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Tapas Tales

The cookbook author and artist behind “Salad for President” shares her ultimate food and art guide to Madrid.

Classic Madrileño fare served on fine silver in the upstairs dining room at the recently restored Lhardy.
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RESTAURANTS AND BARS all over Madrid hand-paint the year of their opening on their facades: “Desde 1890.” “Desde 1920.” It is a point of pride for those custodians of tradition — whatever era they represent.

My first encounters with Madrid were colored by a similarly romantic, sepia tone. As a young artist, I made a pilgrimage to the Museo del Prado (desde 1819) to view the masterpieces of European painting. The museum is home to Dutch still lifes as well as the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” a Where’s Waldo of sixteenth-century perversions. I stood slack-jawed in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Museo Reina Sofia (desde 1992), and I was a fly on the wall in chapels where people prayed in the presence of real-life Goyas. I stumbled into tapas bars where the menus hadn’t changed for upwards of 100 years.

Despite its rich history, the people, fashion, and contemporary culture and art keep Madrid in a state of laid-back evolution. Design studios lie hidden behind towering, regal wooden doors in prewar buildings with glass elevators and idyllic courtyards, and contemporary galleries summon crowds to their openings, exhibiting never-before-seen work among the crown molding of another era. The more I return, the more I realize that unlike Rome or Paris, Madrid holds the past firmly with one hand while keeping the other hand free to dream up something new. Madrileños don’t kill their idols, they toast them. The same can be said about their approach to food.

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Spaniards have a habit of defining and redefining cuisine — from the feminist writer Carmen de Burgos, who turned the cookbook into a political tool in 1912, to Ferran Adrià, the progenitor of Modernist cuisine with a capital “M,” who reimagined the classics as suspended orbs of flavor and wisps of culinary foam. Even innovators work from a place of deep respect for Spanish culinary traditions, an ethos that inspired Madrid’s Biblioteca Nacional de España to digitize their collection of 23,000 food-related publications dating back as far as the 1400s. Spanish chef Mikel López Iturriaga (who reinterpreted one of the recipes in their collection with a particularly polarizing name, “Rotten Pot”) explains, “Things that seem shocking or modern now were being done back then. When people tell me, ‘You’re adding weird things to a dish,’ I say, ‘Shut up! That was being done in the sixteenth century right next to your house!’ I have access to medieval cookbooks.”

As an artist turned cookbook author, I now travel to eat, whetting my four-meal-a-day appetite by stalking the halls of Madrid’s museums and navigating the city by foot. But I always set aside time to pay my respects to the standing-room-only tapas joints with barrels of vermouth lining the walls, and the formidable dining rooms with starched white tablecloths and codfish croquetas. Living in New York and Los Angeles, where the concept of an everyday neighborhood restaurant is woefully imperiled, it’s humbling to imagine the people who dined with their grandparents at some of these places. Now they return with their own grandchildren in tow.

To throw yourself right into Madrid’s culinary avant-garde, make a reservation at one of the three locations of Javier Bonet’s Sala de Despiece. His concept is expressed through the stark white, fluorescent-lit rooms, the waiters’ ankle-length white rubber aprons, and the tableside showmanship that comes together to make a meal. Struck by the “Clockwork Orange” vibes, it took me a moment to piece together the intent behind the menacing meat hooks dangling overhead (actually a genius space-saving alternative to purse hooks). I was in a highly stylized abattoir, serious about food, but not self-serious, and I had never experienced anything like it. Bonet told me, “We wanted to break with nostalgia to do something real and raw.” That he did.

The concept remains remarkably fresh, which I can only attribute to Bonet’s underlying sense of humor and his increasingly relevant North Star: a restaurant is only as good as its raw materials, from the beef to the eel broiled at the table with a mini torch. Explaining the restaurant’s name, Bonet said, “the sala de despiece is the cutting room, where the animal is broken down after slaughter. We place ourselves at the beginning of the culinary journey, but in the end, this is an essentialist’s kitchen serving a product you should always recognize.” While the aesthetic is truly unique, Bonet is doing his part to represent what this town has always been about. “Ours is just an informal interpretation of the classic Madrileño obsession with quality.”

While Bonet is a long-standing celebrity in this town, Clara Diez represents the next wave of culinary thought leaders giving new context to the old way of doing things. Formaje, the gem of a cheese shop that she runs with her husband Adrián, is also her platform. Diez is your local queso doyenne and the most elegant advocate for and liaison between the consumer and best cheesemakers in Europe.

At just 30 years old, Diez has an eye for timeless presentation, having art directed every inch of the interior of Formaje alongside architect Gabriel Escámez of Cobalto Studio. The sleek space is fit to showcase luxury handbags — if the central display table wasn’t a plinth for teetering towers of sculptural hunks of cheese. Don’t be deceived by aesthetics alone; there is a level of utility beyond every detail. While the granite stone stands in pleasing chiaroscuro contrast to the phosphorescent cheese, Diez swears she chose it mostly for the way it retains humidity. There is something for everyone on the table, from the most humble, fresh Queixo do País (a traditional recipe coming from Galicia in the north of Spain that doesn’t cost more than $14 a kilogram) to the $60 per kg Queso de Gamonéu, one of the most unique Spanish cheeses, aged in subterranean caves up in the mountains.

Diez and her husband have a personal relationship with all 60 cheesemakers on their roster, going so far as to specify their preferred season for each. “The fat levels in the milk will vary greatly over the course of the year as the animals go from eating brown grass in the winter to gorging themselves on fresh, green grass in the spring.” She showed me videos of caves in the Picos de Europa mountains, and we tasted naturally acidified cheese, most likely the method used to make the first cheeses ever made. From there, we ventured into washed-rind Puigpedrós, with its familiar body-odor-like funk of no coincidence — the bacteria responsible for that signature stink is actually the same bacteria found in a sweaty armpit. As a traveler in Madrid, I suggest you book a cheese tasting through Formaje’s website (inquire about private tastings if the slated sessions are either full or unavailable). Spend the evening tasting 10 cheeses, and become the educated consumer you’ve always wanted to be.

Like cheese, natural wine is nothing new to the Spanish palate. Low-intervention methods are essential to their traditional viniculture, but the emergence of the natural wine bar with shared plates and a live DJ is relatively new. Descending into the unmarked space housing GOTA wine bar, on a quiet street in the Chueca neighborhood, feels like entering a renovated catacomb, with rough-hewn stone walls and arched nooks for intimate seating. The central bar is inlaid with turntables and the walls are lined with vinyl. To access the rosy-hued back room, you have to pass through the galley kitchen, where small plates are assembled from the ever-changing menu — grilled sardines, poached tomato salads, simple pastas, and more.

Crusty sourdough bread is proudly on display behind the bar, a nod to owner Fede Graciano’s original stake in the Madrid culinary landscape. GOTA comes on the heels of ACID Bakehouse, a cafe and artisan bread bakery near the botanical gardens. Graciano saw an opportunity to maximize his use of space while the ovens were turned off, transforming the facility into a speakeasy where friends could drink wine and listen to records. They operated underground for a year before moving the project to its own space, and thus GOTA was born. Come for a late meal and come thirsty.

Drank too much wine the night before? Sleep in and hit Madrid’s version of a greasy spoon, El Cisne Azul. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better concept for a restaurant than El Cisne Azul: an old-school diner with a menu that pivots around wild mushrooms. Crates of produce are stacked at the bar and orders are fired off by a single intrepid cook at a plancha in the open kitchen. Mycological illustrations are the only decor to speak of, from the posters on the walls to the dinner plates, each painted with a different specimen. This is a true locals’ lunch spot, so throw back a cerveza and enjoy an ingredient-driven meal without pretension. Just a few doors down, the owner’s son opened an updated offshoot of the original Cisne Azul, but be sure to hit the original location closer to Calle Luis de Góngora for its original charm (no reservations required).

While you’re in the area, counter your dining experience with an afternoon of contemporary art at the nearby cluster of galleries in town. Begin the tour with must-see Galería Travesía Cuatro, a contemporary gallery with a sister space in Guadalajara, Mexico. Their roster includes some of my favorite Mexican artists — José Dávila and Gonzalo Lebrija — among a healthy mix of Latin artists from across the Americas. Just a few blocks away in a dreamy, secluded courtyard, you’ll find two more important contemporary spaces: Galería Elba Benítez and Ehrhardt Flórez, both showing a mix of German and Spanish artists.


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The other string of contemporary galleries worth hitting is on Calle del Doctor Fourquet, just southwest of the Parque de El Retiro. Conveniently, the galleries here coordinate openings, so if you’re lucky like I was, you can make a night of it, people-watching and gallery-hopping down the compact street. Don’t miss Helga de Alvear, Espacio Mínimo, and Galeria Hilario Galguera, where I saw a stunning solo show by the Belgian artist Peter Buggenhout. Grab a drink at the outdoor cafes in the plaza at the southern end of the street, or walk up Calle de Jesus to Cervezas la Fábrica, open from 12 a.m. to 12 p.m., serving every kind of pickled thing under the sun, and an arresting array of seafood bites, from mussels escabeche to boquerones with potato chips and a remarkable seafood salad.

For classic fare that tells a story, Casa Salvador is a local favorite and former bullfighters’ tavern that hasn’t changed a bit since its founding in 1941. The restaurant takes the theme to the nth degree, with salon-style portraits of bullfighters and painted bullfighting scenes covering the walls. The service is from another era, too, with waiters in bow ties and black vests, and tables cloaked in checked tablecloths. As someone who spends a lot of time food styling, the no-frills plating of old-school Spanish food comes as a respite — cod fish croquetas, huevos con patatas, flan, and the most straightforward sauté of green beans, pleasantly underseasoned in deference to the produce itself.

Moderation with salt is a rarity in this part of the world. At this point in your trip, your hands have inflated like baseball mitts from the sodium you’ve been injecting into your veins at those tavernas and tapas bars. Remedy this at Hermanas Arce in the Recoletos neighborhood. On day 5 of my trip, I bowed down to a bowl of rich and creamy overnight oats for breakfast, and came back for the healthful salads, a chance to go beyond the predictable tomatoes with olive oil that stand in as “vegetables” on pretty much every restaurant menu in the city. Here, you can enjoy surprising combinations like white peach with sumac, feta, and mint; beets with chewy farro; and a watermelon and tomato gazpacho that I’d like to carry around in a flask wherever I go.

The Spanish were ahead of the curve when it came to the concept of the all-day cafe, stopping at the local tapas bar for an espresso and a pastry on their way to work, and returning to the very same joint to cap off the day with an apéro. But sisters Elena and Ana Martínez Arce blend their Madrid heritage with international trends, serving generous platters of vegetables with soft boiled eggs for breakfast, matcha lattes in mismatching ceramic mugs, and Mediterranean-inspired dips with homemade sourdough bread. Even more comforting is the presence of Elena behind the bar, smiling from ear to ear as she squeezes oranges or plates some of the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had (like the Entenmann’s soft-baked package cookies from my childhood, but all sophisticated and grown up).

Exploring another realm of sisterhood altogether, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is a world unto itself in the heart of the city. I am a sucker for anything that approaches the topic of nuns and cloistered life, having spent years designing habits for various religious communities and helping them produce indulgences like sweets and body creams to bring in revenue. (If this just made your eyes gloss over, skip to the next attraction.) Originally a Renaissance palace, Princess Joanna of the Habsburg Dynasty transformed the grounds into a convent for the Franciscan order of the Poor Clares in 1554, a small gesture in exchange for the nuns’ eternal commitment to pray for the salvation of the royal souls. The princess expanded on the original property, building a hospital for aged priests, a home and school for orphaned girls, vegetable gardens, and large-scale bakeries so the nuns could become self-reliant (one of the many reasons I love nuns so dearly).

Only the original palace remains, half of it still inhabited by the same order of Franciscan nuns, the other half open to the public with a really unusual collection of slightly morbid, religious artwork, Rubens tapestries, and Catholic ephemera.

The tour begins in the grand main staircase, every inch of the walls painted in seventeenth-century trompe l'oeil murals by Juan Carreño de Miranda. The Infanta Margarita Teresa (you know, the one from Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”) peers out from a velvet-curtain-flanked balcony. Cherubs collect the blood of Christ on the ceiling, and, of course, there are large medallions of Saint Clare and Saint Francis to honor the patron saints. The upper cloister contains 15 chapels, each with their own articles of intrigue. My favorite relic is a life-size, bloody Christ by Gaspar Becerra, laid prone on a sepulcher. This wooden sculpture has a gaping wound in its side to store the consecrated host, so one must reach inside the torso to take communion. (Book ahead, as English-speaking tours are very limited.)

In keeping with the grandeur of the Habsburg Dynasty, I recommend following your tour of the convent with lunch at Lhardy, a restaurant and tea parlor founded in 1839. It would be easy to pass by this institution without taking a second look, as the street is bustling with tourists in the downtown Barrio de las Letras district. But your curiosity will be rewarded. The parlor floor offers tea service with traditional French pastries like marron glacé and macarons. Champagne sits expectant, chilling in baroque silver ice buckets, and warm pastries rest in a steam-heated silver vitrine fit for a queen. If you’re craving a snack on the savory side of life, you’ll notice the crystal pitcher of ice-cold gazpacho, oysters à la carte, and seafood salad in the vitrine.

While this is a fantasy setting for an afternoon snack, the real excitement is reserved for those in the know, up the winding staircase, past stained-glass windows and vitrines of royal glassware and porcelain serving pieces. Through somberly lit hallways, you’ll find a series of small private dining rooms ideal for a party of six to eight. Or make a reservation for the main dining room to step back in time to the belle epoque. Lhardy is fine dining as a total work of art, with red velvet curtains, gleaming crystal, a cheese selection on wheels, and consommé poured from a classic silver samovar.

Now that you have experienced the way the other half dine, turn to Palacio de Liria for the ultimate house tour. The palacio offers a time capsule of Spanish aristocratic history with the Nosy-Nancy intrigue of poking around the current home of the 19th Duke of Alba (we indeed peeped him ducking into his chauffeured car as we arrived). The original palace was built in the 1770s, burned to the ground during the Spanish Civil War, and then painstakingly rebuilt in 1956. The larger-than-life Duchess of Alba, born in the Palacio in 1926, was the most titled aristocrat in the world, a lover of flamenco, and a wife three times over, her most notable nuptials being those to a Jesuit priest eight years her junior. But I digress.

Seeing as the Palacio is still in use, surprisingly mundane contemporary family photos are almost as fun to ogle as the traces of ye olde aristocratic life: ornate porcelain perfume vessels in the shape of women’s legs, or a collection of macerinas — porcelain and silver cups with especially stable saucers specifically designed to cradle hot chocolate. A renowned collection of miniature paintings can be found in the Goya and Spanish Rooms, and portraits by a who’s who of the masters like Zurbarán and Titian build out the dense narrative of Spanish aristocratic lineage in pictures — all earning the Palacio its nickname, “the mini Prado.” (Be sure to book your tour ahead, as spots are limited and spoken for in advance.)

The only thing more fun than seeing where royalty slept is seeing how they ate. Having gotten my fix of damask silk at the Palacio de Liria, I was happy to descend into the subterranean kitchen and larder of The Royal Palace, where I truly belong. Tour the dedicated workshops for pastry and ice cream, and marvel at the generous real estate dedicated to flan molds. The palace boasted one of the first refrigerators in Europe, a hulking freestanding closet with a chamber for bricks of ice on top. (Tickets must be reserved ahead, and include the tour of the Royal Palace upstairs.)

Bodega de la Ardosa, just a 10-minute walk from the palace, is the tapas bar of my dreams. Open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., one can imagine nineteenth-century palace staff imbibing at the well-worn bar that runs the perimeter of the room, rewarding themselves with a nightcap or a plate of jamón after roasting pheasant and whipping meringue all day. I discovered Bodega de la Ardosa in 2017, and five years later I found it unchanged: dusty bottles of vintage booze up to the ceiling, standing-room only, the brusque bartenders in crisp white button-downs and bow ties. It’s snack time all the time here, with a baffling menu posted in various chalkboards on the wall behind the bar, listing pinchos (something pickled or “conserved” resting on a slice of bread), gilda pintxos (a toothpick stacked with boquerones, olives, and a pickled pepper), and a selection of cured, sliced meats. As with all tapas bars of this ilk, a point of pride is the housemade vermouth, served in a mini juice glass at room temperature (the 3 euro pairing of a vermouth and an anchovy pintxo is the hottest deal in town).

You may have noticed by all the boquerones on my list so far that I am enamored of preserved fish in all its forms. I love the practicality of it; I live for the promise of such variety. It’s giftable, portable, and the packaging is whimsical. Coming to Spain, I filled my suitcase with copies of my cookbook to give away so I could fill the empty space with sardines, percebes, and tinned mussels upon my return. If you, too, consider food the only gift worth giving, take an early morning to visit Mercado de la Paz in the posh Salamanca neighborhood. Here you can find every type of tinned fish at the Portuguese vendor Maninha Sardinha, each design more festive than the last. On your way out, make Casa Dani at the Calle de Ayala entrance to the market your last order of business. Sidle up to old ladies nursing a pint and eating what might be the best tortilla española in town (gooey in the center, just like I like it).

For a more elaborate sit-down meal in Salamanca, restaurant Hermosilla is a modern sunlit Italian eatery that balances out the habitual Spanish carb load with ambitious vegetable preparations. Blush-pink polished plaster walls and pine wood furniture give the space a light contrast against the hearty food — pasta, wood-fired pizzas, and bold seasoning on a wood-fired fish with shaved pineapple (in the vein of an al pastor). Eggplant is sliced paper-thin and fried until light and crispy, amid pillowy clouds of mozzarella cheese.

For a late-night scene, there’s always the classic Bar Cock, where you might catch a glimpse of Almodóvar having a martini in his usual spot. For the newer end of the spectrum, there’s the recently opened Los 33 from the Uruguayan restaurateur Nacho Ventosa and his wife, Sara Aznar. The food is simple: meat and sandwiches cooked over an open fire. The design is rough-hewn minimalist chic with vintage leather Darro lounge chairs by Paco Muñoz, tall ceilings, and a hand-carved tropical wood communal sink in the bathroom that I took more photos of than any of the food on this trip. Late at night, Ventosa spins records and the dancing takes over.

Of all the things Madrid represents, what I love most is how one can still be a flaneur here, and a well-fed one at that — now, forever, and beyond. I guess I’ll just have to come back.

Where to Eat and See Art in Madrid

Julia Sherman shares her favorite eats and art from Spain's Capital.

Where to Eat

  • Sala de Despiece

    An avant-garde concept featuring stark white rooms and tableside showmanship.

  • El Cisne Azul

    An old-school diner around the theme of wild mushrooms — a true locals’ lunch spot.

  • Hermanas Arce

    A breakfast spot and all-day cafe serving up overnight oats and healthful salads.

  • Bodega de la Ardosa

    The tapas bar of your dreams, open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.

  • Los 33

    A simple, unfussy joint with meat and sandwiches cooked over an open fire.

  • Bar Cock

    A classic bar fit for Madrid’s late-night scene.

  • Formaje

    A couple-run gem of a cheese shop with bookable tastings.

  • Casa Salvador

    A frozen-in-time former bullfighters’ tavern serving classic fare.

  • Lhardy

    A fantasy-setting restaurant and tea parlor founded in 1839.

  • Mercado de la Paz

    A bustling market in the posh Salamanca neighborhood.

  • Cervezas la Fábrica

    A brewery serving every kind of pickled thing under the sun.

  • Sala de Despiece

    An avant-garde concept featuring stark white rooms and tableside showmanship.

  • Formaje

    A couple-run gem of a cheese shop with bookable tastings.

  • El Cisne Azul

    An old-school diner around the theme of wild mushrooms — a true locals’ lunch spot.

  • Casa Salvador

    A frozen-in-time former bullfighters’ tavern serving classic fare.

  • Hermanas Arce

    A breakfast spot and all-day cafe serving up overnight oats and healthful salads.

  • Lhardy

    A fantasy-setting restaurant and tea parlor founded in 1839.

  • Bodega de la Ardosa

    The tapas bar of your dreams, open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.

  • Mercado de la Paz

    A bustling market in the posh Salamanca neighborhood.

  • Los 33

    A simple, unfussy joint with meat and sandwiches cooked over an open fire.

  • Cervezas la Fábrica

    A brewery serving every kind of pickled thing under the sun.

  • Bar Cock

    A classic bar fit for Madrid’s late-night scene.

Where to See Art


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Our Contributors

Julia Sherman Writer and Photographer

Julia Sherman runs Salad for President, an evolving publishing project that draws a meaningful connection between food, art, and everyday obsessions. Sherman, and her writing and photography, have been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, T Mag, Domino, Art in America, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit, among others. She is the author of two cookbooks, “Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists” and “Arty Parties: An Entertaining Cookbook.” Sherman is the founder and creator of Jus Jus Verjus and she lives in Los Angeles.

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