Stroll ten minutes south from Puerta del Sol and you’ll hit barrio Lavapiés, a rambunctious boho bubble smack in the middle of Madrid. During the middle ages the neighbourhood may have been the city’s (walled) Jewish quarter. These days it’s a frisky hodgepodge of old señoras, Rastro Gypsies, African and Asian immigrants and counter-culture refugees. There’s been talk for years about the imminent gentrification of the neighbourhood (real estate this close to Sol is prime), but Lavapiés – staunchly left-leaning and intensely proud of its roots – has never succumbed. By the way, I live here and, if I may say so myself, it’s the most beautiful and stimulating barrio in all Madrid.
So, want to know where to eat in Lavapiés? Read on…
Living around the corner, I spent months trying to make it to Badila, and for one reason or another never did. Finally, it happened. And it was pretty good. The fare is traditional Spanish home cooking, with dash of the modern. Last time I visited I had some onion soup followed by a leg of goat – the former was smooth and sharp, and the goat leg (which is often dry) was herb-infused and succulent. Badila’s decor is white, woody and luminous; its vibe low-key. Lunch is a seasonal menu del día (2:30pm to 4:30pm) – three courses and a glass of wine for €12.50 (midweek), €13.50 (Saturday) or €14.50 (Sunday). Dinner is served Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights only and they offer a menu for €14.50, or you can order à la carte. Check out the motley mural on the building opposite – the teenage Picasso lived in one of those flats from 1897 until 1898 (while he was studying at Madrid’s Academia de San Fernando – one of the city’s excellent but often ignored non-Golden Triangle art galleries).
Calle de la Cabeza, 7, 28012
914 297 651
Metro: Tirso de Molina, Line 1
For some time Lavapiés felt a little thin on the ground when it came to inventive and satisfying spots to eat (yes, there are places – La Otra Casa, Badila… but I’m talking about way down in the depths of Lavapiés). Thankfully, that’s changing and Los Chuchis is part of the advanced guard. The brainchild of well-bearded English chef Scott Preston and his Spanish partner Fer, it’s a picturesque fusion of old-school Spanish bar – spring colours, tiled floors, a zinc countertop groaning with vivid produce – and cheeky flashes of English memorabilia (viz. a faux wresting poster advertising the Willie and Kate wedding smack-down…). And like the English diet, the menu is a mix of everything and everywhere. Scott happily serves jamón ibérico, giant shrimps a la plancha, English sausages, couscous, homemade pâté, pork roasts and Thai-style fishcakes from his pokey cabin-sized kitchen. If that eclectic selection sounds like a big bloody mess, don’t worry, it’s not. In fact, it’s a welcome break from the more traditional Spanish fare you get in this price range in Madrid. And Scott’s cooking – simple, home-made, with clear, strong flavours – is excellent. The buzz is busy, loud and cheek-to-cheek, so call ahead if you want to sit and eat (there are only a few tables). They do well-priced midday menu all week and then after 8:30pm it’s raciones only. The modish clientele seems mainly from the barrio and, despite me listing Los Chuchis under EAT, it’s a fantastic spot if you just want to get drunk. Until further notice, this is my pick for Lavapiés. Closed Mondays.
Deep in the tangled streets of Lavapiés, El Candela is mythic. At once picturesque and grungy, this after-hours flamenco bar is both a late-night answer to those drinking to dawn and a classic hangout for Madrid’s flamenco community. The party kicks off late – arrive at 1am and you’ll be drinking alone. But by three – when everywhere else is closed – you’ll be swinging your €3.50 beer (prices aren’t cheap) around the dance floor, pretending to pull off a bulería. The coloured tiles and mural of an idyllic, whitewashed lane conjure somewhere in Andalusia and hanging high on the back wall, keeping a keen eye on proceedings, is a photograph of Camarón, the now-dead father of modern flamenco. His 1979 album La Leyenda del Tiempo is a touchstone. And though he’d disapprove of some of the flamenco El Candela now plays (it can be a little chichi early in the night and on weekends), there’s still enough cante jondo, Enrique Morente and Carmen Linares to keep us hardcores happy. What’s more, this bar has a secret. Down the back there’s a door with a keyhole and no handle. I’d heard that top flamenco artists sometimes perform at private gatherings through there. So, last time round, at about three in the morning, Yoly and I managed to convince the bent old man with the key to open up. The temperature dropped as we descended into a subterranean bodega. Two guitars pulsed and competed, propelled by the urgent, staccato rhythm of clapping hands. There, in a haze of cigarette smoke, ten Gypsies sat in a circle, pouring their own drinks from gin bottles ferried down by Candela bartenders. The men sang in turns, their voices squeezed and yearning. My wife and I watch and listened – utterly ignored by the close-knit group – as they drank, smoked, played, sung and, sometimes, when the music took them, got up and danced flamenco, until god knows what time in the morning.
Calle del Olmo, 2, 28012
914 67 33 82
A Madrid Food Tour client once asked me if there were bars that I go to, but that I’d never take a tour group to. Bar F.M., I said. It’s greasy, grungy, dirty and distasteful. But there are days when only a place like Bar F.M. (known in Spain as a “cutre”, or dive, bar) can fill that particular hole in the soul. Paco, the hunched, silver-haired proprietor, has been at it for decades, surrounding himself with an eclectic assortment of cycling memorabilia, pre-Industrial Revolution farm equipment and soft-core pornography. Every beer the old boy pulls comes with a free tapa of jamón. Great, you say! But this is the toughest, saltiest, gnarliest jamón serrano you’ve ever chipped your dentures on. It’s like biting into a cured Wellington… and it’s all part of the experience. This write-up is tinged with sadness though. Until recently Paco was accompanied by Luna, his blind, tail-less dog. When Paco carved the jamón tapa it was three slices for the tapa, one for Luna. But the last time I was at Bar F.M. I couldn’t see Luna. I asked after her. “Luna se fue,” Paco said, devastated. Translation: Luna has left the building. Samantha Fox is still present though, tumbling effortlessly out of a cotton bodice in a large, framed, spotlit poster down the back. At least some things never change.
Calle del Olmo, 35, 28012
Note: Only open Thursdays through Sunday, until late
It’s a hidden little gastro-crossroads that Casa Pachuco sits on, lost in the maze of streets between Anton Martin and Plaza Lavapiés (the threadbare 19th century buildings in this neighbourhood are stunning). Opposite is El Aperitivo, a gruff neighbourhood bar that’s been reclaimed by trendy young people, then just a few doors is O Can Sentado, where they serve excellent wine by the glass. Yoly and I wanted something quick, light and cheap and so we nipped into Casa Pachuco, a little restaurant that keeps an almost too-low profile (walk past and you’ll almost certainly miss it). The food is simply put together and blends modern Spanish dishes with influences and ingredients from other cultures. And, for what you pay, it’s very good. We had very tasty burrata lathered with pico de gallo and a good slow-cooked piece of salmon. The wine selection is also good. Something about the lacklustre decor makes it hard for me to get excited about spending an evening eating dinner here, but as a local joint for an easy lunch at a good price, it’s bang on. Also, it’s a short walk from the Reina Sofia, which is handy for museum-goers and a much better than some of the frightful traps on Calle Atocha.