We didn’t actually set out to eat at the oldest restaurant in the world. It just kind of happened.
The plan was to try cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) somewhere in Madrid, so we went online to find a place….and up popped Restaurante Sobrino de Botín. It may be very, very old, but it is on the internet.
The restaurant itself is right in the centre of Madrid, in Calle de los Cuchilleros – Knife Makers’ Street – which has a kind of medieval ring to it. To get there, you stroll through the splendour of the Plaza Mayor, surely one of the world’s great city squares.
Just up the road from the Botín is the Mercado de San Miguel, a cool place for an aperitif before lunch. I’m normally a sucker for Spanish markets, but this one is a bit different….it used to be a traditional wholesale market, but re-invented itself a few years back as a mercado gastronomico. It can be a bit crowded and touristy, but the building is beautiful – all iron columns and glass – and full of life, with some serious tapas on offer.
Leaving the Mercado and wandering down Calle Cuchilleros, we could see there was a crowd outside the restaurant. Uh-oh, we thought, there’s a queue. But no. Restaurante Botin is clearly a regular stop on the walking tour of central Madrid, and the crowd was just looking…thankfully not eating.
Sitting in the window, there’s a Guinness Book of Records certificate to prove the Botín really is very old indeed. It officially started life in 1725.
That’s 293 years ago. To give that a little context, on the day the first lunches were served at the Botín, the American Declaration of Independence was still more than 50 years in the future. Catherine the Great had just started ruling Russia. Oh, and Casanova was born that year too.
Once inside, we were ushered upstairs to a venerable comedor, all authentically wonky tiles on the wall and dark beams in the ceiling and shown to a rather cramped corner table.
Me to waiter: is there anywhere else we could sit, perhaps with a little more room?
Waiter to me: but caballero, do you not realise this was Ernest Hemingway’s favourite table?
Me to waiter: ah….in that case, we’ll stay right here.
And old Ernest definitely did eat at the Botín. He mentions the place in his 1926 novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ which is set partly in Madrid. The book’s narrator, Jake Barnes, tells how; “we lunched upstairs at Botíns. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.”
Not one of Hemingway’s more lyrical paragraphs perhaps. But the three bottles of wine at one lunch certainly sounds like the man himself. He spent a lot of time in Spain, was a big fan of Spanish culture in general, and a real aficionado of bullfighting; some of the action in The Sun Also Rises takes place during the bull-running Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona.
And he clearly wasn’t the only famous American to eat at the Botín: on the wall behind our table, a framed but fading letter on White House notepaper from Nancy Reagan, of all people.
She’d apparently popped in for a spot of lunch back in 1985 with Queen Sofia, while Ronnie sat down to talks with the Spanish PM Felipe Gonzalez. The politics of the time were a little tense, to put it mildly – the Cold War was still in full swing and Spain was threatening to pull out of NATO. There were anti-Reagan marches in Madrid, complete with ‘OTAN NO!’ and ‘Reagan Go Home’ banners.
But none of that seemed to have affected lunch at the Botín, if Nancy’s’ thank you letter is anything to go by. She may have been one of the battier inhabitants of the White House in recent years, but her letter is charm personified.
And the food? Well, the cochinillo was pretty good, cooked in an horno de leña (wood oven) that’s as old as the restaurant itself. The skin was nice and crispy in true Segovian style (Segovia, about an hour west of Madrid, claims the best cochinillo in Spain).
Just about everyone else in the place was eating it too, which is always a good sign. And they weren’t all tourists either…an even better sign.
© Guy Pelham 2018