Secret Eats: Skip the Dinner Reservations and Get Your Fill at Madrid's Mercados Instead

Why have one meal when you can have a dozen?

Death in the Afternoon is ostensibly Ernest Hemingway’s nonfictional account of the magnificence of bullfighting in Spain, but jet-lagged American travelers know it’s actually a secret reference to lurching awake at 3 p.m., fresh from the food desert of an international flight, and realizing that Madrid’s celebrated restaurateurs won’t be interested in feeding you for several hours.

Happily, standalone eateries aren’t the only (or most interesting) way to experience Madrid’s cuisine. The wondrous chaos of its mercados—markets in which tapas bars and produce stalls jostle for space with wine kiosks and specialty carts—begins before noon and clatters on until the small hours. Hemingway would approve, I think: “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night,” he wrote. “Appointments with a friend are habitually made for after midnight at the cafe.”

If you find yourself in Plaza Mayor, a massive seventeenth-century space in the center of the city (which once played host to bullfights, as it happens), skip a few blocks over to the much smaller Plaza de San Miguel, where the wrought-iron-and-glass Mercado de San Miguel (which first opened its doors in 1916) glitters like a jewelry box.

Fish stalls offer whipped bacalao, Galician preserves, grilled razor clams, and elvers (baby eels); specialty carts, in turn, feature everything from diminutive breaded croquetas (for noncommittal eaters who want to save room for a bite of everything) to heaping, saffrontastic plates of paella.

If, say, one half of your party has a fascination with jerez (sherry), he can purchase it by the glass at a specialty vintner; if the other half thinks it would be a good idea to skip trying to spend Thanksgiving abroad with a weird Spanish approximation of boring American holiday food and apply those funds to toasting with Cristal (which is also available by the glass, thanks to a local wine merchant that also operates a flamenco tavern a few streets away), why, she can do that, too.

Mercado de San Miguel is speckled with high-top tables and stools, but it’s not the sort of place where you make camp and spend an hour at a single location, unless you happen to get into an especially heated debate about Los Blancos and Atleti (Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, the city’s two professional football clubs); it’s the sort of place you swerve into on the way to Hammam al Andalus (Madrid’s traditional Arab baths, housed in excavated old cellars under the city) because you simply can’t go without a glass of cava and a couple of hunks of cheese. Coming and going isn’t just tolerated; it’s encouraged.

Just north of the midcentury-modern Jardines del Descubrimiento (dedicated in 1970 to the discovery of America), in turn, you can find your way into Platea, a 62,000-square-foot, five-floor space which opened in 2014. Once the Carlos III movie theater, Platea is now a mishmash of performance space, nightlife, bars, microrestaurants and free-floating fabulousness.

Don’t be intimidated by Platea’s elegant demeanor; though you’ll rub shoulders with Madrilenos in impeccable suits, it’s just as easy to assemble a moveable feast, as it were.

Vegetarians at Platea will find themselves with limited snacking options, but that doesn’t have to be a drawback; an excuse to go mercado-hopping is a fine thing, in fact.

On that note, consider...

...and go hungry.

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