Eat, drink and move on in Madrid

“PONZANING” is a made-up word, a Spanglish mangling of noun and verb, a street name rendered into a popular hashtag. It was coined by Karla Sarti, a Mexican fashion and food writer now resident in Madrid, as a new term for the old practice of drinking and dining up and down Calle Ponzano.

Other quarters of the city draw bigger crowds for pub-crawls and tapas-trawls — the boozy buffet of tavernas along Cava Baja, the ring of terraces around Plaza Olavide. But until recently, locals in the Chamberí district kept this Calle Ponzano, a kilometre-long row of 50 or so bars pretty much to themselves.

Most are archetypal neighbourhood cervecerías, unchanged since the Franco era. El Doble, at number 58, is a classic castizo-style corner bar known for cañas (draft beer in short, cold glasses) and conservas (canned seafood like sardines and mussels, eaten straight from the tin with toothpicks). But #ponzaning only started trending because of Sala de Despiece, or “the cutting room”, a much newer institution at number 11.

The interior of Sala de Despiece

The street has become a scene unto itself in recent years largely because of this one restaurant, with its corrugated metal façade like a shipping container. The interior is a designer meat locker, with space for about 30 diners around a slablike polyethylene bar. Food is served on steel trays by waiters in rubber butcher’s aprons, which would seem gimmicky if the dishes didn’t add up to the best meal in town.

Regulars will tell you to try the “rolex” (a bacon, egg yolk and foie gras wrap sealed with a blowtorch) and the “chuletón cenital” (raw T-bone, ground tomato and tartufata sauce). Calle de Ponzano had never seen this kind of dining before Mallorcan chef Javier Bonet opened the place in 2013. He checked out neighbouring institutions with his Madrileñan wife and found that most were basically snack bars.

“I was curious to see that they work without cooks,” he says. His own concept was “simple and honourable” with a professional-grade kitchen and an aesthetic inspired by Madrid’s industrial food markets. “We wanted to work with the truth, and the only truth in the kitchen is the product.” He might still be the only owner on the street who talks that way, but Sala de Despiece’s success has since drawn younger, cooler customers to Ponzano — and greedier investors. This has been called “the Bonet effect”, which the man himself disavows.

“There has been an invasion of group-owned franchises without gastronomic ideals. Most are all about business and focused on drinks,” he says.  Precariously trendy new venues are indeed pre-valent. On the plus side, it’s easier to get a cocktail on Ponzano these days (try Catarsis), or a glass of red from beyond the go-to regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero (Taberna Averías has more than 500 choices).

Tapas at Sala de Despiece

There are also decent options for sit-down meals. Le Qualitè does modern variations on old taberna recipes. Arima is great for Basque food, and Bonet’s own Muta Smoking Club has become the city’s favourite barbecue restaurant. But purists tend to skip these places, regarding chefs, kitchens and even chairs as contrary to the spirit of the street and tapas culture.

They eat their food standing up and throw used napkins on the floor as a gesture of happy satiation. And they will be forever catered to by the likes of Fide, a vintage cervecería. First opened by Daniel Verdugo in 1958, it is now run by his sons Dani and Fidel, who make the bland, generic local lager Mahou taste heavenly with their rituals: iced 20cl glasses, carefully regulated gas pressure and barrel temperature, the obsessive cleaning of pipes and taps.

“A caña,” says Dani, “is more than just a glass of beer.” Add their simple seafood — grilled Galician scallops, Cantabrian anchovies in vinegar, white prawns from Huelva — all served without a smile. “A good barman,” says Fidel, “should have a touch of malla folla” [grumpiness]. The Verdugos are not competing for your business. They expect you to eat well, drink up — and move on. 


Ryanair, easyJet, British Airways, Norwegian and Iberia fly to Madrid from London.


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