Spain as a whole is well known for its 'tapas culture', but most visiting tourists won't fully experience the genuine, local concept of tapas.
When we first arrived in Madrid, like most tourists, we thought tapas meant going to a restaurant and paying for lots of different Spanish dishes to share. But this is not strictly true, and is definitely not the local way!
The basic idea of tapas is that when you go to a bar and purchase an alcoholic drink, the bartender will actually give you a small dish, or portion of food for free - you do not need to pay. This accompanying food is known as 'a tapa'.
When we first encountered this, being new in Madrid, we were confused as to whether you had to pay or not but this is simply not the case.
Now this is not something you will find in every bar, and the standards and generosity varies greatly. Some portions will be larger than others; some will just be a snack, but obviously you can always purchase more if you wish.
So where does the idea come from? There are a couple of different legends about tapas and you can decide for yourself which you prefer:
One day, the King at the time visited a cafe and ordered a glass of wine. The waiter was very nervous and of course wanted to do a good job. When taking the wine to the King a carriage came past creating lots of dust. The waiter quickly grabbed a piece of bread with ham on top and placed it over the glass. He presented this to the King as 'tapas' – meaning quite literally ‘toppings'.
The second version involves a law created by the King. The law was that you could not drink on an empty stomach, you had to be eating food. The bartenders expected to lose a lot of business and in response decided to start offering free tapas with each drink purchase to circumnavigate the law.
We have tried our fair share of places, but since Sion has started working for Strawberry Tours he has been able to get a firsthand insight to the local tapas culture. Here is where you should head to have the perfect local tapas evening:
This is the place to start your evening. It is a very family friendly bar/restaurant and you will rarely see a tourist in here.
When you purchase a drink here (wine/beer c€2.50/€3.00), the free tapa will typically be some ham, paella or friend eggplant to name a few.
If you are wanting more, they specialise in ham and cod croquettes which are delicious (4 for €4). We would also recommend trying the torezzno which is pork belly but seasoned to perfection (€2.70 for two people).
Calle de Santiago, 4, 28013 Madrid
From here you can sit outside and just about see the edge of the Palace – it’s a beautiful setting.
Ramales specialises in 'pinchos'. These are pieces of bread with a variety of delicious toppings with a toothpick through the middle to hold it all together.
During happy hour you can purchase a drink and pincho for €3.50 in total.
In terms of free tapas, for large groups they sometimes provide patatas bravas, if not they provide some crisps to snack on.
This place has won awards for one pincho in particular - sweet pepper with cod and is topped with mayonaise and honey.
Plaza de Ramales, 28013 Madrid
If you have not tried iberico ham yet you need to come here. Spain takes its iberico ham very, very seriously and it is quite the delicacy.
For a pig to be considered 'iberico quality', it is only allowed to eat acorns, have plenty of space to roam and have a personal trainer chase them twice a day to keep them lean. The meat is then covered in salt and left to hang for up to 2 years while it cures.
To cut the meat takes a couple of years of training. We can personally vouch that this place not only has very high quality ham, but it is also cut to perfection, and served professonally too.
This place is a little pricier at €3.50 for a glass of wine with crisps and snacks provided. A medium plate of ham is €9 (this is indoors, there is an extra charge for eating outdoors) which is good for three people and comes with breads and crackers.
Calle de Vergara, 14, 28013 Madrid
Los Angeles Tavern
Now this is the place that feels really local. It is the type of place where you throw your rubbish on the floor, which to any madrileño, is a sign of a good bar!
When you buy a drink here they will provide bread with meat and cheeses for free. If you want more they have a full menu but we would recommend the chorizo cooked in cider which is €3.
For drinks, this is where you can really have some fun. There is a cider you can buy that needs air adding before you drink it. To do this, you hold your bottle high and your glass low and pour! Naturally, this makes a mess, but that is what this bar is all about – a very fun and relaxed place to finish off your night!
Costanilla de los Ángeles, 8, 28013 Madrid
We hope you found this guide useful! Please note that in these bars the use of English is limited. Look up how to ask for beer, wine and the bill and you will be just fine. If all else fails, make sure you have Google Translate downloaded!
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