The no-frills bar is intertwined with daily life in Madrid. From as early as 6 am, the clattering of commuters’ coffee cups begins, followed by the after-church breakfast crowd at around 10 am. The bar may also serve lunch, or at the very least a pincho de tortilla for the rushed punter.
The crowds slow through the afternoon, picking up again at around 6 pm, when various commuters return for a swift shot of whisky on their way home. Of course, at any time of day, there’ll be a few folk enjoying spurts of conversation with the bar staff, using each other’s names so much that you never need to formally introduce yourself – just join the discussion and become one of the locals.
Much like a municipal bin, a no-frills bar is never more than 50 metres away in the centre of Madrid. Going for an impromptu knees-up was never easier, be it at a train station, on a train, in a hospital or even next to a funeral parlour.
THE TRAIN-STATION BAR
One Cercanías stop from Atocha is Méndez Álvaro station – one of Madrid’s largest transport interchanges, serving thousands of commuters every day. A few levels below the surface, never seeing the light of day, you’ll find Cervecería El Andén. It’s in front of the gates to metro line 6, tucked behind the escalator to the Fuenlabrada platform.
This austere cabin bar with not a frill in sight feels as though it’s been here forever, to the point where I wonder if the station was actually built around it. Notice the fruit machine in the corner, sitting alongside dozens of white cups ready for those treating themselves to a mid-commute coffee break.
From the bar, you can see the departure board for the next Cercanías – perfect for an espresso or a shot of whisky before bracing yourself for the next leg of your journey.
Another bar of similar style stands at the top of the escalators in Leganés Central station – a cabin placed in one corner of the station and never moved, seemingly surviving well beyond the time it was originally assigned.
It has glass walls, and in the morning you can barely see beyond them due to the amount of people crammed in, giving you a feel for the town before setting foot out of the station. Working men keep this bar going, just as I’m sure it keeps them going after a hard day’s work. It’s Leganés summed up in a bar: a busy, no-frills commuter town with a contagious charm.
TABERNA DEL TREN
The bar on a train in Spain could give the Orient Express a serious run for its money. On a Friday evening, the atmosphere in the bar carriage of a long-distance train is electric. Take an excitable crowd from a regular no-frills bar, put them on a train to holiday land, mixed with good friends and happy families, and you’ve tapped into one arm of the Spanish dream galaxy.
THE HOSPITAL BAR
Even in these high-tech, sanitised institutions, there are no-frills cafeterías – just the sort you’d find on a street corner, with all the charm and hospitality you need for a potential second home while your loved one is in hospital. There are also notice boards where you can track the progress of operations.
Recently, a person I know was admitted to hospital, and while there I discovered this cafetería – not the sort that gives you a plate of chips on a tray, but a bar with alcohol and homemade bocadillos. A decent tortilla with your beer or piping-hot milk in your coffee makes it a comforting place to be, though there wasn’t the usual rubbish-strewn floor – this is a hospital, after all.
THE TANATORIO BAR
In Spain, a body must be buried within 24 hours of death, often resulting in a rush of visitors to the tanatorio (funeral parlour). Family are given a separate room adjacent to the deceased, where they stay and greet visitors for the time the body is there – although only during opening hours, and this is where the bar steps in.
Just as in the hospital, friends and relatives may also want to escape for a caña and tapa. You can find a sense of both relief and respect in these bars, but nothing else really sets them apart from your typical no-frills bar, because nothing really needs to.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NO-FRILLS BAR
We can begin to understand the important role the no-frills bar plays in Spanish life. Customers carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders may choose to seek comfort inside a bar, and often alongside jovial punters whose energy can carry through the room.
With such a cross section of stories coming together over a caña, the no-frills bar becomes an open book of life in Madrid – a vital community hub with optimism at its core.
This article was written in collaboration with political writer Edward Lawrence, an inquisitive Englishman in Madrid on a journey to understand the parallels and polarities between his native UK and now-home country, Spain.