Friday, 19 June 2009

Grub for Guiris: A beginner's guide to not starving in Madrid

By Richard Morley
This post is directed at those who have never been to Madrid before. Purists and lovers of Spanish food should look away now.

Spanish food is very good. Fact!

Spanish food is not like English or North American food. Discuss.

No I won’t. There are plenty of websites that seek to educate potential visitors to the joys, and there are many, of Spanish Cuisine. On first arrival the experts will know exactly where to go and what to eat and will shun, with great distain, those ubiquitous golden arches and who’s to say they are wrong.

But you, like me, are not a gourmet geek. You’ve just got off the plane and want to eat – anything. But you look at some menus and don’t really know what to order and you wander from place to place looking for something you vaguely recognise as food. And you won’t know if the place you finally eat in is good or not.

Confession time: My first meal in Madrid came on a tray in Burger King, but I didn’t go to bed hungry. On my second day, after I had plodded the streets for a while, I found restaurants with English menus, or boards with sun faded photographs of their combinations, or combinados, which means a complete meal on one plate – something foreign to the one foodstuff at a time Spanish, but normal to us – and ate what I knew was not wonderful food. That, incidentally, in my humble opinion, means just about any restaurant inside the Plaza Mayor, where you will pay tourist prices for average food. A friend of mine recently described these places as “Quasi Spanish”, because they lure the unsuspecting traveller in with easily recognisable food in an exotic, to the traveller, setting.

It took me a while to find my way around and learn about the local specialities, and whether I liked them or not. Again, that’s not what this post is about. You are here to see the sights or perhaps on business. You have other priorities, but you have to eat. I wouldn’t want you to leave this wonderful city saying you couldn’t get a good meal.

To begin with I should clear up a couple of common misconceptions. A “Spanish omelette”, as known to the British, is not a Spanish omelette. The visiting Brit expecting a thin, French style omelette with a vegetable filling will be disappointed. A Spanish omelette is a Tortilla. Ok, now we are confusing the North Americans who think that a “Tortilla” is a small disk of unleavened bread used for tacos and burritos. In Spanish a “torta” is a cake, and when the conquistadors arrived in Mexico and found the natives making small wheat or corn flat bread, they called them “Little Cakes” or “Tortillas”. The “illa” part of the word being used as a diminutive. In Spain a Tortilla is a heavy potato and egg, with optional onion, mix, fried into a thick, and to my taste, rather stodgy omelette. Just order a “Porción” or a “Ración”, you will never eat a whole one.

Así que, se ha cambiado la tortilla. So, the tortilla is changed, which is a Spanish expression that basically means that “That’s a completely different story”, or “That’s a horse of a different colour”.

I would also like to point out to North American visitors that, believe it or not, Spain is not Mexico. They might, almost, have the same language, but do not share common tastes in food. The Spanish do not do spicy food. I have a Mexican friend here who complains that outside of his apartment, he hasn’t had a decent meal in months!

You will quickly realise that McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Starbucks are all over town, so there’s no need to starve. But if you don’t want to supersize yourself by the end of your visit, then perhaps that’s not a good option.

So first of all let me point you at a chain of cafés called Café y Té. For you, breakfast is no longer a problem. Their coffee is very good and if you order that, a glass of orange juice (zumo de naranja) and a croissant (pronounced here crow-i-sant ) then breakfast should be under three euros. Or you could order the Croissant “a la plancha”, which means it will be toasted and come with a little pot of jam or marmalade. That’ll probably cost you another euro.
A recent visitor told me that his hotel charged around ten Euros for breakfast, so Café y Té sound like a bargain.

Café y Té open early and stay open late. Like any other café they also serve beer during the day and do some reasonably cheap pasta meals for lunch and dinner.

Their menu, however, is a little limited. So let’s move on to VIPS, pronounced “Bips”. Again, this is a chain you will find nearly everywhere. Look for the big red sign. Their menu is lavishly full of photographs, so you can just point, or it’s quite likely they will hear your accent and give you their English menu. For some reason this has no prices on it, unlike the Spanish menu. The food is good, wholesome and tasty. Their salads are delicious and huge. Go for the “New Orleans”, which has ham, cheese, guacamole, nachos, tomato and tons of lettuce. They do sandwiches which they call “Fundys” for some reason, properly cooked hamburgers, fish and a couple of oriental dishes if that’s your choice. Trust me on this. I still eat at VIPS several times a month. The quality never diminishes and the service is excellent. Oh, if you patronise the same one all the time and the staff get to know you they are happy to correct your Spanish, but with a smile. They are open all day too.

Look around too for the yellow signs of “Pans and Company” who sell burgers and sandwiches and I can certainly recommend “Rodilla” who serve superb sandwiches and salads at very reasonable prices.
When I first came here there were not many places for vegetarians. Be warned, the Spanish don’t think ham is meat – it’s ham, something that holds a unique place within Spanish cuisine. If you order, as I did once, a vegetable stew, don’t be surprised if it comes liberally sprinkled with flakes of ham. If you comment or complain, the waiter won’t understand. Ham comes with everything!

But times have changed. Madrid now has some very good vegetarian restaurants, but they tend to be a little expensive. However, there is a chain called Fresc Co that has the most wonderful selection of buffet style vegetables and salads any self-respecting veggie could ask for. What’s more, it’s a set price menu and you can keep going back for more. During the day time €8.95 will get you a meal with a drink and dessert. In the evening this increases to €9.95. Their website says it’s even less, but that might be a special deal. Meat eaters can go there too as inside you will find a separate hot food counter with pizzas, roast meats etc. Excellent value.

Another place for vegetarians is Maoz. There are several branches around the centre of town and make delicious pita bread pockets of all sorts of tasty stuff. Quite cheap if I recall correctly, though I haven’t been in one for a while now.

But if meat definitely is your protein of choice then the Muslim immigrant population provides many many kebab, here known as kepap, shops. Some of them, I will admit, look a little dingy, but at €4 for a meal that will leave you stuffed I recommend them highly. They usually have one or two veggie kebabs on the menu too. I often go to one with a vegetarian friend and it’s usually his choice.

Kebabs are inexpensive food, but you don’t want a diet exclusively of fatty meat and you don’t want to be ripped off either. Be careful. Some places look cheap and then you find they charge for the bread rolls they casually lay on the table, or for the jug of water that they have just filled from the tap.
For lunch the best options are to go with that splendid Spanish institution, the Menu Del Día. Nearly every restaurant offers this for lunch. You will get a three course meal, with a drink, for around ten Euros. VIPS do one and change the menu through the week. I have had some excellent lunches at these budget prices. I remember a particularly good Cordero, lamb on the bone, at Ginger, in the Plaza del Ángel, that came with starter and dessert and a beer, for just €10.50. A few places will do a set meal in the evening, but it’s rare. And then, in the more select places, prices will shoot up.

Many of the restaurants I mention here are easily found in the city centre. If you venture a few stops out of the centre on the metro you will find Menu del Días a third less. My local bar does one for €7.50. I doubt I could buy the ingredients at that price to make myself. If you don’t want to wander that far afield then go a couple of blocks north of Gran Via to the Plaza Dos de Mayo. This little plaza serves the best pizzas in town, though the pigeons can be annoying.

While we are on the subject of cutting the cost of your meals, here is some news that will surprise you. The Spanish don’t tip. At most, they will just leave the few coins of unwanted change. I remember taking a couple of girl friends out to lunch one day. We each had the Menu Del Día and the bill for all of us came to €27.50. I gave the waitress thirty Euros and left the change on the table. One of my friends picked up the two euro coin and gave it to me. “Fifty cents is enough”, she said. Of course, if you want to leave a twenty per cent tip the waiters will love you, but walk away muttering about “These strange Guiris”.

So you won’t starve, and will actually eat quite well while you are finding your Spanish feet. I was going to write “pies español” there, but then realised it would seem I was writing about pastry encrusted food. But you should experiment a little. Get out your dictionary or phrasebook, (The Lonely Planet “Fast Talk Spanish” has a brilliant “menu decoder”,) and try “Huevos estrellados”, it’s just ham, egg and chips with an unusual name. There are lots more that you will find absolutely delicious, and a few you won’t, but that’s the fun of travel. And if you don’t find your way to that special restaurant, then you will be in illustrious company!
Restaurante El Cuchi. Famous for who they didn't feed.

If you like this post and find it useful, or can add more information for the benefit of Madrid virgins, then please feel free to comment below.


  1. Also recommended - Cerveceria de 100 Montadillos. Chain of bar/restaurants serving, unsurprisingly, tasty little sandwiches with a choice of 100 fillings. Also do fries with 4 dips, salads and beer. Even better, every Wednesday is credit crunch day - everything on the menu is 1 Euro. Woo hoo.

  2. Whilst youre thinking about where to dine you could have a beer and a sandwich for €2 at Museo de Jamon - there are no tables and chairs and theres a counter selling cold meat to the public but its the cheapest put you on snack within half a mile of Plaza Mayor - if you dont have the sandwich its €1 and they give you a sizeable tapa of cold meat, empanada or whatever is on that day...

  3. Gary, I agree that el Museo de jamon is wonderful value. I ate there just last week. Great menu del dia, I think for €10.50. But the very sight of the sheer "Spanishness" of the place would have put me off in my early days. I didn't even know what tapas were then, so I would not have been confident about what I was ordering.

  4. You are probably right, I have a policy with Menu del Dia and/or tapas to look down the menu and if I find myself wondering what something is I order it on the premis that if the Spanish restaurants can sell it then it cant be entirely unpallatable.
    The hard opart as a guiri is getting your head round eating some parts of animals that are no longer considered for human consumption in the UK. It was in this way that I encountered Galta - may be a catalan word - which I took to be the roasted shoulder blade of a small lamb when it arrived. In the end it turned out to be the jawbone of a sizeable pig, but delicious nevertheless. Canailles turned out to be black, slimey moluscs - probably winkles. I would have drawn the line at that but I was dining with an Austrian guy from the language school and didnt want to let the side down so ate the lot, washed down with liberal quantities of cerveza!!

  5. I hope you know that a tortillera is not somebody who makes tortillas...

  6. The "Cafeteria Ricote" at the Plaza Canalejas does coffee with chocolate con churros for around 7EUR.

    I found the chocolate at Café & Té to be very thin, almost like drinking chocolate, so that it just ran off the churros when I was there. The Ricote chocolate was a lot thicker.

  7. Isabel, It could be!!!!

  8. I have to agree with Em. I have eaten at three or four of the Cerveceria de 100 Montadillos and found the food and beer tastes good and is reasonably priced for tourists.

    On the Menu del dia for lunch, I have found a big difference in price between outdoors and indoors - if cost is the concern, I eat inside and save. If I want to enjoy a three hour lunch outside, I pay the extra.

    I wish I had your post before I came the first couple of times, when I clearly was playing tourist and paid tourist prices for everything. Each time I go now, I feel more comfortable and am able to make my Euros go farther.

  9. La Cerveceria de 100 Montadillos have one of the most amusing websites around. Check it out at:

  10. Restaurants specializing in paella tend to be very expensive in Madrid but some 'menu del día' places have days when they just do paellas. If you are in the Gran Via area you can try the Abrassador, they do a paella on Tuesdays, and for 9.50 euros you get the paella plus a first course, a drink (can be wine) and either coffee or pudding. They do the famous Cocido Madrileño on Thursdays, same set up. It is in Calle Salud 8, two mins from Gran Via metro (Yves Rocher takes up the corner). If you just want a drink, a caña (small beer) is 1.30, red wine 2.20 and white wine 1.90. A few other places in the back streets but I particularly like the handsome Jose!! Jane Nov 2010
    P.S. for a useful translation of menu of the day terms put... softguide eating out google and print it out