Monday, 13 October 2014

Madrid's gourmet markets: Style over substance?

Once upon a time, you’d go to a market to pick up your daily groceries. Fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, maybe some herbs and spices. Standard stuff. A few years ago, this time-honoured tradition started to change in Madrid. In 2009 when I first lived in the city, the wrought-iron and glass Mercado de San Miguel reopened as a gourmet market. After closing down due to low profits, this market next to Plaza Mayor was relaunched with a new focus. Sure, you can still buy fruit and veg there: there’s one lone, overpriced stall of glossy Granny Smiths and bold yellow bananas. The rest of the market is given over to tapas stalls and drinks bars, with a seating area in the centre so that visitors can tuck in at a table. When it opened, my friends and I thought it was a great idea, and enjoyed many a Friday night glass of wine to wash down a couple of inexpensive tapas. But as time has gone by, this creative idea to regenerate a city market has proven so popular with tourists that the Mercado de San Miguel is often overcrowded. And that’s before we mention the invasion of non-Spanish brands like Heineken and the peddling of flamenco tablao tickets.

However, El Mercado de San Miguel is no longer the only gourmet market in Madrid. Other failing mercados around the city have seen the success of their central counterpart and tried to replicate its formula. A couple of years ago, the much more sizeable Mercado de San Antón in Chueca reopened as a four-storey food lover’s paradise, complete with basement supermarket, ground floor market, first floor tapas stalls and bars and a rooftop restaurant and bar. As it’s much more spacious than El Mercado de San Miguel, it manages to feel a little less like a tourist haven, no doubt aided by its location slightly out of visitors’ usual radius. The fact that there are a few food stalls characteristic of mercados de toda la vida as you enter also helps: there’s a fishmonger, a couple of butchers, a baker and fruit and veg stalls. I’m not sure how many locals pop in for their weekly shop though: produce tends to be high-end and pricier than your average food market, but still, it’s good to see that groceries are more than a token offering. There’s a slight corporate air about the place, however: tapas stalls are organized by country or region, with Greek and Japanese offerings as well as stalls serving food from the Canary Islands and more typical Spanish fare.

Upstairs, the Cocina de San Antón restaurant is run by the Cinco Jotas chain, but they’ve managed to inject personality into the place, with a quirkily-written menu of reputedly market-fresh dishes, including the option to buy meat in the market below and have it cooked for you (more expensive than just going à la carte, surely?). This gimmick aside, there’s a good range of decently-priced food, including several vegetarian and pescetarian options (such as a vegetable taco with smoked tofu and quinoa), all served in a bright, modern setting. Unconventionally, the ‘outdoor’ area has a roof, but given that one ‘wall’ is open it manages to be deemed exterior and therefore serves as the restaurant’s smoking section. There’s also an open-air bar where you can enjoy a (pricey) cocktail or a glass of wine. It gets quite lively on weekend nights.

Inside El Mercado de San Ildefonso. It's a market, OK?

But it’s not just ailing markets that have been given the gourmet treatment: some businesses have jumped on the bandwagon and created new food ‘markets’. And you can't blame them for trying: the trend shows no sign of dying down, with Madrid's gourmet markets bustling any night of the week. One such place is El Mercado de San Ildefonso on Calle Fuencarral. The ‘market’ label is hard to stomach here, given that this place was previously a shop, but admittedly it does label itself a ‘street market’. It’s now a two-storey space with a mezzanine terrace bar. It’s rather lacklustre downstairs with just a couple of stalls, but upstairs you can find a bar and more food, including offerings from local restaurant My Veg and pescaíto frito from Frit and Go. With its sleek design and outdoor bar, El Mercado de San Ildefonso is clearly aiming to appeal to hipsters (both locals and tourists), but you can hardly blame the owners given the location. It may be a clear case of trend-hijacking, but I can’t deny it’s nice enough for a midweek drink and a snack – even if it isn’t really a market.

Glitzy Platea

The market concept sits even more oddly at this year’s big opening, swanky Platea in equally swanky Salamanca (the barrio, not the city). Before visiting recently, I couldn’t fathom what on earth Platea was from its website (a 'show', apparently). Even having seen it for myself it’s hard to categorize, but Platea is a swish converted theatre with a ground floor devoted to dining and imbibing: there are (you guessed it) market-style stalls all around the perimeter, with stylish seating areas in the middle of the vast space. There’s also a delicatessen-style shop with an entrance on Calle Goya selling all manner of produce. The stalls here are decidedly pricier than most markets, with tapas starting at €2.50 for a rather sad-looking mini burger or a montadito.  Upstairs, there are three mezzanine levels in what would have been the theatre’s privileged seating positions: nowadays, they house a restaurant, a cocktail bar and a controversial (and poorly-ventilated) smoking room. Platea’s a chic stop for a drink if you fancy hobnobbing with Salamanca types, but if you’re watching your cents I’d skip the tapas.

Given the fact that two new venues in this category have opened this year, the ‘gourmet market’ formula doesn’t look set to disappear any time soon. In times of crisis, it’s good to see businesses revive and thrive – but not at the expense of small local traders, who are often overshadowed by these corporate-funded initiatives, and although a bit of competition is healthy, they often don't have the finances to keep up with big PR campaigns. I’m all for the revival of markets, but something of their essence needs to be preserved; they need to feel like the sort of spot an abuela would pop into for a kilo of patatas and stop for a coffee and a pincho de tortilla while young business people prefer to drop in for an after-work vermouth and some olives. With tourism such an important source of income for the Spanish economy, I’m all for visitors getting involved too, but the owners of these places need to ensure that tourism doesn’t dominate and that locals still feel that the markets are relevant to them – the tacky tablao advertising can go for a start.

Sandwich Mixto in Anton Martin market. Photo from their website.

Perhaps the best compromise can be found at the Mercado de Antón Martin and the Mercado de San Fernando in Lavapiés, which have somehow managed to largely bridge the gap between mercado de toda la vida and gourmet food market. The Mercado de San Antón has given its image a 21st century update by diversifying its stalls to include Japanese food and some more unusual concepts: at Sandwich Mixto, you can stop for a coffee, cake, sandwich or glass of wine – and pick up a fanzine by a Spanish artist at the same time. The twist on the traditional continues with stalls offering tastings and aperitivos, while the market also organizes workshops and other events. The strong community feel is just as evident over at the Mercado de San Fernando, and is evident even from its website, where each comerciante is named and often photographed. The mercado’s long-standing stallholders sell all the usual fresh produce, and you’ll also find shoe repairs, a bookshop and a pharmacy – plus a few bars and stalls where you can stop for a bite to eat. These include Bar Mochuelo, which offers typical dishes like grilled sardines and callos a la madrileña (that’s tripe, folks) and Komoeencasa, which offers ‘ready-made’ dishes to eat in or takeaway. The longest-standing bar, Bar Barroso, opened in 1942 – and given the down-to-earth, real atmosphere of this market, you can only hope it will continue serving for many years to come.

Have you visited any of Madrid's gourmet markets? Are there any in your city? What's your opinion – go gourmet or stay traditional?

If you're a food fan, you might be interested in checking out MadrEAT in Madrid, a street food market taking place on 18 & 19 October in the Real Jardin Botanico de la Complutense, Avenida Complutense (Metro Ciudad Universitaria). Vendors include El Chirinwito, Cervezas La Virgen, Goiko Grill, Toma Café and many more. 


  1. Great post! I have to admit, I get sucked in by these markets, but I understand that they've completely revamped the traditional mercados for tourists and trendy crowds. Still something about "gourmet tapa" just makes my mouth water!

    1. Thanks Paige! I share your dilemma. I do enjoy the occasional visit too, especially when I have visitors as they seem to really enjoy the markets - I doubt they'd feel the same about going to a traditional one for a bag of oranges! I think the city needs a balance, as it would be sad to see all the markets end up like this. Still, I suppose whatever brings money into Spain is a good thing!

  2. Hi Kate,
    It's great to read what I've been thinking - I completely agree with you. Thankfully we have a lovely foodmarket in Santander which is 100% real and also very beautiful. I've seen stall-owners elsewhere suffer following 'revamps' along the lines of what you describe above. If you haven't seen the Santander market, I've blogged about recently here
    All my best

    1. Thanks for your comment, Pamela!I've just been over to your blog and the market in Santander looks fantastic. It also looks like something the Madrid 'markets' could learn a lot from - you can hopefully increase the profitability of a place with sensible promotion and initiatives like the exchange you participated in. And catering to visitors doesn't have to mean selling out. I'll have to visit the market next time I'm in Santander!
      All the best,


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