Keeping up with restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid is a full-time job, believe me. I can hardly step out of the door without seeing some new place that seems to have opened overnight. While you have to try one of the traditional red-checked-tablecloths places in the city, there are some great new gourmet tapas bars - or gastrobars as they’re known - often with dishes devised by a Michelin-starred chef.
Madrid took a long time to wake up to delis, sandwich bars and the whole eat-on-the-go thing, but it is getting there now, which makes things a lot easier when you’re a tourist in town and just need a quick bite.
When I’m eating out with friends, we usually share a few starters, even in a smart restaurant, then order a main course each. And we often share desserts too. If I’m having lunch on my own - tragic I know - I normally go for the menú del dia, which is a real bargain for around 10 euros. You usually get three courses with wine, beer, mineral water or a soft drink. The concept is aimed at people who have to get back to work, so the meal is usually served within an hour and won’t mess too much with your sightseeing schedule.
* The price bands given in my recommendations are for three courses without wine.
* Lunch in restaurants is usually between 1.30pm and 3.30pm, and dinner from 9.30pm-11.30pm - these are the times the kitchen is open, with the restaurant staying open at least an hour later usually. You can eat outside these times in tapas bars and cafeterias, which are bars with plenty of tables and a good selection of uncomplicated hot food on the menu.
* The word menu in Spanish means a set meal. So remember to ask for la carta.
* It is often surprisingly expensive to eat out in Madrid these days. Starters can easily cost 8-12 euros, and main courses 12-24 euros. Desserts are usually 4-6 euros. House wine is approximately 9-13 euros, and a decent bottle of Rioja or Ribera del Duero is around 18-28 euros.
* Sharing tapas is a great tradition in Madrid and good fun too. Just bear in mind that ham, seafood and cheese can be quite pricey.
* A ración is a larger portion than a tapa, usually a small plate of food.
* If you only want a glass of wine with your meal, ask for una copa de vino tinto/blanco/rosado (red, white, rose). If you’re going to have two each, however, it’s probably cheaper to get a bottle.
* Don’t overtip. Just rounding up to the next euro is fine for coffees, beers and bills under 10 euros – but a lot of locals leave nothing at all. My Spanish friends don’t tend to tip more than 5% for meals, although personally I feel more comfortable leaving a bit more than that.
* ‘Smart casual’ clothes are fine for even the fanciest restaurant.