The One Bar You Must Visit When You're In Madrid

Venenciadora using a venencia to pour Sherry into a copita I © Jesus Solana/Flickr
Venenciadora using a venencia to pour Sherry into a copita I © Jesus Solana/Flickr
Photo of Thomas Rees
9 February 2017

Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in Europe. But what if you had to choose to visit just one? If you love history, ambience, and sherry wine, the answer is La Venencia, a decades-old watering hole and local favorite, a short walk from Plaza Santa Ana.

Venenciadora using a venencia to pour Sherry into a copita I | © Jesus Solana/Flickr

Curious to know what Madrid was like in the 1930s? There’s a bar on Calle Echegaray called La Venencia that will satisfy your curiosity. It isn’t somewhere you’re likely to stumble upon. It doesn’t have a prime location or a flashy website, and there’s nothing informing you that Ernest Hemingway once drank here, though he did. On the contrary, La Venencia’s humble owners shun publicity and instead rely on the patronage of their regulars, word of mouth and the simple green and white sign that hangs on the venue. It’s as inconspicuous as a modest pub, which only adds to its authenticity.

Established over 70 years ago, the bar’s interior is much the same as it was in the days of the Spanish Civil War, when Republican soldiers and supporters of the anti-fascist cause met to exchange stories of battlefield heroism and to lament the advance of General Franco’s forces, incidentally passing snippets of information to sympathetic foreign journalists like ‘Don Ernesto’, as Hemingway came to be known.

La Venencia interior complete with old sherry posters | © Krista/Flickr

One wall displays shelves of dust-smeared bottles with peeling labels and faded posters advertising sherry festivals that have long-ceased to exist. A wooden bar flanked by an assortment of notched tables and chairs runs the length of the room. At the end of the bar sits an antique cash register with a handle and a stack of barrels stained the color of molasses.

The food and drink are as unassuming as the decor. Printed delicately on a faded sheet of paper, the bar’s menu offers Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado and Palo Cortado, five Spanish sherries. The modestly priced sherries each have a unique quality, ranging from crisp to nutty to rich. There’s nothing else to drink. Just sherry (jerez) and tap water, but with wines as good as these, from selected bodegas in the south of Spain, that isn’t a problem.

Olives and Manzanilla sherry at La Venencia | © Krista/Flickr

Then comes the tapas: crisp, emerald green olives in herb-scented oil that arrive with your first drink; slices of pale Manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with ivory-colored fat; and leathery mojama, cured tuna the color of red wine.

After taking your order, the bartender scribbles it all out in chalk on the bar’s surface, which is a good enough excuse to try everything on the menu. Just don’t expect a chat from the staff, who, in typical Castilian style, prefer to work in studied silence.

La Venencia, Madrid | © Thomas Rees

In addition to respecting the staff’s somberness, here are a few other rules to mind:

No photographs (this was established during the days when La Venencia’s clientele had to be wary of fascist spies). No tipping (out of respect for the bar’s socialist principles). And no spitting on the floor (sorry). All this adds to La Venencia’s old-world charm.

As for the clientele, you’ll find elderly couples clutching slender glasses of fino, flamboyant thespians and well-dressed madrileños (the capital’s residents) sharing plates of salsichón.

There is one more rule at La Venencia: no smoking. Back during the days of the Spanish Revolution, the Republican soldiers smoked up enough of a storm to leave an indelible mark on the interior. The smoke has thankfully gone, but the atmosphere of this iconic bar lingers on.

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