate freshly-pickled anchovies in garlic and parsley, Cabrales cheese whipped with Asturian cider and Ana’s “off-menu” homemade beef meatballs. The meatballs were one of the highlights of the whole tapas tour, so I really recommend you try them.
We drank Albarin white wine from the Tierra de León region.
Our next stop, la Mesón del Champiñón, was just thirty seconds away, in a street behind Plaza Mayor. Originally this street was full of warehouses, but in the Seventies several taverns were opened, mostly each one specialising in one dish. It is common in Madrid to have restaurants that only serve one dish and do it very well. Since eating tapas is all about hopping from one bar to the next, it is not unusual to only order one dish (tapa or racion) in each bar.
Mesón del Champiñón specialises in grilled mushrooms, as the name suggests. The mushrooms come from a village called Villamalea in Albacete and on weekends they prepare about 150kg of mushrooms daily.
4. La Casa del Abuelo – Calle de la Victoria, 12
We walked through Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol to reach our next stop: La Casa del Abuelo. This tavern is a family-run establishment opened since 1906. Before the civil war this tavern was popular for the bocadillos (sandwich with chorizo, anchovies or sobrasada), but after the war the owners decided to change the menu and focus solely on prawns. Their fame for serving the best prawns in town grew rapidly and today La Casa del Abuelo is one of Madrid’s restaurant you should not miss.
We stood at the bar and tasted their amazinggambas al ajillo: freshly-fried garlic and chilli shrimp, which were served piping hot in terracotta bowls and with the oil still bubbling.
I tasted a similar dish in Bilbao last September which I still dream about and this was just as good. Debbie could have left me there dipping bread in garlicky sauce and I would have been very happy!
5. Casa Toni – Calle de la Cruz, 14
Had I stayed at Casa del Abuelo eating prawns I would have missed out on the final meal of the night at Casa Toni and that would have been a real shame! At Casa Toni we shared a few plates of raciones: battered and fried eggplant drizzled with honey, fresh tomatoes in olive oil, grilled mushrooms, chorizo and cooked ham. They cook the animals nose-to-tail, so you could try mollejas (lamb sweetbreads) or zarajo (fried lamb guts wound around a vine). None of us was brave enough to order them.
We ended the evening with soft coconut cookies dipped in a glass of Moscatel sweet wine.
I ate and drank a lot throughout the evening, but also walked a lot and learned a lot about the city. For me this was hundred times better than a traditional city tour, as I really felt like I was living Madrid like a local. I also appreciated doing the tour on our first day in the city, as the knowledge we gathered helped us navigate through the city. Finally I was able to ask Debbie for more restaurant recommendations to help me find a place to eat authentic food the following evening.
If you want to really get to know Madrid, joining one of Devour Madrid tapas tours is the first thing you have to do.
Disclaimer: I was a guest on the tour. All opinions are my own.