The tapeo, or eating of tapas, has a few unwritten rules. First of all, you don’t eat tapas in just one bar—you go to many. That’s part of the fun. And always you are having a little something to drink with your tapa (usually wine although OGs still order sherry and you’ll find the younger crowd sometimes going with beer). At some places you order tapas from a menu (this is becoming more the norm), but the old school way to do it is to just pick your plate of tapas off the bar. If that’s the case, you need to keep track of what you eat and confess it all when you ask for the check.
At a traditional tapa bar, such as you might find in San Sebastian, it is an insult to leave your dirty napkin on the bar; you toss it on the floor instead. But look around and see if that’s what others are doing. You don’t want to toss your greasy napkin on the floor only to get a bunch of dirty looks from your neighbors.
There are good tapa bars all over Madrid, but, for our money, the best area to tapeo is the street of Cava Baja in the La Latina neighborhood, which is lined from one end to the other with excellent tapa bars and restaurants. Even if you don’t have a particular destination in mind, just walk down the street and stick your head in the bar. If it’s noisy and crowded with locals, it’s probably a good place.
One last thing: We’ve written over and over about how late Madrileños dine, but this isn’t true when it comes to tapeo when the busiest times are at what we like to think of as Happy Hour—say 5 to 7 or so. In Madrid, you meet friends after work and have a small glass of wine, maybe a tortilla de patatas or some salchicha and this is all just a prelude to dinner many hours later.
Here, then, are our 10 favorite Madrid tapa bars (in no particular order) and what to sample.
1. Casa Lucas, 30 Cava Baja. Pork loin on a confit of onions.
2. Casa Gonzalez, 12 Calle de León. Pig’s cheek.
3. Almendro 13, 13 Calle Almendro. Huevos rotos (fried potatoes topped with a fried egg and chunks of cured ham).
4. Taberna Tempranillo, 38 Cava Baja. Good wine bar that serves “solo vino español.”
5. Casa del Abuelo, 12 Calle Victoria. Shrimp with garlic.
6. El Lacon, 8 Manuel Fernández y González. Blood sausages with eggs.
7. Taberna de Los Lucio, 30 Cava Baja. Any of the house egg specialties.
8. Vinoteca Barbechera, 27 Calle Principe. Solomillo with caramelized onions.
9. Juana La Loca, 4 Plaza Puerta de Moros. Risotto with truffles.
10. Cerveceria Santa Barbara, Plaza Santa Ana. Boquerones (white anchovies) in vinegar.