Since 1961, El Brillante has been the first and last port of call for millions of Atocha’s passengers. A first caña stood at the bar sets the tone for the rest of your stay, and that final bocadillo de calamares leaves you with a belly full of fondness for Madrid. Being in such a prime spot for more than half a century, El Brillante has predictably also caught the eye of a lot of tourists, yet this Madrid bar effortlessly holds on to its deep-rooted Spanish veracity.
El Brillante is as atmospheric and rammed as a busy neighbourhood bar, and its size has inevitably turned things up a notch: hear your order shouted across the bar and feel the shards of your shattered inner peace hit the litter-strewn floor. Your battered calamari rings are already being deep-fried in olive oil as though the place knew you were coming, and your bocadillo de calamares is served up less than half a minute later. It’s delicious, and still one of the best in Madrid – as are their chocolate con churros.
“When I was a child, I used to come here every Sunday with my father. We’d take a train to Atocha, come for a bocadillo de calamares and then go to El Rastro.” – Rubén
El Brillante runs an impressive operation – it’s colossal and has a capacity of 147, but no one’s counting on a Sunday lunchtime, when this number must easily double. The bar extends for the depth of an entire block and has two entrances: one on Ronda de Atocha and another on the square in front of the Reina Sofia, where it has a terrace. Some say that bars with two opposing entrances were popular places for secret anti-Franco meetings, so that if the police entered, you could escape out the other entrance.
The bar is lively – every waiter and waitress is suited up and ready for the growing multinational crowd hastily grabbing a spot at the bar, and it looks like a fun place to work. I was a waitress, and nothing quite beats a busy shift of bright-eyed customers.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
I had mixed reviews from my madrileño friends: some said it was touristy, overpriced and not how it used to be, and others were life-long fans and routinely for a bocadillo de calamares with their family. Either way, this is a successful family business that’s been bringing a devoted crowd through its doors 18 hours a day, every day, for 56 years – and there’s simply no other place like it any more. The owner of El Brillante is one of two brothers – the other brother owned El Diamante in La Latina, another proud Madrid bar. Unfortunately, he was getting “very old and tired”, according to one of the staff I spoke to a couple of months ago, and El Diamante sadly closed its doors for good just before Christmas.
El Brillante, on the other hand, shows no signs of giving up – I’d like to think that it’s just too well-known and popular, but so was El Diamante. Half a dozen waiters lost their jobs overnight, and La Latina lost one of its favourite neighbourhood bars.
We can only hope that Madrid’s much-loved station bar will be there forever but, for now, let’s enjoy it while we still can.