There's a truly wonderful street corner in Madrid, Spain - one of our absolute favorite cities - on which I've had so many memories both delicious and happy over the years. Walk down the steps leading away from the rather hidden, far southwest entry arch to Plaza Mayor, then bank a sharp right back up the block of Calle Cava de San Miguel to find the Mesónes: Small intimate taverns filled with wooden tables and stools, truly warm people who have worked here for decades, delicious food and sangría, and filled with tourists and locals alike such that you know you've come to the right spot.
The unique spaces help to make these places truly special. Even the largest are but a string of small rooms cut into the bricks of what feel like the oldest part of the city, winding their way back into the depths underneath the plaza above. There's nothing luxurious here, yet I've loved every minute of the hours I've sat on those little stools over the years. Each has unique special qualities, and they lend themselves to trying out until you find the perfect one for you. They are not to be missed when you visit Madrid.
Mesón del Champiñón
Ah yes, the perfect one for me. Sorry to show bias so quickly (they're all great), but Champiñón was my first, and it's the one I always go back to in the end. The smallest of them all, it's also the first one you come to on your right as you walk up the street, cut into the wall without any outdoor seating. Walk through the door and into another world, past the bar to the little main room where you'll often find a fellow playing his electric organ. José has been welcoming his guests here for decades, and he will surely have welcomed you by the time you sit down.
Champiñónes - mushrooms - are the predictable specialty here. They're cooked with a little chorizo in the center, and served ten to a plate. Pair them with anything else you wish, but don't miss them or the sangría that at this point I can't decide tastes the best in Madrid because it truly is, or because I'm always so happy when I sit down to drink it. Groups at the tables may eventually start singing, and if you're lucky you'll get caught up in it. The little clay jarras (pitchers) from which the sangría is poured are available for sale. I've had one sitting on my mantle at home for well over ten years, an ever-present reminder of one of my favorite places.
Mesón Rincon Cava
Turn right out of Champiñón to find Cava next door. This one is new to me in my meandering up the street. I'll urge you to try for yourself, though, because the interior spaces are the absolute best. All-brick with combinations of arches, ceilings high and low, winding doors that make you wish you kept your wine in this cellar, the whole works. There's also some nice outdoor seating on the terrace in front that should suck you in on a beautiful evening. The cava sangría is far too sweet for our tastes, so we recommend you stick with the traditional red variety.
Mesón de la Tortilla
Keep on the trail by turning right out of Cava to arrive at Tortilla. Named for the famous Spanish egg and potato dish, Tortilla is true to its name serving the best I've ever had. This is a must stop for this particular dish, and of course (surprise!) the sangría that goes with it. Mesón de la Tortilla is another that I've been acquainted with for years, but every time I bring someone new I am re-surprised by how its chain of little tavern rooms winds deeper and deeper away from the street. Unlike the history-conjuring bricks inside of Cava, Tortilla is playfully decorated with painted walls throughout. It's a party spot in my experience, and one that I prefer to visit earlier in the evening (relatively speaking).
Mesón el Huevo
Cross the street from Tortilla. I stopped in for the first time just last month at the invitation of a fellow out front - the proprietor, I assume - who introduced himself to me as Eddy. He speaks the best English on the street, and was really fun to banter with in my mixed Spanish and English as he asked me what we Americans are thinking with Donald Trump (I share his bewilderment). He clearly enjoys meeting out-of-towners and (obviously) showing them through his door. Once inside you'll notice that this place is the most polished and refined, perhaps straddling the line between mesón and sit-down restaurant. You'll still sit on wooden stools as you eat (and you must eat this) the paella. This is where you go for the paella.
Mesón la Mazmorra
Turn right again to arrive at Mazmorra, where you'll have the distinct feeling of entering a dungeon (this is by design) even when the place isn't decorated to the nines for Halloween. All of the action here happens down the stairs below the street, so don't be shy about walking in. Perhaps the first person you will run into is Marina, the proprietor, whose warmth and pride in her establishment are evident from the very first moment. Good if you can muster your best Spanish here, as she will try to speak with you. Mazmorra was also new to me just last month as I sought to branch out a bit in writing this post. Try the chorizo. I'm not sure it's their specialty in the way that Tortilla or Champiñónes represent their respective houses, but it certainly is delicious. Wash it down with sangría, naturally. Enjoy the cellar.
There are others on the street that I've not stopped into before, so explore yourself and share your favorite with us. You will forever remember the nights in Madrid you spend here.