Restaurante Sobrino de Botín

When I was in Madrid last month, one of the places I knew I had to visit was the Restaurante Sobrino de Botín (Botín’s Nephew’s Restaurant). This restaurant, which is very close to Plaza Mayor, is featured on Atlas Obscura, which is where I first learned of it. However, it’s in a lot of guidebooks and can be found on many websites because it has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest restaurant in the world still in operation. A certificate in the front window from Guinness reads, “The oldest restaurant in the world is Restaurante Botín, in Calle Cuchilleros, Madrid, Spain, which opened in 1725 and has been operating ever since; it even retains the original 18th century firewood oven. It is currently run by the González family.”

The restaurant is in what used to be an inn built in the 1500’s; it originally only took up the main floor, but now occupies all four floors. The current exterior dates back to a renovation in the 1800’s, when the large windows were added. Originally they displayed cakes and pastries, but now they showcase photos and articles on the left, and a miniature model of the interior of the restaurant on the right.

The large door to the right of the main entrance is carved with the year 1725, and it was installed at the time of the restoration that transformed the main floor into a restaurant. It would originally have been called an inn, then a tavern, under the name Casa Botín, because at first the proprietors were forbidden by law to sell the food, only to cook it for customers. Eventually the laws changed and they began to provide food as well as prepare it; the restaurant was passed down to Candido Remis, the Botín’s nephew, which is when the name changed (“sobrino” means “nephew”).

The miniatures in the window showcase all four floors, but for some reason I didn’t take a picture of the top one (which was showcased off to one side of the window).

The basement, with its vaulted brick ceilings, used to be the wine cellar.

The ground level is the original restaurant.

The second floor used to be lodgings (I believe the proprietors lived there), but has since been expanded.

On the sidewalk just out front of the building (you can see it roughly at the center bottom of the first photo) is a plaque installed by the City of Madrid. These plaques don’t stand out, but they’re out front of a lot of the city’s culturally important locations.

When my husband and I went for dinner, we were seated on the second floor. It was outside of the main tourist season and we arrived relatively early by Spanish dinner standards, around 8:00pm, so we didn’t end up needing a reservation. Even so, the restaurant was doing a very brisk business and table turnover was steady.

Given the mixed reviews that this place has received for its food (since the recognition by Guinness, a lot of people claim it’s just a tourist trap), I was quite happy with the food. The bread was fresh and tasty, with a crisp, flaky crust, and soft insides.

Since we had to be budget-conscious, we skipped appetizers and went straight for the main meal. It’s probably a good thing we did, because it was really filling! I had the suckling pig roasted in the restaurant’s original wood-fired ovens, served with boiled potatoes. It was plain but delicious, with the crackling skin being the most delectable part. The pork is a traditional regional dish and the pig itself was brought in from Segovia, where we were actually going the next day, and where I also had suckling pig. If I’d realized that these events were going to happen two days in a row I would probably have switched my dinner order in Segovia itself, but we had to decide weeks in advance what we were eating because it was a large group and a tour meal. The restaurant in Segovia was fantastic, and I’d say that the suckling pig at the two locations was comparable.

We declined dessert so that we could take a walk around the area around the main square to find ourselves a separate place for coffee and sweets. I had a lovely meal at the oldest restaurant in the world, and I can see why it has been in business for so long!

Royal Palace of Madrid

Like many tourists, one of my first stops during my visit to Spain was the Royal Palace of Madrid (“Palacio Real de Madrid” in Spanish). I actually visited twice on consecutive days, because I underestimated how long it would take to properly appreciate all of the exhibits and I wanted to give this beautiful complex the attention it deserved.

The Royal Palace is located right in the middle of the old city; buildings that are commercial on the ground floor and apartments (or sometimes hotels) above are separated only by a road and the public parks such as the Plaza de Oriente and Jardines de Sabatini. This means that you can get a good look at the palace even from outside of the gates. It’s possible to look right inside the Plaza de Armeria (the main courtyard) from the publicly-accessible area between the Catedral de la Almudena and the palace. The throne room is on the second floor right above the central doors, and looks over the courtyard and at the cathedral.

This is the statue of Charles III at the base of the grand staircase.

And this is the grand staircase from above, with a statue of Charles IV at the center. It is, quite simply, awe-inspiring in its grandeur.

On ceiling above the grand staircase (and, indeed, most of the ceilings inside the palace) is a fresco. As this is probably the biggest single room that I saw, I’d venture to guess that it’s also the largest fresco. It is by Corrado Giaquinto and depicts Religion Protected by Spain (although I have to admit I had to look that up after the fact, I was so gobsmacked by the palace that I forgot less-consequential things like artists and titles).

After this, though, I have very few photos of the palace, since there were only a few areas where photos were allowed. Suffice it to say that it is an exercise in opulence and incredible attention to detail. Also on the palace grounds is the armory, which contains fantastic examples of full plate armour (for men, children, and horses) alongside swords, crossbows, and other weapons. Most of the items on display belonged to royalty or upper nobility, so they are beautifully detailed as well. Of course I wasn’t allowed to take photos in there either.

One place that photography was allowed was an extra to the basic tour that I just had to go see: the royal kitchens. They are absolutely huge, which makes sense because they once played host to hundreds of people working at hot, sweaty, tiring jobs that eventually produced all of the food that royalty and nobility at the palace ate. Above is a selection of the kinds of copper and glass molds that were in use.

A wooden work table with the more delicate tools for preparing and decorating the foods prepared in the molds.

The station for washing vegetables.

The pastry station with its marble counter top for keeping the pastry dough cool (much as we still use marble rolling pins or rolling pins filled with cold water for the same purpose today — it keeps the lard or butter from melting, which makes the dough flaky).

Prep table in the room with the main ovens and stoves. The big rack in the background holds all of the different kinds of spits for roasting above the massive fireplace.

The stoves used wood as fuel and the smoke was vented through pipes that ran under the floor, which kept them from having to have overhead chimneys. I’m not sure how they managed to get the chimneys to draw correctly; apparently it was quite the feat of engineering. Notice the high ceilings for air flow; the kitchens were in the basement and the windows that light it and allow for air circulation are at ground level.

Here you can see another of the massive cast-iron stove/ovens, with the fireplace for spit-roasting in the background.

Back when these kitchens were in use, they were often written about by visitors who were impressed by how much work it took to feed the upper classes in the manner to which they were accustomed. They also wrote about how the kitchens ran like a well-oiled machine, or they compared it to a military operation. I personally have a hard time imagining the monumental task it must have been to make these kitchens anything but absolute chaos. My hat is off to the generations of people who worked here.

St. James Restaurante Juan Bravo

I am very happy to be able to say that I just spent ten days in Madrid, Spain! I prefer to write about trips after the fact because it’s generally not a good idea to announce to the world that your house is empty while you’re out of town. But I returned last night, jet-lagged as all get out, and now it’s time to write all about it.

Due to the jet lag I think I’m going to keep this one fairly short and sweet, and I’ll tell you a bit about the fancy group dinner that we had at Saint James Restaurante Juan Bravo. I believe that our hosts wanted us to get a chance to try some good, traditional Spanish food, which is the specialty of this restaurant. Most of us had paella, which is a slow-cooked, savoury rice dish with many variations. Above is Valencian paella, which includes chicken, rabbit, vegetables and snails.

These Norway lobsters (which are much smaller and more delicate than the American lobsters I’m familiar with from our East Coast) and prawns came on the side of a paella that also included chicken, vegetables, mussels and squid.

The crowning glory, at least for me, was the paella with Galician lobster, which is what my husband and I had. This serving was for at least four people (all of the paellas had to be ordered in portion sizes for two people or more), but I could have eaten all of that delicious lobster all by myself. The rice was also amazing, but it paled in comparison to the seafood. It was obvious to me that all of the dishes were prepared with care and pride, and the depth of flavour is where this showed the most.

This was the one and only time I tried paella in Spain, but it was absolutely delicious, so I hope that it was a good representation of the dish. It definitely makes me want to learn how to make it myself, especially since Spanish restaurants are few and far between around here. I think I’d have to keep the ingredients for homemade versions a little more simple, though; eating like kings while on vacation is definitely different than what we can afford to have every day at home. Maybe I should just keep an eye out for a sale on lobster…