No-frills barsSecret Madrid

Ajenjo Café: Malasaña’s best kept secret

25 September 2016

Despite Ajenjo Café’s veiled windows and modest location, it’s well on Madrid’s beaten track; it’s appeared in several newspapers (e.g. El País), magazines (e.g. Vogue) and guidebooks (e.g. Lonely Planet). With all this attention, surely there’s a catch. We all know the pattern: wonderful = popular = touristy = shit. Yet somehow Ajenjo Café hasn’t fallen victim to this atrocious pattern and has kept its charm, dignity and low footfall.

I’ve been running this place since 1978, and the carrot cake is still the best in Madrid – my wife makes it. I used to get up to 2,000 people in here a day – you couldn’t move! I had to hire three waiters to manage the place! Now it’s just me. Malasaña has changed a lot. It’s always changing, but people still come to me because they love it here.”

The dust may have settled in Ajenjo Café but, with nearly 40 years under its belt, the place has developed a ghostly charm that fills your head with visions of its heyday: literati movers and shakers are waving cocktails at each other over the marble tabletops while Helios and his waiters jaunt through the labyrinth of rooms keeping the thinkers inspired (inebriated with Pilsner Urquell). The swing music and silver-print photos of family and old regulars add to this haunting vibe, especially the one of Helios’s parents that takes prime position above the snug.

CAKE AND TEA

The carrot cake is as good as Helios built it up to be, but he skilfully left out a couple of surprises: it came with two homemade shortbread biscuits, and my pot of black tea was spiced. By the time I noticed the cardamom and cloves perfusing my aura, Helios was already gesturing towards his tea selection behind the bar. “I choose the finest teas for Ajenjo Café – I don’t necessarily know what they are but I know they’re the best.” This was all followed by a highly unpredicted shot of crema de orujo and an inevitable photoshoot:

The carrot cake, homemade biscuits and incredible chai tea

The carrot cake, homemade biscuits and incredible chai tea

"Almost everything is the same since the day I opened, and the telephone still works - see?"

“Almost everything is the same since the day I opened, and the telephone still works – see?”

Ajenjo Café's stunning bar

Ajenjo Café’s stunning bar

Original floral fabric from 38 years ago still lines the booths around the perimeters of each room

Original floral fabric from 38 years ago still lines the booths around the perimeters of each room

The middle room of Ajenjo Café with black and white photos of regulars and family members

The middle room of Ajenjo Café, with black and white photos of regulars and family members

A pencil drawing by a local punter: Ajenjo Café in full swing

A pencil drawing of Ajenjo Café by a local punter

Two separate rooms: On the right is the cosy cove with a photo of Helios's Asturian parents on the wall

Two separate rooms: on the right is the cosy alcove, with a photo of Helios’s Asturian parents on the wall

The modest front of Ajenjo Café

Ajenjo Café’s modest exterior

INFO

  • Address: C/ Galerías de Robles, 4
  • Nearest metro: Bilbao & San Bernado
  • Opening hours: Mon-Fri: 3.30 pm–1.30 am / Sat-Sun: 3 pm-2.30 am
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