I tend to be a big planner when it comes to vacations. I research all the foodie spots I want to tick off, spending hours creating google docs with places I have discovered on Instagram, and generally like to have at least a vague idea what is going to be on my daily itinerary to make the most of my time.
However real life has the tendency to ruin plans and in this case the friend I was meant to be going away with cancelled literally 12 hours before we were meant to fly out to our long weekend in Madrid. Now, I have travelled alone before but on those occasions it had been an active decision on my part and I also had friends at my holiday destination excited to see me for local wining and dining.
The thing is I love being alone, I spent most of my Saturdays alone, wondering around London, and even on holiday I love having the freedom to go to whatever sights I want to, walk through museums as quickly or as slowly as I like, and having the complete freedom to call it a day and go back to my airbnb whenever I choose to. But there is one thing that for me has always been more about the communal experience and that is eating and drinking - especially somewhere like Madrid where it is all about sharing tapas with your nearest and dearest.
Yes, I could have had solo dinners on this trip and I am sure the food would have still been great but for me there is simply nothing quite like getting a little tipsy and enjoying a great conversation whilst stuffing your face, especially when your dining companions share the experience with you of the amazing flavours served up in front of you.
It was a real blessing then that I have some rather fantastic and globally connected people in my life that did everything they could to connect me with their friends in Madrid and the weekend that was to follow was one of the best of my life. Why? I got to have much needed “me time” that saw me, very ‘eat, pray, love’ style, even enjoy a cheeky evening Aperol Spritz in the middle of the most famous and busy market hall in town, Mercado de San Miguel, by myself without feeling lonely, but more importantly it also offered me the huge privilege to meet some fantastic people over there that I may have never met otherwise. They dedicated their precious free weekend time to a random girl that their friends are friends with (thanks Ana and Lola!!) and were so kind that I instantly felt at ease. They showed me the real Madrid like no tour ever could, making it a truly unforgettable few days filled with the best food, drinks and company I could have wished for and I cannot wait to be their host in London one day!
Yes, I may not have ticked off all the foodie spots on my list as planned but some of the places I was taken to were so local I doubt I would have ever been able to find them and for me going with the flow proved a fantastic experience. Madrid’s people are not only great but it’s a town that is welcoming, gorgeous, a foodie’s paradise and as it turns out also perfect for a solo traveller. Below are a few of my top tips for a weekend in Madrid - I already want to return for more great food with great people (and maybe I’ll take a friend next time).
PS: You don’t even need to know locals in Madrid to make friends and have great time. On my last day I went on an airbnb experience tapas crawl which may not have been cheap (around £70 for a three hour crawl across 5 tapas bars with a drink at each place ) and may have had an element of organised fun, tailored to tourists. about it (the food was pretty average and a little scarce), but it did bring together an international group of people and by the end of it I had met a super lovely girl also on a solo trip and also from east London who I spent the rest of the afternoon drinking sangria in the sun with before heading the airport and who I already have plans with to meet up in London. Particularly good to do on your first eve if everything else fails as you’ll definitely end up having a fun and unexpected evening!
I was taken to Casa Macareno by Ana for a long Friday lunch literally a few hours after I had laded and was more than ready to eat after a 2 am wake up call. It’s in a super cool area and also happened to be only a 4 minute walk from my airbnb (on that note head to Plaza Dos de Mayo and the surrounding streets if you want to bar hop, vintage shop and explore the “east London” of Madrid). This restaurant has been here for decades but has been lovingly restored and the tapas dishes given an ever so slightly modern twist, although I promise it is still all about the classics here. The place is super popular with locals rather than tourists so make sure you book, we had to wait a good half hour for a table at 2:30pm. There is an affordable set lunch menu for around 12 euros but we decided to share a few classic tapas dishes between us, each of which was truly outstanding and made it one of the best meals of my life. In a way I am sad we only managed three dishes between us, the Russian salad (a traditional Spanish salad of potato, mayonnaise and tuna that isn’t Russian at all), crispy potatoes with juicy prawns, fried egg and garlic (out of this world) and raw marinated sea bream in an incredible sauce served on, you guessed it right, more potato - on this occasion boiled and sliced. All of this was washed down with amazing wine and sangria and what I thought would be a quick lunch turned into a three hour long dining extravaganza, helped of course by the great company I got to enjoy the food with. By the time we left and met some of Ana’s friends at a nearby bar I was drunk, full to the brim and truly ready for siesta time... at 7pm. I had arrived in Madrid. BEST CHURROS IN TOWN @ CHOCOLATERÍA SAN GINÉS
This cafe supposedly serves the best churros in Madrid and although a tourist hotspot I have to agree. The churros here are not greasy, instead the perfect amount of crunchy and served with the most amazing rich dark chocolate sauce. Grab an outside table and order a huge portion (I managed half) for a very affordable 4.50 euros but skip the coffee, they do churros well but not much else.
Again this is quite the tourist destination, bang next to the main town square but this beautiful old market hall makes up for that with its stunning array of food and wine stalls. I got myself an Aperol spritz (what else) and watched the world and tourist groups walk by.
On Saturday afternoon I was lucky enough to meet the fantastic Lola, childhood best buds wth a good friend of mine from London, who is a lawyer in Madrid and who alongside her boyfriend and brother took me on quite the adventure around Madrid, truly showing me the many facets this town has to offer and taking me on one of the funnest and most unexpected Saturday nights in a long time!
Being a rooftop snob I was keen on finding the best one Madrid had to offer so Lola took us to El Paracaidista, a super cool new concept store with cinema, shop and rooftop that is yet to be in any guide book. Even on a Saturday night there was plenty of space to chill and no tourist in sight and I would go back ASAP before the rest of Madrid clocks on to this spot with great vibes and drinks.
As the night commenced and the sun began to set, the guys insisted I needed to see the sky in all its colourful glory from a worthy spot so we headed to this rooftop hotel bar. The view was second to none and the crowd was sophisticated yet cool. Im very glad we made this stop on the night, providing me with a panoramic view I won’t forget in a while as I sipped on a perfectly made Aperol spritz.
Between rooftops we were in need of a snack and after I had briefly mentioned that I hadn’t had patatas bravas on this trip yet, a cab was quickly hailed to bring us to THE spot for this Spanish classic. And they weren’t wrong, this place may not be “cool”, filled with middle aged Spanish men drinking ice cold beers on a Saturday night, but the food was the real deal with the fried little fish that we ordered additionally tasting so fresh and flavourful that I could have easily stayed for my entire dinner here at this proper authentic spot that is no frills in the best of ways. But that is not Spanish style so we finally headed to our final stop on my fantastic culinary journey to make our dinner reservation at 10:45pm - because yes, in Spain that is a normal time to sit down for dinner (something that leaves the German in me that likes to eat at 6pm sharp still a little confused.)
Anyways our final stop was Ronda14 in the fancy Salamanca district (think the Mayfair of Madrid). To be completely honest I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to a Japanese fusion restaurant in Madrid on my weekend there but boy would I have been missing out. It may not be cheap but the quality of fish served here was outstanding and the modern twists on classic sushi dishes with a hint of Spain such as their egg truffle nigiri were simply out of this world. Once again it may not be in most of the guide books or what one would call part of a typical tourist experience but it was one of the most incredible sushi meals I've had and rounded up the evening in the most surprising and delicious of ways possible (though be warned there is definitely no English menu in sight). This place is very hip and happening at the moment so make sure you book ahead. You won’t regret it.
A quick review today of a new London favourite south of the river. Yes, you heard right this lazy east Londoner actually made the effort and went all the way to Elephant & Castle on Friday night to try this new gem of a place which focuses on bringing Latin flavours to London.
I have to say I had my initial doubts when my friend Henri proposed going to Paladar, after all Elephant & Castle isn’t exactly known as a culinary hot spot, but I shouldn’t have worried. It may be in a bit of an odd Location, not much surrounding it apart from a Subway and a pub (though still only a 5 minute walk from the tube station), but the food served here would comfortably hold its own against some of London’s most hyped and talked about dining joints.
Even better, it isn’t the result of some hedge fund investment or part of yet another chain, too slick for its own good, no, it’s run by a group of super passionate lovely guys with years of experience in hospitality who wanted to bring the vibrant flavours of South America and Cuba to London. Of course there were a few places doing something similar in London beforehand, most prominently (the in my eyes very overpriced) Peruvian restaurants Andina and Ceviche, but there was nowhere that was attempting to bring together the best food, drink and culture of Latin America as a whole, rather than just one country, which in Paladar’s case also means only serving wine from that region.
But let’s get down to business. Paladar’s interior is inviting but as I eluded to above not over-designed or even borderline “hipster”. The place quickly filled up with local families on the Friday night we went, not yet overrun by millenial foodies like me (for now) because of its slightly off kilter location, which gave the whole place a completely unpretentious and fun vibe. The menu is divided into nibbles, fish, meat and vegetable dishes and it is recommended to share plates, although there are also enough options for bigger main courses for those that don’t buy into the small plate dining thing (I do and was annoyed at my fellow diners that didn’t but more on that later..).
Anyhow while waiting for some friends to arrive me and my fellow diner ordered some intriguing sounding deep-fried hominy corn, dusted with a house spice blend and lime to nibble on while sampling our first glass of excellent Latin white wine. God knows what country the wine was from- all I know is that it was pretty damn good and very well priced, we very quickly handing over all ordering to Paladar’s fantastic bar manager who chose our beverages for the rest of the evening to compliment what we were eating (special shout out to Cedric who showcased how proper hospitality should be done but rarely is anymore with his top service). The corn was not crunchy as I expected but slightly berlotti bean like and the seasoning it was coated in made it one of the most moorish things I have had in a while. We also tried the plantain chips with guacamole which were fantastically fresh and full of zingy flavours while deciding on mains and are another must order.
I would have loved to have tried my way through their extensive veggie and fish sections (veggies will be delighted that this is in fact the biggest section of their menu), however Henri being a regular at Paladar couldn’t stop singing the praises of their roast chicken in chilli chocolate sauce so that in the end everyone apart from me chose this as their main rather than sharing small plates. And to be fair they couldn’t stop talking about how fantastic it was (maybe why Henri orders it every time, and he goes often).
In any case I preceded to order a bigger veg sharing dish (sweet corn, quinoa, chipotle and homemade crumbles cheese) which was an utter flavour delight with two smaller side dishes, equally delicious cassava chips with chipotle mayo and fried Columbian baby potatoes with huacatay butter. I loved every dish and I also loved that they presented me with completely new flavours and textures, however I still couldn’t help myself already planning what other dishes I was going to order next time when taking along a little more experimental dining companion (sea bass ceviche with passion fruit or cassava fritters anyone!?).
Paladar is fresh, it’s fun, it’s unique and it doesn’t have to be in central or east London to serve top notch food and wine. I will be making the journey back down there asap and I have a feeling it is only going to get harder to score a reservation there as word of it's excellence inevitably spreads. Paladar is a real dining gem in the making so go before the rest of London realises.