A guiri’s guide to Madrid bars

words by Michael Rowlands. Photography by Inés van Berkel.

Over Christmas whilst in Brussels, drinking every sort of beer available in Delirium Village, Inés and I discussed the uselessness of Channel 4’s programme Travel Man. Although it finds a way to be comical with Richard Ayoade’s odd parody of himself, the show is based on the idea of showing what can be done during a quick 48h holiday in famous European cities. While the idea itself does no harm, the catch is that there’s no real chance of mimicking his adventures unless you manage to get Channel 4 to fund your excursions.

Which made us express, as I’m sure many people have, that we could do a better job than them of showing someone around on a budget. Having lived in Madrid, the episode on the city was painful to watch as it seemed to miss the true charm of the city, staying and dining in expensive places. We decided to find a way to show a real view of the city and decided to do so through its bars.

The idea was so create a fully accessible list, but I also wanted to show the whole spectrum, so reluctantly agreed to add the one expensive bar we’ve been to. So the following is a list of 10 bars I would recommend in Madrid for what, as well as what to drink, and why I personally love them. We hit all 10 of these in one day to prove that it can be done in a single day, and it gave us a reason to do professional drinking.

1. Cafetería Pascual
Calle de Bravo de Murillo 343 (Metro Plaza de Castilla/ Valdeacederas)

Caña €1.40

When I first moved to Madrid and lived in Tetuán (yes, other areas outside of Malasaña exist for living and drinking; especially if you don’t have rich parents bankrolling you) I had the first task of locating what I would christen as my local. So, I wandered the streets like Moses in the desert, in search of an alcoholic oasis. I don’t know if I found the bar or if it found me, but it was a connection only comparable to the one a mother has with her fresh-out-the-womb baby.

This tiny local bar, only known as Local to me, set the quality standard when it comes to Spanish bars. My daily routine quickly became walking into a flood of handshakes and greetings from the staff, while other Spaniards looked up from their caña in confusion at the guiri disguised as a local. Without my knowledge or consent, a beer, a tiny wee tapa that ranged from patatas ali-oli to fish heads, and a little Spanish chat would immediately be dished to me. On occasion with great disappointment, but only because I needed a coffee first. ¿Frío o caliente? Was one of the questions they would ask, and at first, I wouldn’t know how to respond. But throughout the days, thanks to their gesturing I would learn how to communicate with the brothers running this place.

If you find yourself a good local, you don’t need that bastard Duolingo owl or a teacher; friendly old Spaniards will teach you all you need.

2. El Sabroso
Calle Magdalena Díez 6 (Metro Valdeacederas)

Glass of vino tinto €2

A few steps away, down a little back alley, the next bar hides away. A clash of culture and needs constructs this drinking hole, and describing it merely as a bar wouldn’t serve it justice in my written court of bars. Inside, the bar is hidden as a sort of artisan shop, with various cheeses, meats and tinned goodies on display under a glass counter and built across the back wall. Two wobbly stools that need retiring sit in a small section cleared for drinkers, giving the impression that people come to stock up on daily needs and have a quick morning pick-me-up, rather than waste the day away. The bar has been arranged to fit in more wine than customers, with another wall dedicated to local, unlabeled wines, that can only be deciphered by the knowledgeable owner.

He is a jolly man who seems more than willing to talk us about this little establishment. Making sure we get a good taste of the place, he tells us everything we need to know about the wines he was serving us and the source of the tapa we we’re dining on (I say dining as our plates saw a fleet of tiny bites).

He has a good rapport with every customer that comes in, knowing them all at least on a first name basis, and he wants to get to know us too. After a quick introduction, funnily enough, he tells us about the former Sunderland A.F.C. footballer from the area that frequents the place.

The last and most distinguishing twist to the bar isn’t the amount of times the owner suddenly refilled out glass (our one drink per bar rule went straight out of the window), but the chicken shop that quietly sat in the back. Watching, and smelling, chickens turning away while you drink, what a place. If you fancy a glass before making some gravy, this is the perfect location for una copa de vino y un ( jugo de) pollo.   

3. Nubel
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Metro Atocha/Estación del Arte)

Nubel is the first of a few bars that will seem out of place on a list of bars written by me. This is because it is the opposite of a dive bar. The bars I frequent and enjoy most are basement bars, where the piss from the back alley drunkards spills in through the windows. I love them because they’re cheap and easy. But with some scheming and scamming, we’ve managed to disguise our filth, peek behind the curtain, and see how the other half drink.

To start with, Nubel is proudly presented as part of the Reina Sofía Museum, instead of between a 24h kebab and cigarette shop. The bar itself is a work of art that resembles some mad psychedelic spaceship, as vast as space, so no customers accidentally fall into a conversation with one another.

At one time, their cocktail bar was ran by Madrid’s best bartender (by award statistics), and we went off menu at times so that he could use us as excited guinea pigs for his new concoctions, with no complaints from ourselves. Now he’s departed the ship, and taken his mad creations with him, they have a nice classics menu. At fault of my dyslexia I had a lovely pisco sour, which I thought to be a Picaso sour to match the art theme. The tapa is a bowl of multicolored jellies, which are a perfect fit for cocktails.  

4 . Dry Martini Bar
Hotel Meliá Fenix (Metro Colón)

We climb even higher on the capitalist pyramid to find the next bar, which currently holds, and most likely will hold the spot, of fanciest bar in all my years of drinking experience. For this one, you’ll need to remortgage your first born baby, or if that’s not possible, follow our route of befriending a Russian Diplomat (a how to guide on that may be another piece one day). So, the only other time we frequented this bar was under the invitation of our new friend/amigo/друг on Russian Victory Day for a celebratory drink.

We had a few drinks to warm up, and with a quick text to quit a job I was due to start later that day, off we went to some fancy hotel. Sadly on arrival, the bar was closed for a private event. But then, just like some Cold War spy novel, our друг summoned over the manager and introduced himself in almost perfect Spanish, explaining that he would love to show his friends the hotel’s beautiful bar, as one of his bosses had highly recommended it after having stayed in one of the hotel’s floors (yes, floors, not rooms) for a period of time.

Moments later, we’re sitting down with a dry martini in hand, gazing into the mirrored bar, like some sort of James Bond of the North East. We returned once to try another of their martinis and luckily my partner just ordered a glass of water to the small tapa of a nuts selection in a chandelier styled serve as we would not be able to afford two of the, I must add, greatest Martinis I’ve ever had. After all, the bar specializes in them, so much that there is a counter on the wall to keep track of how many they’ve sold and will gift you a certificate if asked. I can now prove that at one point, I had a taste of the good life. 

5. El Tigre Sidra Bar
Calle de las Infantas 23 (Metro Gran Vía)

Gin-tonic/lemonade €5 – Caña €2.50

Our next step was gloriously falling to the bar of gluttony. El Tigre does three things in large quantities: drinks, tapas and guiris*. For example a Michael Rowlands,  or UnitedStatesian** living in central Madrid for the ‘spanish’ experience, paid for by their trust fund whilst unknowingly destroying the entire Madrid rental market and gentrifying every other neighbourhood. This is one of the few bars with a real mixture of locals and ‘others’, and depending on which you fall into will affect your service.

So, getting on the right side is important, which is easy; don’t be a twat, and take what they give you. The bar is littered with high tables and used napkins. You squeeze into a spot, probably with other people (sharing is caring is their moto), then order a flood of gin, which will be dropped off with the smallest glass bottle of mixer they could find, with a trough of food on the side.

Depending on how many of you there is, you may get a chaotic plate of mixed things, or dedicated plates loaded with whatever they have. For every drink, you get an entire plate of food, bu you take whatever they give you, so no good for the fussy, the vegetarian, or anyone who wants the luxury of choosing what food they get (Its ‘free’ so they can do whatever they want). Potatoes, chicken wings, fresh croqettas, its the spanish version of russian roulette. As you get fed and watered, you can look into the dead glassy eyes of the animals you are eating, with the taxidermied heads of the treats you nibble on mount the wall for decoration.  

*Guiri: Noun – Someone blatantly and loudly not Spanish)
**UnitedStatesian: Noun – From the Spanish ‘Estadounidense’. Person from the USA, more specific than ‘American’

6. Vinos el 2 de Sagasta
Calle de Sagasta, 2 (Metro Bilbao)

Vermouth €2

Walking into this bar feels as though you’ve turned up unannounced to a 4am after party organised in the kitchen of someone’s old spanish grandparents. Beautiful tacky white tiles set the canvas on the walls for the owners’ many family pictures, a visual history of both the couple’s life and the life of this small vermouth bar.

The owner is constantly mingling around, waiting to refill drinks and give farewells. We are always greeted warmly, with some vague resemblance, unsure whether he pretends to know everyone or he just doesn’t get many ginger Englishmen speaking spanish poorly in an attempt to get some vermouth. He accommodates us as best as he can, and after moving some people around, we manage to get three wee stools and an empty keg as our table. We don’t even need to order, as we see him pouring three full glasses of vermouth, which he drops at our makeshift table without question, alongside some meats and cheese that his wife lovingly prepares behind the bar.

Occasionally he comes round and has a bit of craic with us, never stopping skating around to other tables, checking on all of his customers; but it just seems to be a big family party that I’ve somehow managed to infiltrate. 

7. Cervecería Alemana
Plaza de Santa Ana 6 (Metro: Sol/Antón Martín)

A bar we discovered while tracing the drinking holes of Hemingway from when he lived in Madrid. This is the only one that seems to have hardly noticed the passing of time. They even have a small picture of Hemingway on the wall, with an american flag bandana to celebrate his genius but also probably the amount of pesetas that alcoholic spent in the place. The bar still exists in the past it feels with the waiters wearing white tuxedos, always surrounded by customers, slicing the giant legs of meat or throwing around poker chips in some odd communication system they have between themselves for table service that we’ve never managed to work out.

The bar brings a lot of tourists not just for its centric placement, but the history behind it too. However, they always seem to remember little Michael here. In my spot in the corner of the bar, the top man running the places always welcomes me with a handshake, followed by some pats on the back from various waiters, and the shouting of culo from one bartender as he pretends to spank himself; some inside joke he made with a drunk version of myself I’m guessing.

The tapa is always olives and meat to start, but if you make it good with the staff, you can end up stealing the food that the others are paying for. Go there enough, and they’ll start giving you free glass of wine and calamari. But the one drink to get is the sol y sombra, sun and show. I don’t know if its the mad old man drink they told me it was, or a joke they play on guiris, but its a combination of Anis and Cognac that will start your night, or day, off well. 

8. Museo Chicote 
Calle Gran Vía 12 (Metro: Gran Vía/Sol)

Cocktails 2x€9 with Fever app

Museo Chicote used to be the Hollywood bar of Madrid, but now its got people like me sneaking in with online vouchers that you loudly state when ordering a drink to ensure they don’t want real money. You enter through some revolving doors, fitting with the old Hollywood style, but dangerous when leaving. Many drunks have lost their lives in revolving door accidents, a bar is no place to be playing with them.

Inside, the ghosts of their former clients are pasted all over the walls, all merrily drinking their full price cocktails. This is yet another bar Hemingway frequented during his time in Madrid, and he’s honoured with his Hemingway Daiquiri on the menu. Other artists can be seen photographed throughout the years, like Salvador Dalí  as well as other great influences like Ashton Kutcher. But the bar gets its name from the bartender Perico Chicote (not to be confused with reality tv star and chef Alberto Chicote) who, like Hemingway, also has a signature cocktail on the menu, named after himself and the bar, which is an absolute must. So you can sip away, under the eyes of the stars, and take in the tacky Hollywood past of the place. 

9. Casa Camacho (Yayos)
Calle de San Andrés 4 (Metro Tribunal)

Yayo (Gin/Vermouth/Soda) €3

It seems most people gain no pleasure from their jobs and even fewer would actively choose their current positions. But for some reason, the owners of this next bar possess a hatred so strong for their work, it is only seconded by their mutual hatred for their customers. They only serve one drink it seems, and if you try and order something else, you’ll be ignored. So if you don’t like the mixture of vermouth, gin and soda, it’s probably not the bar for you. Is this the one drink as they have the perfect exclusive recipe? No, they have no issue with having y the cheap supermarket gin and soda that they use on display. Although the vermouth is on tap, so maybe the secret lies in there.

On the weekends, this bar draws a huge crowd, with a line outside of people waiting for those inside to evacuate the tightly packed, tiny bar. With the TV blasting ITV afternoon films like ‘The Mummy’ and groups of friends intertwining, you’ve got to shout to be heard. But the lads running the busy place have no time for this nonsense of noise, and will happily take shifts in shushing their customers. Which is painful for someone so very loud as myself.

Just incase this wasn’t enough to show that they don’t want customers, they have no customer toilets. But worry not, if you’re brave enough to ask, you can duck under the bar and enter their back room to find a bathroom that’s been designed on their favorite Saw film. For the tapa, everyone gets olives; you’re expected to eat them, drink quickly and fuck off. Its a bar like no other, a must stop for a new experience. 

10. La Almudayna
Calle del Espíritu Santo 5 (Metro Tribunal)

Glass of vino blanco de la casa €1.50

Bang on in the center of the now gentrified Madrid bar scene sits a tiny galician bar. Just like my other Local, it was discovered by just walking into the first place that looked like old Spanish men would enjoy, and I’ve pretty much not left since. If there’s on bar on this list you decide to visit, I would demand that it’s this one. It’s very cheap or the area, and they’re aware of this. The owner, the smallest Spanish woman -who is more like a mother to me than my own mother now-  gets more happiness from keeping her loyal local customers whom she all knows by name then filling the seats with rich tourists. She was very upset when she discovered the amount of bars taking advantage of guiris during the Champions League Final weekend, selling cañas at extortionate prices.

This quickly became the bar where I’d go for a morning coffee, or to read my book with a bottle of wine whilst having my tapa constantly refreshed as she fattened me up once I said muy rico. It’s also the place where I’d stumble in at 1am, kissing her hand and pleading that she had a drink with me.

The one issue I can think of is that they changed their Estrella Galicia, to an inferior piss; and when a spaniard sitting at the bar told me that I should try an Estrella Galicia sometime, she was in my corner, laughing at his comment and informing him I love it and used to always drink it, but since the change in beer I moved over to the wine and ought to be left alone.

I hope that one day she will adopt me and I will live a simple humble life in the bar with her, working every day with a big smile on her face.

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