It's your first night in a new city. You want to start your holiday with a memorable meal. But how to choose a restaurant?
Nowadays, we're more informed on where to eat and drink (and do just about anything else) than ever before. In just a few clicks we can access listings, restaurant booking sites, reviews from fellow travellers and the advice of locals. But which to listen to?
Given the choice, I'll go with local advice every time. Living in a city really gives you the chance to explore its bar and restaurant scene, to roadtest different places and pick your favourites. Residence gives an in-depth knowledge that tourists can only aspire to. But now, thanks to Madrid Food Tour, visitors to the Spanish capital can easily access this local knowledge: the company runs a range of tours around the city guided by residents. Founded by Lauren Aloise in 2012, Madrid Food Tour now offers a choice of three routes, taking in tapas bars and food markets scattered throughout the centre. Led by established expat residents of the city, these tours are run during the day (Ultimate Spanish Cuisine and Huertas Neighbourhood Food and Market Tour) and evening (Tapas, Taverns & History) and cater to small groups. Any trepidation I had about being herded in and out of tourist traps to munch on Spanish omelette washed down with sangria were dispelled by their website: they emphasize that tours take in busy family-run establishments and that seating can't always be guaranteed, as is the norm in Spanish bars. They also recommend that visitors take one of their tours soon after arriving in Madrid, so that it serves as an introduction to dining Spanish-style and provides enough knowledge recommendations to last the rest of your trip.
|Stop1: Aperitif time|
Lauren invited me to try out the Tapas, Taverns & History Tour, which runs 5 evenings a week and takes in 5–6 bars around the centre. It promises customers a stomach-filling 12 tapas accompanied by drinks, and can be adapted for pescetarian customers (although not veggies – they're best suited to the Huertas Tour or the Ultimate Cuisine Tour, which can also be tailored to celiacs). The blurb on the website promised more than just delicious bites to eat: as the name suggests, the other aim of this particular tour is to educate visitors on Madrid's history. I admitted that my historical knowledge was somewhat lacking, but what would a fellow resident be able to teach me about where to eat well in central Madrid? Quite a lot, it turned out.
I met rest of the tour group (two young, friendly couples) at 7.30pm. Our guide, Luke, was a fellow Englishman with a welcoming smile who quickly put us all at ease and swept us off to our first stop of six, a traditional bar close to Opera. I'd passed by the bar many times but never thought to go inside: so far, so good. Over vermouth, olives, pan con tomate and and the Rolls Royce of Spanish hams, jamón ibérico de bellota (substituted for a tuna and pepper montadito for me), Luke gave us the lowdown on the Spanish diet, eating timetables and of course, tapas. Rather than feeling like a lecture, his knowledge was shared in an amusing style, which set the tone for the evening. He also encouraged us to make like Spaniards and toss our olive stones and serviettes on to the floor, which everyone did with some trepidation.
After soaking up all the facts on Spanish bar culture, Spain's famous jamón and vermouth, Luke led us over to the Royal Palace and gave us a quick summary of the city's history, including some funny royal-related anecdotes. From here, we wandered over to medieval La Latina, pausing at numerous sights along the way for the historical lowdown. Our next food stop was a pescetarian's dream: a stand-up bar specializing in cod. We were each presented with a hot hunk of battered salt cod, washed down with a cold beer or a tumbler of wine. A buzzing spot packed with locals, this was another venue I had never visited – in fact I'd never heard of it. Drawing on the local knowledge of its expat guides, Madrid Food Tour aims to show guests both how and where to eat, introducing them to tapas as it's actually eaten: standing up at the bar, or more accurately, a range of bars. Delicious flaky cod demolished, we moved on to stop no.3, a quirky basement bar where I had an entirely vegetarian tapa: a plate of garlicky grilled mushrooms with a lovely lemon and herb taste. The meat-eaters' fungi were topped with chorizo, but a vegetarian version is available on request. At each stop, Luke gave us more information on the bar, its specialities, and further insights into Spanish cuisine.
|Mushrooms with chorizo|
To get to our fourth stop, we wandered through the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol at sunset. Luke filled us in on the stories behind these two key squares, spicing up the better-known facts (that the beautiful Plaza Mayor was once the scene of autos da fe and that Puerta del Sol is where madrileños see in New Year by eating their traditional 12 grapes) with a few witty historical anecdotes. From one tradition to another, we moved on to a bar famous for its gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns), which it's been perfecting for over 100 years. Cooked in front of you, the sizzling prawns were served up with chunks of fresh bread to dip in the hot oil. In this bar, Luke ordered us all glasses of slightly sweet red wine, which apparently undercuts the strong taste of the garlic, although I can't say I was a big fan!
|The famous Tio Pepe sign in Puerta del Sol|
Bar number five was the only stop on the tour I was familiar with, much-loved sherry bar La Venencia which I learned has socialist connections stretching back to the Civil War. This apparently explains its 'no photo' policy, which causes great chagrin to many a camera-wielding tourist keen for a snap of the bar's tobacco-stained ceilings, peeling posters and dusty sherry bottles. Luke explained more about Spain's famous fortified wine over glasses of manzanilla (dry) and oloroso (less so), accompanied by nibbles of manchego cheese and mojama (dried tuna).
Our final stop was a bar with a restaurant area upstairs, where we polished off an excellent bottle of Ribera del Duero. Oh, and several platefuls of raciones: pimientos de padrón, a prawn and mushroom revuelto (scrambled egg dish), chorizo, seafood and more. Although the food was decent, this was probably my least favourite stop, as it seemed less atmospheric than the lively spots we'd visited previously – although that could have been because we were seated in the restaurant rather than huddled around the bar.
Four and a half hours later, full up, slightly tipsy and thoroughly well-educated on the concept of tapas, where exactly to eat it and (the city's history), the Tapas, Taverns & History Tour drew to a close. Having answered many questions from the visiting couples about what to see and do in Madrid, Luke presented us all with a Madrid Food Tour guide to the city, full of tips on where to eat (including many 'off the beaten track' spots), how to order in Spanish, where to buy gourmet souvenirs and some of the city's more unusual sights. This take-away guide is crammed with local recommendations, and I'll definitely be working my way through it over the coming months.
Before we left, I asked the two couples on the tour how they'd found it. Like me, both were enthused and glowing with praise, but unlike me, they had paid €95 per person for the tour. Although they had initially found the price tag steep, they were delighted they'd decided to treat themselves and felt they'd not only enjoyed a fun evening and some great food, they'd also learned plenty to help them get the most out of their trip to Madrid, and indeed to Spain. And I couldn't help but agree. Visitors to Madrid who really want to understand tapas culture and to load up on local tips to last them throughout their stay will get a lot out of a Madrid Food Tour. After all, they can even teach a fellow foodie resident a thing or two.
For more information about Madrid Food Tour and to book, you can find their website here. Their website is a great source of information about dining and sightseeing in the city, with a host of local tips and blog posts. The same company have also recently set up Devour Barcelona, which runs a vegetarian- and pescetarian-friendly food tour in the Gracia neighbourhood of the Catalan capital, priced €65.
I was kindly invited on the Tapas, Taverns & History tour as a guest of Madrid Food Tour, but all opinions expressed are my own.