Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Oldest Restaurant in the World

I remember attending the 25th Anniversary Celebration at the deservedly successful Bridges Restaurant on Granville Island and everyone was remarking on what an accomplishment it was to last so long in the restaurant business. So imagine my surprise when Sally asked whether we should try and reserve a table at the oldest restaurant in the world, since it was in Madrid.

"How old is it?" I asked. And who says it's the oldest in the world?"

"It was founded in 1725. It's 385 years old, and the Guinness Book of Records has verified its status and authenticity".

When we reserved a table by phone without any difficulty for 10:15 that night, I started to get a bit concerned. But when we arrived, my concerns evaporated. With people lined up outside the door, and a very unusual, and evidently old interior configuration, I suspected it might be all right. And it was.

The restaurant is called Sobrino de Botin, and on the counter were reduced copies of the Guiness Book of Records certification. The first building on the street of 'Cuchilleros' (Cutlers) which got its name from the many workships situated there at the end of the 16th century was a cellar in a shanty one floor house. In 1590, permission was granted for a new building that served as an inn, with residences above.

In 1725, the ground floor was renovated to serve as a restaurant and an inscription above the main door recalls the date. The restaurant has been in continuous operation ever since.

The menu might best be described as 'traditional', varied, and not overly expensive. I guess that's why they have lasted in business so long. The choice of dishes was similar to what we found in many Madrid restaurants with hors d'oevres including roast red peppers with codfish, various Iberian hams, black sausage from Burgos, croquettes, and anchovy dishes.

There were a number of scrambled egg dishes which is quite with black pudding and potato, others with green asparagus, smoked salmon and shrimp. Fish dishes included baby eels, a special clam dish, mixed fish in casserole, Cantabrian hake, and baby squids in their own ink with rice. (Sally passed on this since she had had it the night before.)

The vegetable dishes included assorted vegetables with Iberian ham, artichoke hearts with Iberian ham, green beens with Iberian ham, segovia style big mushrooms and eggplants cordobesa style. I hesitated to ask if they came with ham.

The meat dishes included included stewed partridge (I had that the night before), chicken fricassee, veal, chicken and beef dishes.

However, according to our guide book and the menu, the two longstanding specialties of the house were suckling pig and roast lamb cooked in the ancient wood-fired oven "firmly built, tastefully decorated with exceptional tiles, where the wood of the evergreen oak gives the heat and the very special taste."

Of course we decided to order the specials. Since we had been eating tapas on our way down to the restaurant, we just had their special Botin salad to start (which included various olives, beets, tuna, and a few vegetables I couldn't recognize, and yes, some ham), a bottle of Madrid regional wine, and a pitcher of Sangria as an aperitif. (Many of the tables seemed to be having the Sangria, and we had had an excellent version in L'Escala on the coast.) While we definitely do not recommend this sangria, we can vouch for the pig and lamb. For dessert, we had the artisinal manchego cheese.

The young Italian couple at the next table had the Italian version of our guide book. They too were enjoying the pig and lamb, and later joined us in taking photos of the travelling musicians who came down to our cellar to serenade us around midnight.

Even at this hour, the restaurant was quite full, and Sally and I are now worrying whether we will be able to adjust to much earlier dinners, in much younger restaurants, when we shortly return to Vancouver.

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