“Bars are a lottery you never win,” wrote Madrid actor and gourmet blogger Juan Echanove.
Clearly he had in mind Madrid’s tapas bars – so varied and vast in number you’re taking a wild bet if you choose one at random.
Outside the capital of Spain, tapas joints often conform to a fairly predictable, vintage stamp. Within Madrid, about the only thing they have in common is selling liquor and an assortment of snacks.
From old school establishments to cutting edge destinations that are all foam and foie gras, this tapas bar guide should shorten the odds for enjoying a quintessentially Spanish eating and drinking experience.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the big nights at most tapas bars. They usually open around midday and again at 8.30 p.m. Most are closed on Mondays.
1. Taberna Tempranillo
Among the dozens of bars on offer, Tempranillo maintains quality, style and ambiance, much helped by a humongous choice of wines (“tempranillo” refers to Spain’s national red grape) though not always by brusque bar staff.
From a prized stool at the varnished bar you can contemplate the wall-sized rack of Spanish wines while ordering a glass of brooding red Priorat vino and a crunchy toast of bacalao (cod) with tomato sauce.
Taberna Tempranillo, Cava Baja 38. Tel: +34 91 364 15 32
2. Vi Cool
The name requires decoding. “Vi” is the Spanish word for wine, with the end – “no” – lopped off.
Cool? That’s up for you to decide.
One of top Catalan chef Sergi Arola’s venues, this bar-restaurant offers some of Madrid’s most inventive gourmet tapas, impeccably served.
Honeyed wood tones, black details and huge monochrome prints of the Boqueria market enclose the bar and a small lineup of tables that at lunchtime attract an overload of ladies who lunch. Come evening it’s thronging with hipsters dropping cash.
Although more a place for raciones (sharing plates) than tapas, the $27 (€20) tapas menu gives a superb six-course taste of high-end modern cocina.
Vi Cool, Calle Huertas 12. Tel: + 34 91 429 4913
3. Espacio Cultural La Victoria
With the creeping commercialization of the Sol and Latina area, more inspired bohemians are heading a few blocks south to edgy Lavapies.
Here 18 months ago La Victoria was converted from a derelict store into a creative crossroads and lively bar.
Theatricality rules in the distressed baroque setting where you can prop up the bar, sink into a squishy leather sofa or head through the red velvet curtains to the bijou theater downstairs.
Tapas range from a typical Spanish tortilla to Mexican-style quesadillas. It even serves sustaining breakfasts for hungry thesps after a long night out.
Espacio Cultural La Victoria, Calla Santa Isabel 40. Tel: + 34 91 528 6457
4. Mercado de San Anton
Spain’s fashion for food halls kicked off with the Mercado San Miguel, but success breeds complacency – Chueca’s smaller Mercado de San Anton dishes up better food and atmosphere.
The shared eating and drinking space there means you can pick up a plate of oysters or tuna tartare with wasabi from the cheerfully manned seafood counter and wash them down with a glass of cava or Galician albariño, before grazing further at the next bar.
Shared tables and stools overlook a large atrium, so even when it’s heaving at the weekend, it still feels airy.
Sabores del Mar stands out among the bars for ultra-fresh seafood tapas.
Mercado de San Anton, Calle Augusto Figueroa. Tel: +34 913 30 07 30
5. La Musa Latina
Ping pong in the vaulted cellar bar is part of the draw at this chilled tapas bar-restaurant in one of Madrid’s prettiest old squares. Style veers from recycled wood tables to industrial chic, making an arty fusion.
The seductive location means in summer you can flop at a table under the trees to work your way through some pretty left-field tapas, including octopus, wild boar, tempura prawns and huitlacoche, a Mexican fungus.
La Musa Latina (Spanish only), Costanilla de San Andres 12. Tel: +34 91 354 02 55
6. Bodega de la Ardosa
More than 110 years old, this legendary bar is the kind of place you’d like to have next door.
It’s impossible not to like the cozy, well-worn interior of old photos, barrels, tapas boards and towering shelves of wine and liquor bottles – quintessential vintage Madrid.
On top of that, the tapas are varied and good, from potato tortilla to a creamy salmorejo (chilled tomato soup) and croquetas of blue cheese, salt cod or cured beef.
Known for its Czech pilsen, vermouth and Guinness on tap, Ardosa also pours a decent glass of sherry, though wines are limited and young.
In summer regulars spill on to the pavement until late at night.
Bodega de La Ardosa (Spanish only), Calle de Colón 13. Tel: +34 915 21 49 79
Chic is hardly the word for this polished, ultra-refined tapas bar-restaurant in Salamanca, Madrid’s smart commercial district.
Step inside and you enter a temple to tapas beneath a soaring glass ceiling where lighting switches from day blue to night red and jazzy music soothes.
There are spaces for intimate dining, but the fun is at the bar or one of the high tables in the company of men in blazers and women in rapier stilettoes.
Here you can watch a leg of Joselito ham being expertly carved or delicious little cold tapas assembled. Ingredients are top notch, with wines to match.
Restaurante Álbora, Calle de Jorge Juan 33. Tel: + 34 91 781 6197
Opening opposite Retiro Park in 2009, a year into the recession, Arzabal has nonetheless been successful enough to open a sister establishment around the corner.
This is where you come to dent your banker’s bonus by ordering a tin of Royal Baikal caviar with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot for $314 all in, or more judiciously opt for a plate of garlicky prawns for $25 with a bottle of Montrachet white wine ($64).
The action concentrates in the jostling bar section at the front, which sometimes feels like a private party.
For designer comfort, you can head for the serene back area.
Arzabal (Spanish only), Avenida Menéndez Pelayo 13. Tel: +34 915 57 26 91
9. Antigua Casa Angel Sierra
For nearly a century this decorative, dusty old bar has dominated the once sleazy, now boho-chic barrio of Chueca.
In 1995, it was featured in one of Pedro Almodovar’s movies, “La Flor de mi Secreto” (“The Flower of My Secret”), gaining a ceiling painting as a legacy.
Regulars cover the gamut of ages, eccentricities and nationalities, though much depends on timing.
Around noon, you’ll rub shoulders with old boys from the neighborhood sloping in for a shot of draft vermouth ($2) and a free dish of olives. Late in the evening it fills up with a youthful, flamboyant crowd that spills outside in summer.
Tapas are cheap and cheerful – hardly refined.
Antigua Casa Angel Sierra, Calle Gravina 11. Tel: + 34 91 531 0126
10. Estado Puro
Cutting edge design and revolutionary tapas combine at this modern hotel bar.
With its own entrance, conveniently opposite the Prado, Estado Puro makes a great venue for a different type of art form – gastronomic.
The brainchild of two avant garde chefs, Paco Roncero and Alfonso Castellanos, it produces Ferran Adria-style foams and manipulated classics like an ambrosial 21st-century Spanish tortilla, served in a glass, vertical ali-oli potatoes, or a gingerbread “sandwich” of foie gras.
The nightclub-like interior features black surfaces, high stools and a vaulted ceiling of illuminated mantilla combs.
Estado Puro (Spanish only), NH Hotel Paseo del Prado, Plaza de Canovas del Castillo 4. Tel: +34 917 79 30 36
Fiona Dunlop is the author of “New Tapas” and “Real Tapas” (Octopus Publishing).
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2014. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.