What do you think restaurants established in 1725 smelled like? If I had to guess, I’d say restaurants in those days smelled like melted pork fat heavily seasoned with course salt — or something like that. Actually, I know that’s what a certain restaurant smells like. The scent I recall was similar to my grandmother’s kitchen on a hot summer’s evening in June, except I was thousands of miles away from her home in California and it wasn’t summer. I was in Spain, in the month of September, walking into the Guinness World Record-holding, oldest operating restaurant in the world — Restaurante Sobrino de Botín.
A Little Bit of History
Formed in 1725 by French cook Jean Botín and his wife in Madrid, Spain but later passed along to Mrs. Botín’s nephew, the new owners, a pair of third-generation Spanish brothers, Antonio and Jose Gonzalez, kept the original oven and much of the interior in tact. The word sobrino translates to “nephew” in Spanish, hence the name. So there I sat, intoxicated by the savory aroma of Botín’s special oven-baked suckling pig. I like to think that the savory smell comes from an oven harboring almost 300 years worth of special seasoning inside, like grandma’s well-aged cast-iron skillet; seasoning that is just as unique as the décor.
The interior is mostly filled with relics of the past and a few modern conveniences. An antique gold-colored cash register, wall paintings depicting life in the 1700s, wooden stairs bending from the weight of servicemen carrying large trays of savory meats, an almost bare leg of Jamón (an expensive, specially cured Iberian ham) resting on the counter. One might say the four-story restaurant located on Calle de Cuchilleros, 17, 28005 Madrid, Spain didn’t have room for visitors to meander through the establishment or sit far from the nearest table, but the well-conditioned hosts and bouncers operated smoothly throughout the tight space, ensuring that you receive the best service. Thinking about the layout, I bet the residents of Madrid were probably a lot smaller back then so the restaurant didn’t require a lot if space and probably didn’t receive quite as many visitors as today.
Trying to get a Seat at the Table
Certainly, I was one of the lucky ones. I tried to make a reservation online a week before my trip but every dinner spot from the first opening at 8pm to closing at midnight was taken, except for the standard, last-call, non-guaranteed, 11:15pm slot. You read correctly, I meant to type “11:15pm.” Why so late? Madrid is a lively city that thrives at night and where dinner doesn’t usually start until 8pm at the earliest. The alternative is to book a lunch reservation anytime from 1-4pm, but that didn’t fit well into my schedule. It was the first full day of my five-day itinerary in the city and I was excited to check out the sites. Earlier in the day I visited the Museo del Prado, spent way too long buying cute pairs (yes, pairs with an “s”) of alpargatas (espadrilles) at Casa de Hernanz, and took photos in and of Plaza Mayor. Around 7:30pm I realized I was hungry. Like really hungry en route to hangry. I turned the corner from Plaza Mayor and what should appear? Restaurante Botín!
I knew the restaurant didn’t open until 8pm and was fully booked, but I saw people walking in and out of the door so decided to try my luck at securing a seat. I watched groups ask the Botín host about their chance of dining without a reservation; those with an 8pm reservation made it in while groups as small as three people were turned away, knowing the next reservation wouldn’t be available until months later. Then it was my turn to step forward and inquire. “Just one,” I told the host, “no reservation.” He spoke with the manager, who gave a subtle nod of approval, then sat me at a small table across from to the entry — the only available table in the restaurant. I’ll have a fresh glass of sangria and water with my victory, please!
Service and Food
Tables are flipped quickly and one would assume lackluster service — and food because of it — but that is not so at Botín. In my experience here a fast flip translates to extremely efficient and attentive service. The waitstaff spoke a little bit of English and I spoke a little bit of Spanish, just enough for us to communicate without issue. I was delighted to discover the horno, or oven, fire is never extinguished, resulting in a piece of suckling pig that is cooked to perfection! Speaking of pig, I ordered the roast suckling pig specialty with potatoes, green beans with Iberian ham (jamón), and a bread basket. Woooo! Was it gooood! A perfectly crisp skin protects a juicy, delicate, and fall-off-the-bone serving of pork. As a disclaimer: the high salt content of this meal is not ideal for those with high blood pressure or those who are on a salt-restricted diet; I’m sorry, friends. Aside from their suckling pig, Botín serves non-pork items such as eggs, soups, and fish.
Will my Meal Break the Bank?
Speaking of diets, if you’re on a financial diet, expect to spend more money on dinner than you normally would in Madrid. Based on the English menu, below are the average price ranges for each menu grouping.
Average Cost ($ USD)
Average Cost (€ Euro)
|Roasted & Grilled Meats
|Coffee, Bread, Butter
It may be a good idea to take advantage of daily lunch pricing or the House Dinner Menu, which is offered in spring and summer: Gazpacho, roast suckling pig, ice cream, bread, mineral water, and beer or a half bottle of wine for around $51.75 (€45,40). The price of my meal, with water and a half pitcher of sangria, cost roughly $45 (€40) plus gratuity. For that price you’d better believe I ate every bite off my plate!
After eating I paid la cuenta and walked on the black and white checkered floors out through the large, heavy wooden doors to the street, back into modern times. I didn’t feel like walking away completely so I took a few minutes to look at the artifacts, Guinness record, and tiny renderings of the restaurant in the window display. I felt like I received a mini tour of the facility without paying $86 (€75) for the Botin Restaurant Experience.
In sum, dining at the oldest restaurant in the world kinda feels like dining at grandma’s house — it’s a glimpse into the past coupled with savory food and y’know what? It feels really good.