Living Museums

“We owe our success to the Gay community”: Chueca’s Restaurante El Bierzo turns 50 this year

16 February 2021

Authors: Tamar Shemesh and Davide Caroleo

Restaurante El Bierzo in the heart of Chueca celebrates 50 years of existence this month. Run by 80-year-old Miguel Gonzales Sastre, El Bierzo stands firm as a rock and is one of the few restaurants in the area to serve homemade, traditional Spanish dishes, with a menu that has been the same for half a century.

Miguel tells us that several decades ago, Chueca was considered a dangerous barrio.

Hospitality people who wanted to open a new place didn’t want to invest in this neighbourhood. I started the business with my brother. The owner of the building used to come to Madrid very often. One day he proposed that I buy the property from him.

Miguel raised the necessary money, and became the owner of the place. Indeed, it was a good investment because throughout the years, dangerous Chueca became proud Chueca. With the growth and development of the LGBTQ+ community, and the transformation of the neighbourhood, the restaurant began to host and feed a community that was on the rise. Miguel recognises and associates the restaurant’s success to the LGBTQ+ community.

During the first nights, one director of a cosmetic company began to dine here. He was gay. One time he came with two young boys. From there, more people from the community began to eat here. One day that director asked me: “Hey Miguel, what do you think of us?” and I said to him “Andrés, according to me, everyone is free to do whatever they want with their body.” Then he replied:  “Look Miguel, this neighbourhood is the most important pink neighbourhood in Europe, and you are going to be one of the most benefited from that, because you have the type of food that we like, traditional homemade food.

El Bierzo is a monument to historical Spain that sits somewhat juxtaposed within a modern, vibrant and bubbly barrio that prides itself on anything but tradition.

The food here has a tradition of 100 years. In total, there are my two children, my daughter in law, the wife of my son, Emilio, a lady who helps us in the kitchen, my wife and me. A family business.

Throughout the years, Miguel had the pleasure of hosting many clients from the cultural, literary and political fields:

Several ministers were my clients. Also Alrédo Pérez Rubalcaba, Fátima Báñez, and then I also have a book of signatures of important people who passed through here. Fernando Savater, a well-known philosopher. Alex de la Iglesia and more.

Miguel is proud to show us the book of memoirs he holds, with various paintings, signatures and words of blessings – a testimony of the magnificent heritage this place carries.

We speak with one of the clients of the restaurants, Diego, who has been coming here often for the past five years.

It’s an old restaurant with traditional food, which is a bit hard to find in this area. Many restaurants open and close here. This is a family restaurant. My favourite dish here is ‘el pisto de calabaza’ (pumpkin ratatouille).

When asked about how the pandemic has affected business, Miguel’s optimism lulls.

Well, now it’s very bad because there are no tourists, there is no movement (‘movida’), and many people who used to come here during their lunch break now eat at home, which is where they’re working.

Miguel is hopeful that things will go back to normal because…

This is my life and has been my life since 1971. I’ll be here until I can’t do it anymore.

INFO


Tamar Shemesh is a documentary, street and portrait photographer and photojournalism graduate of Efti Madrid. You can follow her work via Instagram here.

Davide Caroleo is an editorial translator whose work has been published on an editorial level and in various online literary magazines.

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1 Comment

Bathory 17 February 2021 at 7:58 pm

Nice place! and authentic no frills restaurant with real homemade food. Also an island in the ever changing Chueca hospitality landscape.

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