Those typical Spanish bars…
You know the ones I mean.
The ones where you can go for a beer and a sandwich at 10 AM and no-one will think twice about it.
Floor slippery with shrimp heads and olive pits, awful fluorescent lights from 1970, white haired waiter shouting orders back to the tiny kitchen.
Metal countertop. Flimsy paper napkins. La caña bien tirada. Grandma and Grandpa at the table in the corner having chocolate con churros.
You know, those bars.
They seem like they’ve been part of the old Madrid landscape since time immemorial (or at least since before 2004 – when I arrived.)
And you can love ’em or you can hate ’em.
But one thing is clear: they’re not opening any new ones.
Here’s my take (as an almost-native madrileño) on the decline and fall of typical Spanish bars.
Here goes nothin…
Are typical Spanish bars dying out?
I’ve read several articles recently about the untimely death of typical Spanish bars. Rent controls have ended and the city as a whole is gentrifying, they say.
I guess it might be true.
However, if you get out of the city center, there are still plenty of old-man bars.
I should know.
In my unglamorous Tetuán neighborhood far from where the hipsters live, many of the typical bars are still doing a booming business, day in and day out.
Right around the corner from home, I’ve got a place that serves tortilla all day, and looks like it hasn’t been remodelled since the 60s. And about two blocks away, I’ve got a churro and squid place that’s about 90 years old.
On the smaller streets off Bravo Murillo, you can find places that are as old-school as you can handle – it’s like time travel without leaving the barrio!
And each one has its regular clientele of people from the barrio.
The decline and fall of typical Madrid bars
Sooner or later, the people who opened those sorts of bars decades ago are all going to retire. Some already have.
And their lifelong customers aren’t going to be around forever, either.
Will they pass these businesses along to their kids?
I doubt it.
For the most part, I don’t think young Spaniards are dreaming of taking over Mom and Dad’s old-style bar in Tetuán when they’re old enough.
And Mom and Dad probably want a different life for their kids, too. They send little Juanito to university so he can get an engineering degree…
Then move to London to escape from 50% youth unemployment, and (possibly) end up working in a bar up there.
The parents fry the squid rings their whole lives so that the kids don’t have to… at least in theory.
And younger people, if they decide to start a bar, probably do something hipper. Something classier. Something like the places they’ve seen on their trips abroad.
And so, the typical “bares de toda la vida” close, and what replaces them is…
Why (many) small businesses fail
Businesses fail all the time. And typical Spanish bars are no exception.
As the owner of a one-man business myself, let me tell you: unless I make some grand plan for its continuation, this thing’s gonna die with me – if not much sooner.
The bars that are dying out are exactly the Mom ‘n Pop places that aren’t really built to last. They’re not multi-generational institutions – they’re meant to provide an income to the owners for a few decades, and nothing more.
In other words, they’re lifestyle businesses.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But with no marketing plan, few improvements, and little effort made towards growth, most businesses just don’t last that long.
(And the fact that they’ve already lasted several decades seems pretty good, honestly.)
The ones that seem to be hanging on have larger staffs, great locations, and some dedication to quality and service.
And of course, there are no guarantees. Even Fortune 500 companies fail. Sears was once the biggest retailer in America, and Blockbuster and Kodak were big tech giants. If innovation killed those businesses, just think what it can do to Bar Paco on your corner.
Anyway, let’s end with some places you can go for a bite to eat or a few cañas, right here in Madrid…
My favorite typical Spanish bars in Madrid
I’m no stranger to the inside of a bar myself…
So if you want to check out some of my favorites, try the pork ear at Casa Toni (Calle Cruz, 14 – Metro Sol). Or head to Bodega de la Ardosa for some tortilla de patatas (Calle Colón, 13 – Metro Tribunal).
Close to Plaza Dos de Mayo is Casa Camacho – about as authentic as it gets, with standing room only and a drink called a yayo (gin, vermouth and “Casera”) you can’t get anywhere else. That’s at Calle de San Andrés, 4.
For ye olde squid sandwiches on Plaza Mayor, check out Cervecería Plaza Mayor 2, which is more than 50 years old. (If they’re full, you can head to La Ideal right next door on Calle Botoneras. It’s less pretty but the squid is basically the same.)
And right in front of the Cathedral you’ll find El Anciano Rey de Vinos (Calle Bailén, 19), which has been serving its unique house wine – sweet, similar to moscatel – since it opened in 1909.
There are more. Even in the hippest and most touristy areas, you can still find plenty of typical Spanish bars.
Not as many as before, but I think they’re still going strong.
That’s it for today…
P.S. What are your favorite typical Spanish bars? Also, wanna buy me a beer? Or some squid? Pork ear? Morcilla? I’m hungry. (Almost always.) Anyway, hit me up, right here in the comments…
P.P.S. Just as a thought experiment – if you found out tomorrow that your long-lost uncle Antonio had left you his old-man bar in his will, would you just pick up where he left off? Or would you improve a few things and update the vibe for the 21st century? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
P.P.P.S. Since I wrote this article, the most famous of the typical Spanish bars in Malasaña closed down. El Palentino, on calle del Pez, is gone. Why? Well, it’s not an evil conspiracy by Starbucks (or even 100 Mondatidos – ¡qué horror!) It’s just that one of the owners died and the other decided to retire rather than keep the place open. So… ¡adiós, Palentino! I hope they put something cool in your place.