Our time-capsule adventure began on Knife Maker Street, staring up at the third floor balcony of a weathered red brick building. The narrow railing’s third iron rung from the right was broken jaggedly in two.
“Shrapnel damage,” Joanna, our Insider’s Madrid guide and historian-for-the-day, said matter-of-factly. The mangled metal has been patiently waiting for a repair since in the 1930s, when artillery from a nearby Spanish Civil War battle smashed into the facade of this nearly 300-year-old restaurant.
The balcony, like so much of this restaurant, unassumingly wears the evidence of Madrid’s tumultuous history. First opened in 1725, Restaurante Sobrino de Botín is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. That means the enticing aromas from Botín’s wood-burning ovens have been filling Calle Cuchilleros through 13 monarchs, four political coups and uprisings, two world wars and a brutal civil war.
And yet I’ve spent two years avoiding this icon of Madrid’s antiquity. Located a mere block of Plaza Mayor, Botín is smack dab in the center of Touristville, aka my self-drawn Madrid no-go zone. It’s the go-to restaurant for commercial guides to the city and is typically packed with camera-totting foreigners (and yes I realize that I fall squarely into this unfortunate group).
But when the opportunity arose to explore Botín beyond the tourist menu with a trusted expert from Insider’s Madrid, I couldn’t pass it up. While the restaurant’s fame comes from its traditional Castilian food, the enchantment of Botín for me came from the web of stories that weave from its awning brick ovens to its marble tables.
Over its 300 year history, Botín has served some of Spain’s most revered artists, poets and writers alongside presidents, prime ministers and kings from across the globe. Four years ago the current King and Queen of Spain reserved a table under a false name in order to dine in the third-floor Phillip IV dining room. A letter from Nancy Reagan thanking Botín for the great meal she had there with the former Queen Sofia hangs above the table where Ernest Hemingway used to pass the afternoons with a notebook and a bottle of Rioja. Hemingway would reportedly host raucous, wine-drenched lunches with Spanish bullfighters in the restaurant’s second floor Castilian dining room.
Three floors down the moss-covered arches of Botín’s bodega were once part of an elaborate web of tunnels secretly linking the Royal Palace with hideouts throughout the city. Today, full wine racks still line the cut-off tunnels, although every bottle here was destroyed by a flood.
Throughout the centuries Botín has been run by only two families. It was first opened by the Frenchman Jean Botín shortly after Madrid became the capital of Spain in the 17th century. Evidence of Botín’s connection to nobility (and thus plenty of Spanish gold) are in the ceilings, where the thick chestnut-wood beams are built close together, helping the structure withstand the centuries.
In the 1930s the quick wit of the González family kept the restaurant open during the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s troops tried to run them out-of-town. Owner Emilio González offered his kitchen as a dining hall for the troops, protecting his family and keeping food on the table during the strict rationing of the war.
After 45 minutes of spelunking our way through Botín’s history, Joanna led us to the sunbeams of a window-side table. With the ghost of Hemingway watching us from his corner table across the room, a parade of traditional central-Spain dishes marched across my plate.
Crusty bread accompanied Manchego cheese and roasted red peppers. Then came cured ham croquetas, a blood sausage scramble and seared mushrooms tossed with ham strips. And those were just the starters.
For our main dish we devoured one of Botín’s specialties, roast suckling pig. These 20-day-old piglets are brought in daily from Segovia, the cochinillo capital of Spain. They are seasoned with bay leaves, smoked paprika and white wine then slow roasted in Botín’s three-century-old wood fire oven. The skin is crunchy. The meat is succulent. The experience is one-of-a-kind.
Hemingway wrote that Botín was “one of the best restaurants in the world” located in “the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in.” Madrid, he wrote in Death in the Afternoon, has “the finest people, month in and month out the finest climate… One feels overwhelmed by desperation when realising that someday, we will have to die and leave all this behind.” I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Hemingway.