Photography: SIMON FURLONG
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The Madrid daily La Razón published a story last August that neatly summarised the city's priorities. Based on an annual audit of the capital's commerce, it revealed that Madrid has about 45,000 bank branches and 350,000 bars. In other words, there are roughly eight bars for every bank outlet. That's our kind of town.
There are so many bars in Madrid that if the visitor were to patronise, say, three a day, it would take 320 years to sample all of them. It would seem equally impossible to distil that number to the 10 "best" bars in the city, but with the assistance of two insiders we've made a fine stab at defining Madrid's most distinctive drinking holes.
Nigel Hack, a Briton, and Oscar Soler, Catalan by birth, launched bespoke travel agency Madrid & Beyond a decade ago, tailoring itineraries to clients' desires. Through exclusive contacts they can arrange singular experiences such as cooking classes with top Spanish chefs, private wine tastings, and introductions to flamenco (by gypsies) and bullfighting (by a retired torero). "We offer authenticity," says Hack. "It's never the same thing each time."
The pair proved impeccable guides on this perilous assignment into the infinite realms of Madrileño bacchanalia. It was a deeply enjoyable journey, penetrating the city's legendary after-dark existence, with 4am finishes on Friday and Saturday and a classic Sunday "recovery" crawl through the colourful La Latina district. Be warned: a night out in Madrid is not for the faint of heart, or the meek of thirst. The one certainty is that you will be welcomed warmly by the locals, who are famous for their appreciation of "un buen rollo", a good time.
1. THE PENTHOUSE AT ME
Rooftop bars are all the rage in Madrid, but nowhere can match the glamour quotient of the Melia Hotel's Penthouse. Once a traditional bullfighting hotel favoured by toreros and Ernest Hemingway, in its 21st-century incarnation it has hosted the likes of George Clooney and David Beckham. "When I first came here to Madrid [in 1993] there was nowhere really fashionable," says Hack. "Places like ME and the Glass Bar didn't exist, and people just used to go out on the streets or the terraces. It was charming but not ideal for the discerning traveller. How things have changed…" The Penthouse is a sexy alfresco space of Balinese daybeds and balconies that throbs to the beat of DJ-spun house music. The VIP lounge, with views to Gran Vía and Plaza D'España, costs more than $4000 to reserve (drinks and food are extra) and offers the ultimate Madrid experience. Plaza Santa Ana 14, +34 917 016 000
2. LA VENENCIA
"What I like about this place is that it is genuinely old," says Hack. In fact, La Venencia is not as ancient as the faded sherry festival posters and the thick patina of dust on the bar's bottles and barriques might suggest. It is 80, the barman confirms, though it looks at least 100. The bar serves only five drinks, all of them white wines from Andalucía - what we know as sherries. Just don't call them that in front of the defiantly proud bar staff. Instead, ask for a manzanilla, fino, oloroso, amontillado or palo cortado. Glasses are poured on the thick wood slab of a bar, lined with ashtrays and marked with chalk hieroglyphics to keep tabs on how many drinks and simple tapas plates - cheese, olives and cold meats - patrons consume. Calle Echegaray 7, +34 914 297 313
This sleek sister to the original Olsen - a Nordic-inspired bar and restaurant in Buenos Aires - opened almost four years ago, introducing Madrid to the dual pleasures of vodka shots and Scandinavian tapas. "Typically for Spain, the crowd is a mix of all kinds, drawn here because it's a novel concept for them," says Hack. Models and politicians mingle with the merely trendy to sample some of the 80-plus vodka varieties, including Olsen's 15 homemade artisanal varieties such as chocolate, rhubarb and mango. At weekends, drinkers chill to DJ beats in the igloo-like subterranean bar, designed to feel like a birch forest in Finland. Calle del Prado 15, +34 914 293 659
4. LE GARAGE
"This is another cool place, a former car park converted into a New York loft-style 'bar de copas', or cocktail bar," Hack explains. "It's also a sushi bar and restaurant, and it's definitely de moda - in vogue - right now." Opened in the central Retiro barrio in 2007, Le Garage serves sushi in a dining room festooned with faux cherry blossom, and international fare in the rear restaurant amid the action of an open kitchen. Astute diners may notice a distinct Australian bent to the menu - French-Japanese chef Stephane Shoji worked at Melbourne's The Deanery when it opened in 2000. "I love Australian cooking so this menu is much inspired by what I did and saw there, as well as my Japanese background," says Shoji, whose brasserie-standard offerings include black tiger prawns flambéed in sake with a ponzu sauce. Calle Valenzuela 7, +34 915 226 197
A hot spot of Madrid's bar scene, Ramses is a favourite of soccer players, athletes, TV stars and models. Set on glamorous Plaza de la Independencia, with Hotel Hospes and the grand Puerta de Alcala for neighbours, this decadent three-level club bears the inimitable stamp of French designer Philippe Starck, who has distilled pop culture and high camp into a Baroque bolthole for the beautiful set. Downstairs is Petit, a cocktail bar and informal restaurant dishing up Madrileño fare and thumping house music. The upstairs Bistro is a more subdued space for true gastronomes, while the basement club comes alive Thursday to Saturday. Plaza de la Independencia 4
6. CASA LUCAS
Regarded as the heart of the city, barrio La Latina lies just outside the old city walls of the Plaza Mayor and is an energetic mix of tourists and locals. Most action centres on three streets - Cava Baja, Cava Alta and Cuchilleros - each lined with tapas bars and restaurants. "The bars generally close early so it's great in the daytime, for pre-lunch aperitivos, for wine and for cañas (small beers)," Soler says. "It's a bohemian neighbourhood - many Spanish actors and singers live here." (Actor Javier Bardem's brother owns La Mulata, a small bar at Calle de Almendro 22.) The 10-year-old Casa Lucas is a smart but tiny bar known for its excellent wines and tapas, and for its "muy bien tirada" (well-pulled) tap beer. It was recently named by the newspaper El Mundo as one of the 50 best bars in Madrid, an award owner Jose Crespo puts down to the friendliness of the staff. "We try to treat people as we would like to be treated ourselves," he says. Calle Cava Baja 30, +34 913 650 804
7. MUSEO CHICOTE
"This was one of Madrid's most sophisticated cocktail lounges during the 1940s and '50s, attracting famous faces like Hemingway and Ava Gardner," says Hack. "Although its glory days are over, the atmosphere retains a flavour of the past, and the cocktails are just as good as ever." It can be difficult to conjure Museo Chicote's heyday through the smoke haze and deafening dance music of today, but close inspection reveals the original Deco styling and walls hung with snapshots of famous past guests - Dalí, Sophia Loren and Princess Grace. For a true taste of history, try the Chicóctel, a blend of gin and red vermouth. Gran Vía 12, +34 915 326 737
8. NUEVO CAFE BARBIERI
Opened in 1901, the "new" Café Barbieri is a stalwart of the edgy Lavapiés neighbourhood. This working class barrio is home to new migrants and artists and definitely not the place to be flaunting digital cameras or jewellery. That said, the Barbieri's faded elegance and extensive drinks list provides a great excuse to explore this untouristed neighbourhood. Settle in beneath the denatured mirrors and elaborate plaster ceilings for classic cocktails (Brandy Alexander, Gimlet) or a choice of 25 teas and infusions. "This is one of the oldest and most decadent literary cafés of Madrid," says Hack. "High ceilings, red velvet benches, old mirrors and crystal chandeliers - it's stacked with atmosphere from another era." Ave Maria 45, +34 915 273 658
9. GLASS BAR AND LA TERRAZA AT HOTEL
The height of fashion when it debuted nearly five years ago in five-star Hotel Urban, Glass's glittering cube of chandeliers and Ghost chairs at street level is one of the city's hippest winter destinations. In summer, night owls take the lift straight to the split-level La Terraza to lounge on the palm-fringed rooftop or by the pool. "When the terrace first opened it was definitely the hottest place to be," says Hack. "It's still very popular, but you no longer have to battle queues to get in. It's a more chilled space, more romantic, than ME." Drinks prices are almost as elevated as the views, with our bill for three Mojitos and a bottle of water coming in just shy of 60 euros - about $100. Carrera de San Jerónimo 34, +34 917 877 770
10. BODEGAS RICLA
Across the street from the 284-year-old Botín, anointed by Guinness World Records as the world's oldest restaurant, is a relative upstart of a taverna called Ricla. Dating from 1867, its zinc bar, brass vermouth taps and plump red vats lend it an authenticity and charm not always easy to find in this part of the city. "Other bars in this street have become commercialised to attract tourists," says Soler, "but Ricla remains true to its roots. We call it 'castito', which means very local and authentic." The terracotta-coloured walls are hung with fascinating antique photographs depicting Madrid street scenes from early last century. To drink, there is beer, wine, and red vermouth straight from the tap. That's it. Each round of drinks merits a complimentary plate of bread and sausage, or you can order more elaborate nibbles such as cecina, delicious slices of air-dried and smoked beef drizzled in olive oil. Calle Cuchilleros 6, +34 913 652 069.
THE FINE PRINT
Thai Airways flies to Madrid via Bangkok from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Economy return fares from $2104. 1300 651 960.
Read more about travelling in Spain at spain.info
Madrid & Beyond, + 34 91 758 0063.