Looking for a great tapas bar in Madrid? Don’t follow the signs. “Tapas bars almost never have signs saying they’re tapas bars,” Context Travel guide Helena Vaello said during an exploration of tapas culture in Spain’s capital city. Those that do are likely tourist traps. If you want the real thing, just look for a bustling spot with people standing at the bar – and keep an eye out for plenty of crumpled napkins on the floor, a sure sign of many tapas enjoyed before you arrived.
While there are too many worthy choices in the city to list, here are five Madrid tapas bars to return to again and again.
Juana La Loca
This lively, modern bar serves Basque-style pinxtos (small tapas served on bread), laid out in the Basque way – in glass cases on top of the bar. While you’ll find traditional options like tortilla (done here with caramelized onions – yum), Juana La Loca offers highly creative dishes, too.
What to order: Pinxto with quail’s egg and truffle. The menu calls this “the incredible confit egg,” and it’s hard to disagree.
Wash it down with: Txakoli, a Basque white wine. Watch for the high pour, an impressive way of increasing the wine’s light sparkle.
Location: Plaza Puerta de Moros, 4
Once a favourite haunt of Spanish bullfighters, this classic bar has been serving up tapas since 1827. The no-nonsense waiters keep things moving, but finding a table can be a challenge – a problem best solved by squeezing in at the bar.
What to order: Tortilla invertida. In Spain, tortilla means the classic Spanish omelette with potatoes and onions. Madrileños like it ultra-gooey and barely cooked, which is much more delicious than it sounds. Casa Alberto gets the tortilla just right and serves it stuffed inside a sweet, crunchy, grilled green pepper.
Wash it down with: Vermouth on tap.
Location: Calle de las Huertas, 18
Tandem and its sister restaurant, Triciclo, serve up fresh, modern takes on the tapas tradition in rooms as hip as the food. As the newer of the two, Tandem offers a more casual setting and lower prices.
What to order: Salmorejo. This cold tomato-and-bread pureed soup is a tapas staple, found at nearly every tapas bar in town – but Tandem offers a standout version topped with semimojama (lightly cured) bonito and almond oil.
Wash it down with: A selection from the great local wine list.
Location: Calle Santa Maria, 39
Lateral Santa Ana
Lateral mixes the modern and the traditional in a bright, airy room on Plaza Santa Ana. It was packed during my lunchtime visit, but flagging a waiter down was never a problem thanks to the call buttons on the table – one for service, one to request the bill.
What to order: Rabo de toro. Literally “tail of the bull,” this classic dish is actually braised oxtail. Here served with impossibly creamy mashed potatoes, it’s difficult to resist.
Wash it down with: The highly drinkable house wine, or splurge on a glass of champagne.
Location: Plaza de Santa Ana, 12
Bodega de la Ardosa
Another of Madrid’s restaurantes centenarios (centenary restaurants), this charming classic opened in 1892. Not for those with bad backs or knees, Bodega de la Ardosa requires guests to duck under the bar to reach the washrooms – an adventure in itself.
What to order: Grilled artichokes. Simple and delicious.
Wash it down with: Beer or vermouth on tap.
Location: Calle Colón, 13
Major North American and European airlines fly from Vancouver to Madrid, usually with one stop in a hub city. Some airlines allow a multi-day stopover in the hub city at no extra cost.
The writer visited Casa Alberto and Tandem as a guest of Context Travel on the company’s Tavernas and Tapas tour. A version of this article originally appeared at FlightNetwork.com.