[I was in my car when I got a call from SB Sandy. Had I heard the news? Anthony Bourdain killed himself. I wasn’t surprised. Anthony Bourdain was my longtime travel companion. I followed him through Parts Unknown, No Reservations, and even The Layover. I slaughtered a pig with him in the South Pacific, went spearfishing off the coast of Sicily, and gotten hammered on the streets of South Boston. Sometimes the first words SB Sandy would say to me in the morning were “So where did you and Tony go last night?”
I wasn’t surprised by his death, but greatly saddened. He was a complicated guy. Part of me thought he just wanted to cut out at the top of his game. The other part thought he was distraught at the shortcomings of his most recent relationship. Another part of me just thought he made a mistake. So Tony’s gone, but not forgotten. I still watch his shows occasionally. They hold up remarkably well, because they are never about just the food. SB SM]
from the Boston Globe, September 6, 2023
A 70-year-old Madrid restaurant was near its end. Then Anthony Bourdain arrived.
Retracing the late chef’s steps in the Spanish capital is a culinary adventure that can’t be missed.
By Guillermo Fesser Updated September 6, 2023
It is July of 2010, and I’m back home in Madrid on vacation. People across Spain are reveling in the aftermath of the men’s soccer team’s victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup final, and the excitement is contagious. My teenage son Nico and his four visiting American friends embody the indescribable emotion of Andrés Iniesta’s decisive goal as if they’d scored it themselves. I’m swept up, too. “¡Vamos!” I exclaim, corralling my family and guests for a spontaneous expedition to the city center for tapas.
Just then, the phone rings. A voice that I can’t exactly place introduces herself as Lucy García, a South African television producer based in Barcelona who has a favor to ask. Oh, man, I had completely forgotten about her. She had contacted me 10 days before about an American chef who needed to do some filming in Madrid.
The chef is scheduled to visit the Mercado de San Miguel, a gleaming, 13,000-square-foot market of cast iron and glass that’s a treat for both the eyes and taste buds. I’d agreed to help arrange the visit, but I’m caught off guard by the phone call. Lucy believes I’ll be playing tour guide for the chef, a role I’m not exactly prepared for on this day: I’m on vacation and an entire country is partying around me.
But Lucy persists. “You don’t understand,” she says. “It has to be you.”
She has her reasons. In 2003, I was part of a small group of dreamers who fought to save the Mercado de San Miguel from almost-certain demolition. Seven years and many struggles later, it’s a restored historical landmark, tourist destination, and business model for other markets around the country. Anthony Bourdain is intrigued, Lucy explains.
“Anthony who, again?” I’m ashamed the name does not ring a bell. Lucy assures me I won’t regret meeting him. I glance at the open door where my wife and the kids are standing, ready to leave; I’ve got a gastronomic dream walk in mind, but there’s no way out. The chef is expecting me at the market, and I’m slated to be interviewed as a local expert on his show. Now.
I break the bad news to my family, promising to meet them later at the market with a big plate of Iberian ham. “¡Vale!” — “Deal!” — shouts my young daughter as I rush out the door. It seems surreal. I’m off to celebrate the Spanish victory in Spain . . . with this Anthony Bourdain, an American stranger.
A stone’s throw from the Plaza Mayor — Madrid’s epicenter — Mercado de San Miguel (+34 915 424 936; mercadodesanmiguel.es/en) is a must-visit and one of the city’s prime tourist attractions, with more than 10 million visitors a year. Built in 1916 — inspired by the famed Les Halles market in Paris — this crystal palace restored majesty to the site where, a century earlier, a revered medieval church was torn down during the French invasion of Spain. Today, it is a wonderland of modern tapas and, as Bourdain would later observe, “emblematic of Madrid’s continued rebirth.”
For first-time visitors, the best way to start exploring is by walking around to get familiarized with the space and its gastronomic offerings. Then, you can begin to order small plates and drinks from the more than 30 stands and enjoy them at one of the high tables with stools at the center of the market. Or you can order a dish — and a drink — at one of the bars in the market’s wings.
I find Bourdain at the entrance, inspecting with sincere curiosity the building’s architecture, and we immediately hit it off. His enthusiasm is contagious and clicks perfectly with my passion for storytelling.
He’s especially intrigued by the lighting that was installed to add dramatic depth to the wooden stalls where food is sold. He bombards me with questions about the “spectacular seafood from Galicia,” the sweet manzanilla olives, the crunchy croquettes, the dried and salted cod, and other delicacies we observe at the immaculate white marble counters of the vendors.
Before I realize it, the camera starts rolling and Bourdain is in his element, complimenting “the pornographically delicious jamón” on display at Carrasco Ibéricos (+34 923 580 420; carrascoibericos.com/en), a family-owned business specializing in ham, sausage, and Iberian pork, which we enjoy on the spot with a glass of “excellent Rioja wine.”
Then, we head to Daniel Sorlut Oysters (+34 915 591 041; ostrasorlut.com/en/), whose farm-to-table products are sold worldwide. We split a dozen fresh La Fine de Claire oysters, rich with intense ocean flavor, savored with a glass of Catalonian cava from Pinkleton & Wine (+34 915 429 199). At one of the market’s taverns — now the site of Arzábal (grupoarzabal.com/espacio/arzabal-market), a traditional taberna with a diverse selection of Basque finger foods, such as the popular grilled rice sausage topped with apple and Gernika green peppers — Bourdain and I discover we share a passion for being able to eat a great dish right next to the place where the ingredients are sold. Glorious tapas concocted by “the new breed of cutting-edge Spanish chefs that made this country the focus of so much attention worldwide,” as he puts it. I have to nod in agreement. Gracias.
Once the camera stops rolling, Bourdain asks to meet my family and share a couple of beers with us. As soon as the American teenagers see him coming with me, their jaws drop. Suddenly, I understand that besides the privilege of meeting a very charming soul, I’m in the presence of a true American celebrity.
When Bourdain asks me to recommend a restaurant of historical interest where he can film later, I reflexively think of Casa Salvador (+34 915 214 524; casasalvadormadrid.com) — a spot that Lucy has scouted ahead of the visit. “You’re going to love it,” I tell him, adding that in the 1950s, it was the place where the Spanish matadors met the American divas.
Bourdain’s eyes light up. “Do you know the chef?”
“Do I know Pepe?” I ask rhetorically, dialing his number on my cellphone. Minutes later, everything is confirmed.
What follows surprises me — an invitation from Bourdain to join him at the taberna for dinner. “Of course I’ll come,” I say, captivated by his remarkable talent for understanding cultures. If only La Melguiza (lamelguiza.es), Spain’s premier saffron store and a two-minute walk from the market, had been open then (it opened in 2017), I know Bourdain would have marveled at it.
Madrid is a foodie’s paradise. For those looking for a more extensive culinary adventure after a couple bites at the Mercado de San Miguel, I suggest a 2-mile food crawl combining some extraordinary city sightseeing with an exciting tapas experience.
My starting point, right behind Puerta del Sol square, is Casa Labra (+34 915 310 081; casalabra.es), specializing in the most delicious tajada de bacalao (fried cod) you could ever imagine. Walk a few more minutes, past the Palacio de las Cortes, where the lower house of parliament convenes, and arrive at the beautifully tiled facade of Taberna La Dolores (+34 914 292 243; instagram.com/tabernaladolores/?hl=es). There, just say the magic words, “Una caña, por favor,” and quench your thirst with the best poured beer in all Madrid — a draft cerveza served in a small glass, topped to perfection with a crest of foam. Bravo! Pair that with a plate of anchovies and a portion of typical ensaladilla (potato salad), which comes with shavings of Mediterranean tuna and is dressed with our culinary pride: homemade mayonnaise.
After a gentle walk through three major historical squares (Neptuno, Cibeles, and Puerta de Alcalá), sample the flavors of Andalucía at Restaurante La Giralda (+34 915 764 069; restauranteslagiralda.com). The coquinas de huelva (little clams sautéed with sherry wine) are a must-try, as are the crispy tortillitas de camarón (pancakes of tiny prawns). Olé! Two blocks away is Taberna Elcano (+34 911 523 792; instagram.com/elcanorestaurante/?hl=en), Madrid’s temple to the tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelet). A well kept secret, Elcano offers plenty of tortilla variations, but the clásica never disappoints. Finally, walk along the promenade by the pond in the romantic El Parque Buen Retiro and arrive at the grand finale, Castelados (+34 910 515 625; castelados.com). Everything here is superb, but I would definitely order gambas al ajillo, to make my companions experience the unique explosion of flavors that emerge from this amazing combination of juicy garlic prawns and monkfish. It’s irresistible. I dream about it at least once a week.
Just before the sun sets, I meet Bourdain at Taberna de Ángel Sierra (+34 915 310 126; tabernadeangelsierra.es), one of film director Pedro Almdóvar’s favorite haunts, where we enjoy a house vermouth. Then, it’s off to Casa Salvador. Bourdain immediately falls in love with the restaurant’s history, reflected in the portraits of bullfighters, movie stars, and celebrity writers adorning the walls — capsules of a time when Ernest Hemingway was a regular customer, and the Hollywood producer Samuel Bronston would show up for dinner with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.
He is also enamored by Pepe Blázquez, who’s been running the kitchen since 1976. Pepe is the nephew of the restaurant’s founder, Salvador. Gifted with a photographic memory, he regales his guests with stories of Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth cavorting with famous Spanish bullfighters. All the while, delicious treats keep coming from the kitchen: battered hake, braised oxtail stew, pickled sardines, rice pudding. “Mmm. Beautiful. So good. Can’t beat it,” Bourdain says, praising every bite. “Mom’s cooking but without mom, because she probably wouldn’t have approved” of all those love affairs.
“Rolling!” the producer shouts periodically, and Bourdain grabs his wine glass and begins talking to the camera. When the take is over, he immediately lights a cigarette and trades the Rioja for a gin and tonic waiting for him under the table.
The night’s dramatic moment comes when Pepe reveals that Casa Salvador is soon closing for good. Bourdain doesn’t want to believe him. “What are you talking about?” he practically screams in despair. “A place like this in New York City would have at least a two-mile line of people waiting for a table!”
I try to explain: “There is a fine line between old and vintage. Casa Salvador is now perceived as an old-fashioned establishment. The new generation isn’t interested. If Pepe could hold onto it for five or ten more years, then the place would become vintage and it would be perceived as cool.”
“This is unacceptable, Pepe,” Bourdain insists. “Don’t you have any kids that could take it over?” Pepe explains he is too old and tired to continue, and his four children show no interest in keeping the business alive themselves.
“We have to do something about Salvador, like you did to Mercado,” Bourdain tells me when we finally say goodbye that night.
And man, he did his best.
The Madrid episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations aired about two months later, in September 2010. “Casa Salvador is just the kind of place I love,” Bourdain raves at the beginning of the segment. “Frozen in time, confused a bit by what is going on outside its walls but, inside, confident of what it does well and it’s always done well.” The camera catches him talking to me like a little kid, with enthusiasm: “I have been in a lot of places, and this is one of those restaurants that I already know I’m going to eat really, really well.”
Three months later, I get another memorable phone call. It’s Christmas day, and I’m in New York’s Hudson Valley with my wife’s family, preparing for the festivities. It’s Pepe, his voice full of excitement. “Guess what?” he says. “Salvador is not closing.” I’m flabbergasted.
“Your friend Antonio, whoever he is, is a miracle worker,” he continues. “We have reservations booked for two years. People keep calling from all over the world. My daughter Ángeles is taking over. We are saved!”
Casa Salvador has gone on to become a vintage destination, and its kitchen is at full force. Ángeles Blázquez is proud to be continuing the legacy of Pepe, her charismatic father, who passed away in 2014.
In tribute to Bourdain, who died in 2018, and to her father, Ángeles hung a photo of the American chef alongside Pepe and me, above the table that we shared that magical night. When I last saw her a few months ago, she told me that “many Americans request to be seated at that table. They want to experience Salvador in the same chair where Bourdain was seated the fateful evening that changed Casa Salvador’s future forever.”
Bourdain worked his magic at Casa Salvador. He deserves the pilgrimage — and so does Madrid.
Guillermo Fesser is a Spanish journalist working in Rhinebeck, New York, as a correspondent for Spanish television channel laSexta’s El Intermedio. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.