Where to stay
CoolRooms Palacio de Atocha Sandwiched between the historic Literary Quarter and the Golden Triangle of Art (both within easy walking distance), and built in 1852, this is the place to be seen in Madrid. An impressive 7m high entrance – built with carriages in mind – takes you straight to a private garden and swimming pool. With a design that respects the neoclassical architecture and preserves its historic heritage – the spectacular central staircase, for instance, is a listed structure – it has 34 bedrooms that are considered to be the largest available in the Spanish capital, at up to 110sq m. Doubles from £231. Calle de Atocha 34, 00 34 91 088 7780, coolrooms.com/atocha
Hospes Puerta de Alcalá This 19th-century townhouse on the Salamanca side of El Retiro Park overlooks the Puerta de Alcalá monument, providing a glimpse of a former life as a private residence through details such as cornices in the wood-floored rooms. The Bodyna Spa offers multiple treatment options and an opportunity to unwind in the Jacuzzi after a day of sightseeing. Those who can’t leave home without their four-legged friend will find pets are welcome for a small surcharge – very convenient considering this five-star hotel is right next to the park. Doubles from £209. Plaza de la Independencia 3, 00 34 91 432 2911, hospes.com
Hotel Único Madrid An intimate stay tucked away behind discreet sliding doors, with 44 bedrooms and suites housed in a 19th-century palace. The warm feel and positively decadent interiors – think marble mosaics and intricate chandeliers – is reinforced by service that never fails to go the extra mile. The culinary experience is at centre stage here, so don’t miss talented Ramón Freixa’s cuisine at his two-Michelin-starred, on-site restaurant; while signature cocktails by award-winning mixologist Manel Vehí are best enjoyed in the private garden. The impressive library filled with natural light is delightful. Doubles from £430. Calle de Claudio Coello 67, 00 34 91 781 0173, unicohotelmadrid.com
Tótem Madrid Set in the heart of Madrid’s Golden Mile, one of the most exclusive areas of the city in neighbouring Salamanca, and a 10-minute walk from El Retiro Park, this boutique hotel has a luxurious yet minimalistic decor, bright rooms and excellent amenities, from personal shoppers to a 24-hour fitness centre. The hotel’s restaurant, El Pimiento Verde, has a menu that focuses on Basque specialities, with a loyal clientele, so pre-booking is recommended. Ask for an interior room overlooking the patio if peace and quiet is top of your list, and for families there’s the option to book interconnected rooms. Doubles from £232. Calle de Hermosilla 23, 00 34 91 426 0035, totem-madrid.com
Retiro is a residential neighbourhood located in the centre of Spain’s capital city, Madrid. The official language is Castilian Spanish, the currency is the euro and time is one hour ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to Madrid take around 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Ryanair and EasyJet fly from Stansted and Gatwick respectively to Madrid–Barajas Airport, a 20-minute drive from Retiro. There is also a good train and metro service. Iberia offers flights to Madrid from London Heathrow.
RESOURCES Turismo Madrid is the local tourism board, with information and inspiration aplenty for planning your stay.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for a three-course meal, including wine or beer, unless otherwise stated
Deessa Fine-dining enthusiasts celebrated the arrival of legendary three-Michelin-star chef Quique Dacosta in Madrid last year. This elegant restaurant located at the recently refurbished Mandarin Oriental Ritz, a two-minute walk from the Prado Museum, allows you to discover dishes representative of Quique’s career on the Historical tasting menu or new dishes created courtesy of head chef Ricard Tobella on the Contemporary menu. Eight-course tasting menu from £113pp, excluding wine. Plaza de la Lealtad 5, 00 34 91 701 6820, mandarinoriental.com/madrid
KultO With an Andalusian soul, tuna sourced from fishermen in Cádiz – where owner and chef José Fuentes runs another restaurant – is the king of the menu here. Ordering plates to share is the best experience, especially the house delicacy, rosemary tarantelo. Small plates from £7.90. Calle de Ibiza 4, 00 34 91 173 3053, kulto.es
La Cocina de Frente Humanitarian chef José Andrés is involved in La Cocina de Frento, part of burgeoning restaurant group Bulbiza. With lovely interiors, this is the place you’ll want to return to for every weekday lunch. From tuna in tomato sauce to buttery thyme and garlic veal, it’s Spanish comfort food at its best. Mains from £13. Calle de Ibiza 40, 00 34 91 060 7220, lacocinadefrente.com
La Tasquería Charismatic Javi Estévez, a born and bred Madrileño, is at the helm of this restaurant dedicated to reinstating and modernising the art of offal cuisine. An authentic Madrid tradition, nose-to-tail eating gains a new meaning here: expect dishes like pork trotters, pigs’ head or lambs’ brains. There are three tasting menu options that offer an overview of the chef’s most emblematic dishes, while à la carte is available on the terrace. Five-course tasting menu, from £41pp, excluding wine. Calle del Duque de Sesto 48, 00 34 91 451 1000, latasqueria.com
Maison Glacée At this tiny ice cream parlour run by celebrated patissier Ricardo Vélez, you’re in for the best wafers you may ever taste. Exquisitely buttery, they’re made fresh in front of you, while unusual ice cream flavours such as bread, olive oil and chocolate or mandarin with pecans co-exist with more traditional turrón (nougat) or strawberry and cream. Ice cream from £3. Calle de Ibiza 42, 00 34 91 060 7290, maisonglacee.com
Qava Artisan cheese fans will find that this cheese bar and shop founded by Jose Luis Martín, one of Spain’s most highly regarded affineurs, ticks all the boxes. They stock little-known cheeses sourced exclusively from Spain, from Torta del Casar to the best blues from the mountains of Picos de Europa. Cheeseboard and wine from £15. Calle del Doctor Castelo 34, 0034 91 853 2853, qavadequesos.com
Restaurante Berlanga A restaurant that specialises in Mediterranean dishes and serves some of Madrid’s best paellas. The sobrasada pamboli is a must as the chef and founder, Sr Berlanga himself, sources cured meat spread from a small farm in Mallorca. Ask to sit in the shaded terrace or take advantage of the takeaway option – a winner for summer picnics in nearby El Retiro Park. From £50. Av de Menéndez Pelayo 41, 00 34 91 391 6886, restauranteberlanga.com
Zalamero Taberna In this wine bar, food is just as important as vino. Co-founder Ana Losada, a sommelier-turned-chef in the aftermath of the first lockdown, has stirred up a storm with her much-praised croquetas (choose from prawn or roasted chicken). Do as the locals do: come for the wine and stay for the tapas. Glass of wine from £3, tapas from £5. Calle Narváez 67, 00 34 91 752 7882, zalamerotaberna.com
- Variety of rice from Valencia
- Arroz a banda
- Similar to Valencian paella, but made with seafood instead of meat
- Boquerones en vinagre
- Anchovies marinated in vinegar
- Café con leche
- Coffee with hot milk
- Offal, traditionally used in Madrid home cooking, now being creatively reinvented in contemporary menus
- Ensaladilla rusa
- A classic tapas dish made with potatoes, carrots and peas mixed with mayonnaise, and often including ingredients such as tuna or boiled eggs
- Menú del día
- Menu of the day, offered at restaurants for lunch. Generous and affordable (often starting at £8 for a three-course meal with bread and a drink), starters are usually soups, stews or salads, and mains are fish or meat with a side dish, while dessert options include yogurt, fruit or cake
- Tomato-based stew with onions, peppers and olive oil, sometimes with vegetables such as aubergines and courgettes, usually served as a side
- Salpicón de marisco
- Seafood salad dressed with vinaigrette
- Cured sausage made from pork meat with a spreadable texture, originating in the Balearic Islands
- The middle part of the tuna loin, between the tail and the belly, easily identifiable by its vibrant red colour
- Confectionery traditionally made from almonds – but increasingly with other nuts – plus honey, sugar and egg
Food and Travel Review
For the best churros in town, keep an eye out for congregations of grannies, chatting away on restaurant terraces as they indulge with rich chocolate on the side. According to locals, they’re the most reliable sign, better than any guide book, of the quality that lies within. And, knowing how the heat can ruin good churros, on the tree-lined Calle de Ibiza in Retiro, you’ll find them there from 8am. If that’s not a good enough reason to set an alarm clock, then we’re at a loss to know what is.
Packed with restaurants and bars old and new, the beating heart of Retiro is just under an hour’s journey from Madrid-Barajas Airport. This residential district has the distinctive cheerfulness often found in places where a strong sense of community prevails, where neighbours are on first-name basis with their bakers and baristas and where everyone always makes time for a conversation. To the north, Retiro borders the well-heeled Salamanca – one of the most affluent areas in the city – which might take the surprise out of its distinct bourgeois feel. It’s elegant and classy, and especially so in the streets surrounding El Retiro Park, the district’s namesake. In contrast, Retiro’s southern neighbourhoods are smaller, more humble – and more authentic. It was here that Madrid’s first social houses for workers were built, back in the 19th century, and there’s a certain communal feel about it to this day.
A total of six neighbourhoods make up Retiro, and Ibiza, neatly tucked into the side of the Park, is the epicentre of a recent gastronomic revolution. Explore on foot and your chances of stumbling across a culinary gem are high; dozens of restaurants, bakeries and bars have opened their doors here in the recent months. After breakfast churros at Restaurante Ibiza 74 – surprisingly light and scrumptiously crunchy, even when dunked in hot chocolate – the enticing aroma of freshly-baked bread leads us to Panem, just around the corner. This independent bakery, run by five siblings, offers something that might be considered a rarity in this day and age: bread made in-house, with care and time. Their sourdough loaves – from rye to wholewheat and spelt – are made from organic, stone-ground, local flours and Spanish heritage grains like espigón, a type of rye flour that they’re working hard to restore, according to one of the founders, Antonio García. Panem’s French-style pastries are equally spectacular, to the point that their croissants – think outstanding-quality butter and layer upon layer of delicate, flaky pastry – have recently been named the best in Spain.
Back on Calle de Ibiza, where tables are being laid at the still empty terraces and the grannies are slowly wrapping up their conversations, it’s time to explore Mercado de Ibiza, the nearby indoor food market.
Here, butchers proudly display cured meats while dozens of different types of seafood lie serenely on ice at the fishmongers’, and greengrocers’ stands are stacked with stone and tropical fruits – it’s been the locals’ go-to for fresh produce since 1954. Don’t miss the gourmet souvenirs at tiny La Ventita del Foodie, a Canarian specialist who sell artisan preserves, delicacies and superb wines from the islands.
Walking east, our next stop is El Retiro Park, one of the city’s largest green spaces and a hotspot for Nordic walking enthusiasts, runners and dog walkers. The surrounding Paisaje de la Luz (Landscape of Light) area was awarded Unesco World Heritage status last summer and includes one of the first tree-lined promenades to be built in a European capital, Paseo del Prado. The nearby Royal Botanic Gardens, the Royal Observatory and the Prado Museum (Spain’s main hotspot for art connoisseurs) are all within a leisurely stroll of each other, too.
For lunch, the menu of the day at La Cocina de Frente – founded by renowned chef Juanjo López of La Tasquita de Enfrente fame and run by talented young chef Carlos García – provides an excellent window on to traditional Spanish home cooking. Regulars’ (and now our) favourites include soft squid in its own ink, refreshing tomato tartare and the simple yet delicious creation of regañá crackers with pisto manchego, soft vegetables cooked slowly in olive oil, and canned Güeyu Mar sardines. ‘We make simple food rooted in traditional Spanish cuisine,’ says Carlos. The vintage-inspired interiors, complete with plates hanging on the tiled wall, add to the sense of being in an old, classy eatery.
Just behind Mercado de Ibiza, film-industry-veteran-turned-chef José Luis García-Berlanga has his own distinct way of celebrating the ubiquitous paella. His friends had long been begging him to open a restaurant with a focus on rice, and he finally relented. ‘I did teach rice and paella cooking workshops for years, and I’ve always loved cooking, so I guess it makes sense,’ explains José Luis.
‘It’s unfortunate that we launched Berlanga in February 2020, but we were lucky to be among the first to offer picnic-style takeaway options and the move has been quite a success.’
The son of Spanish cinema royalty (his father was film director Luis García-Berlanga), it comes as little surprise that the elegant interiors are packed with cultural references, from memorabilia of his father’s movies, which typically used satire as a means to dodge the fascist regime’s censorship – The Executioner (1963) may ring a bell – to a literary collection in the hundreds.
The menu is heavy on Mediterranean options, including the Mallorcan staple sobrasada, a spread-textured cured meat that José Luis serves with quail’s egg on toast. ‘Make sure you try it,’ he says. ‘I source it from a small farm on the island – I lived there for a decade and found all the good places.’ Rice remains the king of the menu, however: from classic Valencian paella to arroz a banda (literally, ‘plenty of rice’), guests can choose from more than ten options and, due to lengthy cooking times, some need to be ordered in advance since José Luis take pleasure in making everything from scratch, ‘as it should be done’.
Spain boasts surprising diversity when it comes to rice, but cheese is high up on the list too. Spaniards’ annual cheese consumption per capita is, on average, half of that of heavily producing countries like France or Greece – 10kg in comparison to 20kg. But the variety is impressive, and the sale of artisan cheeses is gathering momentum in Madrid, where a few dairy-centric bars have flourished in the past couple of years. ‘We always tell clients “you need to taste before you buy”,’ says Jose Luis Martín, founder of cheese bar and shop Qava on Calle del Doctor Castelo, just off Calle de Ibiza. As a cheese educator and highly respected affineur, he took up selling exclusively Spanish-made artisan cheeses.
‘Young cheesemakers today are knowledgeable and educated; in the past five years the cheese scene in Spain has improved massively – it’s a revolution!’ explains Jose Luis enthusiastically.
He recommends trying puigpedrós cheese by Molí de Ger dairy, a semi-hard, unpasteurised cows’ milk cheese from the Pyrenees, and savel, a soft, spreadable blue cheese made by Airas Moriz dairy from grass-fed Jersey cows’ milk in Galicia. Ordering a cheeseboard on the spot is the best way to take advantage of his three-decade career and unrivalled insider knowledge.
Retiro might be home to the richest cultural offering in the city, but unlike other districts in central Madrid, it’s still a residential area, less affected by tourism. As a result, restaurants cater to regulars, which means sometimes they’ve got to adapt their initial business idea to suit what those patrons crave. This was the case for chef José Fuentes, owner of KultO, inspired by the informal seafood haunts of Cádiz. At the beginning, over six years ago, the restaurant focused on fusion cuisine, offering a sophisticated tasting menu, but the team soon realised that to keep locals coming back they’d need to offer tapas or small plates made to share. ‘That’s how we live here in Spain and that’s what clients want,’ explains José, adding, ‘I swapped ceviche for salpicón, and the acidity of lime for that of vinegar. The core idea for the menu is the same, though: freshness, acidity and spiciness, but more Mediterranean.’ Trying a tuna dish is mandatory, and the tarantelo, made from a gloriously fresh red tuna loin infused with rosemary, lightly cooked and served with pickles, a citrusy dressing and micro-greens, is the stuff of dreams.
At Zalamero Taberna, on busy Calle de Narváez, the range of wines is almost overwhelming. With more than 40 available by the glass – and the list changes weekly – partners and sommeliers Ana Losada and David Moreno’s vast knowledge is something of a blessing. ‘We work with small wineries, people who are passionate and work hard, and we love to surprise our regulars with under-the-radar bottles,’ explains David. Ana’s legendary melt-in-the-mouth, roasted chicken croquetas are always available. ‘Honesty is what defines my cooking,’ says Ana, who made the transition from sommelier to chef during the pandemic. And her produce-driven menu, which includes other perfectly-executed classic tapas, such as ensaladilla rusa (potato and veg in mayonnaise) and boquerones en vinagre (marinated anchovies), attest to her talent.
However short your visit to Retiro, time must be made for a visit to Michelin-starred La Tasquería.
The restaurant elevates the Madrileño tradition of cooking offal, from sweetbreads and hearts to pigs’ heads and lambs’ brains. Javi Estévez has achieved a cult following by mastering the art of cooking offal, which until very recently was to be found in the humblest households rather than prominent restaurants like his. ‘I like to preserve traditions while incorporating contemporary techniques,’ explains Javi. A superbly subtle veal liver salad with green mustard ice-cream, and lambs’ brains with butter and capers are menu highlights, allowing Javi to show off his technical brilliance at the stove while encouraging guests to go adventurous in their dining.
Quality food and, in particular, authentic Spanish cuisine has become a hallmark of Retiro, so customise a visit according to your fancy on any particular day: indulge in churros; stop for quick tapas; sample traditional or fusion menus; try comfort foods; have a picnic at the park with artisan cheeses and heritage-grain breads, or take a Michelin-starred seat. It’s all here, and more; just be sure to allow time to chat because, above all else, it’s what locals love most.
Words and photography by Mónica R Goya.
This feature was taken from the June 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.
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