Taberna La Carmencita, which once hosted poet Neruda and playwright Lorca, has been lovingly restored, along with time-honoured recipes, like this succulent baked sea bream.
At 160 years old, it is the second oldest restaurant in Madrid. It’s been through some troubled times in recent decades, including a long period of closure and an ignominious stint as a pizza restaurant. In the hands of restaurateur Carlos Zamora, it has had its old-time charm restored, and a thoroughly modern philosophy – slow food, locally sourced, with an emphasis on organic and free-range produce.
The colourful wall tiles are gleaming anew, as is the ancient zinc bar and the bronze luggage racks above the tables. Mismatched porcelain is everywhere and the old ladies who come for a cheeky morning vermouth sip it from elegant martini glasses. In one corner is the table where Pablo Neruda used to write his poetry. Federico Garcia Lorca lived in the flat above, and would come down to join the literati in late-night artistic gatherings.
The menu speaks of happy chickens and line-caught fish, artisanal cheeses and wild herbs. Classic recipes have been brought to life, among them the besugo a la madrileña, a mighty beast that lies slathered in onion, tomato and garlic, on a bed of sliced potatoes.
‘Although we have no port in Madrid,’ says chef Salvador Gonzalez Alcohol ado, ‘the besugo recipe dates back to the 19th century. It actually started out as a dish for the poor, but once it reached the ears of the nobility, it turned into a dish for royals.’ The fish comes from the market in Santander, in a specially refrigerated van.
‘For many years,’ says Salvador, ‘this has been a dish for people of every class, and you’ll find it in restaurants across Madrid. Its appeal is that it manages to be both simple and delicious at the same time.’