Photo from Madrid No-frills
As you may well know, there are many bars in Spain: one for every occasion and with several different names. Cafeteria, restaurante, cervecería and all the bars in between. Yet the best –and more authentic ones – have similar characteristics, though not all of them are visible.
When I was living in England with my Spanish wife, she couldn’t understand, at first, the difference between and a good and bad pub. Eventually, after many visits, she came to understand the small differences in pubs, that I like. So, moving to Spain, I had a similar education to fulfil.
What is the difference between good and bad Spanish bars?
When I first moved to Madrid, I would avoid these bars, like the English avoid fruit. Yet when I was taken to one, as I had no opinion, the experience wasn’t that bad. It felt like my first time in a gay club – you feel like everybody is watching you, but in reality, no one really gives a shit about you after the first glance.
Like I said, I had no option. On the road from Córdoba to Madrid in mid-July, surrounded by towering mountains decorated with olive trees, we drove home. The only service stations are small petrol stations with not a premade sandwich in sight. Instead, you have the roadside cafetería. These can range from a bar with guest cockroaches to places that have a bar with a restaurant on the side. Waiters in bow ties and families having full-on celebrations – I’ve seen both. If you are unlucky, then you can chance driving to the next one, but it may not be any better.
Even if they are good or bad, most have a similar set up. Brown tiled floors littered with small animal bones and small wafer-thin tissues, because most people miss the little metal bin. In Spain, some say this is the sign of a good bar, I agree to an extent but there are good clean bars – depends how busy you like your bars.
The Self-Important Waiter
Another feature is the self-important waiter. This sounds cruel, but he is important, and he knows it – the bar would cease to function without him and the customers know this too. This is why if you are his friend you will never go to another bar. It’s like having a rock star as a friend – you can moan together about ungrateful customers.
They do work in a magical world though, coffee cups lined up at opening to make the famous café con leche, and calmly ordering the customers where to move, the waiters are artists in crowd direction and juggling tasks.
The Tiny Beers
Small beers are a ‘thing’ in Spain. Yes, they drink slowly, but often, and this is down to the size of the beer. A ‘caña’ is not even a third of a pint and it often has a large head – not my favourite thing about Spain. Give me a ‘doble’ or ‘jarra’ any day.
The No-Frills Terrace
The bars are often just as famous for their tapas portions and terraces – not the wooden panels you buy from B&Q, but a pub garden on a patio (trust me, it’s nicer than it sounds). Spending your evening sat with friends as the warm weather slowly draws the night in, you feel like this is the essence of Spain. It’s either night or day in Spain, they have no word for afternoon, but any time of day – weather permitting – is a good time for a caña on a terrace with friends.
Photo from Madrid No-frills
The Generous Tapas
Tapas has become world famous in the last 10 years. Even though many nationalities do it wrong, it has taken on a life of its own. A tapa is a snack you get with an alcoholic drink. There is a scale of tapas, like a scale of take away but healthier. In my opinion, the worst are olives and Chinese crackers: they are disgusting. About midway on the scale would be crisps – plain old crisps – but a good thing to sober you up. Then would come a slice of chorizo on bread, as the bread is often from the day before, and my all-time favourite has to be patatas bravas. Controversial choice, but my wife hates them, so when I get them, I have them all to myself.
Don’t Judge a Bar By Its Decor
One trick that I still have not mastered is not looking at the menu. I’ve been taught that if you look at the menu before they bring the free food, you won’t be getting any free food as they think you will pay for it. So wait! But not to long, it may be a crap bar and not give you any food at all. Judge a bar by its tapas and portions, not the decor or the manners of the waiter.
Most bars are tiled from the floor up. The counters of the bar are normally worn stainless steel, and they often have heaters that look like they are from fish and chip shops, keeping the tapas warm. They have frayed, wooden stools and wipeable tables – normally with an additional serviette holder propping up the menu, that you shouldn’t touch.
The No-Frills Atmosphere
The atmosphere inside can often feel cold and exhausting. If you think it will be that way, however, once you’ve taken your table and ordered your beer, you will soon feel at home. Locals and visitors often speak freely to each other, even if it is just navigating between the crowds of people to get to the toilet.
Another common feature of these bars is children. It’s often said that children don’t have a bad time in Spain, which I hold true as I have seen parents with their children out at three in the morning. However, the big difference to the UK, is none are intoxicated. Spain does not have the paranoia that other countries have around children being taken away by strangers, although this is changing. But generally, Spain is a very family orientated and warm country to have a family. The family go to the bar together, which creates a completely different atmosphere.
Long Live The No-Frills Bar
One thing that helped me come to love these bars was the ambience and their honesty. One thing that brought this to my attention was a blog called Madrid No Frills. The blogger, Leah, explores the less glamorous parts of Madrid with her camera in hand, promoting less popular traditional bars. As in the UK, independent old bars are closing down at an alarming rate. Only customers can keep them alive and stop them turning into overpriced apartments or generic coffee shops.
So now I make a habit of not being scared by these bars, but by trying them out and recommending them to friends. Viva los bares cutres Españoles (or long live the no-frills bar!).