For nearly three centuries, Sobrino de Botin in Madrid’s historic centre has been continually firing its ovens and serving food without fail. Even through a ferocious civil war and — more recently — pandemic times when forced to close, the glowing embers of evergreen oak have never gone out.
A man checks his watch while camera phones point and lenses click. The crowd is a reasonable size, and all are focusing their attention on a small wooden front door. It’s almost 1pm. Meanwhile, next door, an elderly barber leans against the back of his chair and calmly looks up from his newspaper: his blank face says the melee gathering outside isn’t anything new. He licks a finger and turns a page. After all, this is likely an everyday occurrence when you find yourself beside the world’s oldest restaurant.
Once inside, we ascend a narrow, dark staircase to the first-floor dining room, where we’re seated in a secluded corner with tiled walls and low-hanging timber beams. The cheery smile of our waiter — adorned with white jacket and bowtie — greets us with English-written menus (there are seven languages available), and we order two courses and a modestly priced half bottle of Rioja to share.
Swiftly the tables surrounding us begin to fill with wide-eyed patrons, but these aren’t the frenzied sightseeing pack we’ve seen outside. A Spanish couple next to us asks if I’d be kind enough to take a picture of them, and a well-dressed elderly couple next to them peruse the wine menu carefully, while the table opposite is full of businessmen deep in conversation. This isn’t quite the crowd I was expecting.
As you’d imagine, many people, including some more famous than others, have pulled up a chair over the years since the restaurant’s beginning in 1725. Besides royalty, politicians, and actors, the most notable is the American author Ernest Hemingway.
As my wine glass fills, I learn he was a frequent diner here, and this part of the restaurant was his favourite to eat, drink, and tap away at his typewriter — before drinking significantly more. So much a favourite, in fact, that the closing scene of his early novel, The Sun Also Rises, is set in the restaurant with the protagonist proclaiming, “[Botin] it is one of the best restaurants in the world”.
This one line would spur on a wave of popularity right through the 1950s, which is yet to subside.
Our entrees — plump, steamy chunks of Burgos blood sausage and slithers of crumbly Manchego — land on our table. With my pleasingly rich and well-balanced drink at hand, I slip back in my chair a notch and begin to read the room a little more.
Space is a premium here, and it’s a marvel when watching our waiter and his busser — easily 20 years his junior — elegantly twist and turn around each other as dishes are delivered and empty plates retrieved. Watchfully they fill every glass and turn over tables with finesse. No tension. Stripped bare, their attentive and rhythmic dance is utterly impressive.
At one point, I navigate a mini labyrinth of corridors to find the toilet, almost banging my head on the doorway as I enter. On the way back, I unknowingly hinder a tray of dishes being ferried up the staircase from the kitchen below. Whether a strive for authenticity or merely a necessity, there are no dumbwaiters here — only fit ones, it seems.
For the main, I’ve opted for the signature dish of roast suckling pig: pieces of glassy crackling and succulent sections of pork carved before your eyes. The dish is simple yet incredibly delicious. Accompanied by three roast potatoes, I steadily combine the pillowy flesh of the vegetable with the steaming hot meat and find myself in a taste-induced trance.
My partner has gone for the house clams, and before I have the chance to try one, they are gone; only a smear of sauce on my finger and a lick confirms this, too, was packed with flavour.
Since being named the longest-running by the Guinness Book of Records back in 1986, does a three-hundred-year-old restaurant — with a menu that has hardly changed — have a place in a gastronomic mecca such as Spain — let alone its capital? This is, after all, a country where food is everything.
Sure, on any given day, Madrid boasts multiple Michelin stars and every haute cuisine going, as well as top-notch tapas and brilliant Castilian cooking. But it’s the charm and flavour that keep the doors open here. The honesty and integrity from the moment you step inside is palpable. For a restaurant which many might presume screams tourist trap, it’s a pleasant surprise to find it isn’t, which might be the best part of all.
Sobrino de Botin is open for lunch and dinner Monday to Sunday from 1 pm until 11.30 pm. Calle Cuchilleros, 17, 28005 Madrid, Spain
The writer travelled at his own expense.