This post is part of our Love Letter series: first-person accounts of what we love about Madrid.
As a food tour guide and someone who has to regularly explain Spanish dining customs to the uninitiated, I’ve noticed that one aspect of Spanish dining that almost never ceases to pleasantly surprise is the concept of the menú del día, or menu of the day.
Ubiquitous, affordable, and traditional, it is a great way for any visitor to Spain to see how Spaniards dine on weekdays when lunches are shorter (read as: when lunch has to last about an hour).
So what is the menú del día in Madrid, anyway, and what makes it a must-try?
A weekday alternative to the hours-long Spanish lunch
Like many places in the Mediterranean region, here in Spain weekends and holidays are dedicated to big lunches.
Family gatherings and long lunches on the weekends begin with a pre-meal vermouth with some small nibbles before transforming into a proper sit-down, two-course-minimum lunch paired with beer and wine, followed by dessert, coffee, a digestif, and regularly finished off with gin and tonics to keep the sobremesa rolling (sobremesa being that famous post-meal conversation that to many Spaniards is a sacred and necessary climax to any special meal).
However, as you might expect, these long meals aren’t exactly favorable when you have to put in a few more hours in the office afterwards. I won’t go as far to say that no one takes a 30-minute lunch break at their desk in Spain, but it is definitely not the norm. And so how does your average Spaniard dine during the week? The answer here is the marvelously economical menú del día.
The idea is brilliant, and an astonishing feat for any restaurant owner. Offer a minimum of three first courses and three second courses, along with a drink, dessert and bread for an average price of €11.64 (or €12.50 in Madrid, according to a 2016 report) and you can manage to draw in all those who can’t manage to bring their lunch to work and want a simple sit-down meal. Remember that in Spain, attitudes about alcohol are different, and thus it’s totally normal to find construction workers, teachers, or bankers having a beer or wine with lunch—and sometimes finishing with liquor.
And what kind of food are we talking about? All the classics, and in most cases they will be homemade. Many of the classics I’ve had when invited over to a friend’s house for lunch—in essence, the staples of the Spanish kitchen—can be found on your common weekday lunch menu. Think lentils with sausage, vegetable puree, or a simple paella for the first course and then lamb chops, roasted chicken, or grilled fish for the second course. In Madrid it’s tradition in many restaurants to serve paella on Thursdays and cocido, Madrid’s classic chickpea stew, on Wednesdays (and you know they are both on your list of things to try).
Mastering the art of the menú del día
There’s a lovely tradition here of bringing homemade classics to working-class people at reasonable prices while valuing that sacred time in the middle of the day when we break from work and feed ourselves.
A great deal of my friends who live in the Malasaña district rave about their favorite menu of the day at Bar Selva (Plaza Mostenses, 7), a short walk from the touristy and mediocre offerings of Gran Via. Run by two brothers, Carmelo and Antonio, Bar Selva has an almost cult-like following: they haven’t raised their prices since 2012 due to both the recession and their desire to honor the local patrons.
The El Mundo newspaper wrote a piece in 2016 detailing the inner workings of their popular Madrid menú del día establishment. From the trick of making use of leftovers by incorporating them into the evening’s free tapa, to the cost-saving procurement of ingredients from the nearby Mostenses Market, to the sheer numbers of how many menus will need to be sold daily in order to make a profit (after the 35th, they start profiting), it’s very obvious that offering the variety and quality available in their menu of the day five days a week is quite an astonishing feat (Especially given that all food served is homemade and the restaurant is quite small.)
While working in an office in central Madrid, I once chatted with an employee at a local print shop our favorite local menús. I suggested Badila while he recommended Fuente de la Fama to me. Both at a similar price point of around €15, these would be your special occasion spots for a Thursday lunch out before a long weekend. I followed his suggestion and ate at Fuente de la Fama the following week while a friend was in town, and promptly thanked him after having some incredible paella and roast lamb.
The menús to avoid
While traveling in Spain, you may also notice a peculiar offering on Spanish menus: the menú turístico, or tourist menu. The two have a shared past with an interesting relationship.
With the “Spain is different” marketing campaign of the late 1950s, Spain saw an enormous increase in tourism from 2.9 million visitors in 1959 to 11.1 million visitors in 1965. Fascist dictator Francisco Franco decided to introduce legislation to implement the tourist menu and menu of the day to make sure all visitors could enjoy the famed local gastronomy.
What has happened in the nearly 60 years since the establishment of the menú turístico is that the former has become a predictable tourist trap, offering what tourists think they have to eat while in Spain, while the menu of the day has become a staple of weekday Spanish dining.
We all know the best way to experience the local cuisine is by eating in the homes of locals, but this will most likely be difficult for the average traveler. However, the next best thing is always a menú del día, nestled amongst the local construction workers in paint splattered clothes and nearby office workers cherishing our favorite time of the day: la hora de comer.
Badila: Homemade classic Spanish dishes with French influence. If you decide to eat here, come hungry, don’t touch the bread, share with your friends and take a nap afterwards.
Bar Selva (Plaza Mostenses, 7): As far as price is concerned, it is hard to beat. The mix of Malasaña hipsters and construction workers is a testament to its value and authenticity. And if you’re looking for cheap and stiff gin and tonics at night, it doesn’t get more local than here.
Kausa: Maybe you didn’t come to Spain for Peruvian food, but international cuisine and immigration is at the core of what’s shaping the Madrid food scene. For €10.50 you can have ceviche, roast chicken and the best passionfruit mousse you’ve never tried.
Taberna El Zorzal: Their menu is posted daily on social media. It is a bit pricier at €17, but well worth it for a look at the higher end of things.
Casa Macareno: A beautiful classic Spanish tavern located in the hip Malasaña district, the menu is traditional and delicious at €14.Want our insider’s guide to eating in Madrid? Just add your email address in the form below! ADD_THIS_TEXT
Spanish and American with a touch of Venezuelan, Oliver is a former English teacher turned full-time devourer and food tour guide.