Cafe culture

The art of hanging out

It's my last day in Madrid and I'm writing in one of my favorite cafes, Cafe Jardin (Garden Cafe), in the Chueca district on Calle Infantas. Evita, the cafe owner's big white Chow, literally has her head in my lap, whining pathetically in hopes of having a bite of my cake. Parakeets are twittering nearby in a frilly wrought-iron cage. The Supremes are singing. They hear a symphony.

People writing on laptops in public aren't a very common sight here, but the profusion of atmospheric cafes makes the city a paradise for people like me, who have written entire dissertation chapters at the comfortable but rather sterile Ansley Mall Starbucks. I have no idea why Americans have never caught the European passion for sitting hours in quirky cafes which typically serve alcohol, coffee and light grazing fare. We've had a few experiments in Atlanta, like the original Virginia's, but nothing has endured.

About the only drawback to hanging out in Spain's cafes is the people's maniacal devotion to smoking. I think it's more important to them than Catholicism. Certainly there must be more martyrs to lung cancer than to Jesus. Several times, when I dared to comment, people have launched almost hilarious rants about what a hell life in America must be. There, one man assured me, people are arrested for smoking in convertibles on the L.A. freeways. "You Americans are so totalitarian about your health," he said.

"Look," I said, "in a country that lacks self-service laundries, I'm sick of washing my clothes in the sink every night just so I don't smell like Marlboros."

That aside, you should definitely take in the cafes of Madrid when you visit. Spain has become the world's second-most-common tourist destination. I've spent almost four months here in the last year or so, and every time I write from here I'm deluged with e-mail inquiries.

I particularly love Cafe Jardin for its kinky marriage of the sacred and the profane. Its pastel walls are hung with paintings of nuns and the hypermuscular. There are a few statues of saints, lots of plants and furniture that looks vaguely Indonesian. The cakes, tarts and pies are all homemade and dirt-cheap. It's tiny, and getting a table at night is difficult business. So I usually visit in the late afternoon.

Another cafe I've come to enjoy is El Templo de Cafe (The Temple of Coffee) on hyper-hip Fuencarral. This street is a classy version of Little Five Points, and the new El Templo has one of the most fetching looks I've ever encountered in a cafe. Imagine a decor that blends Italian, Zen and African design. I like to sit at the bar, read El Pais, the country's best newspaper, and sip cafe con leche and fresh orange juice.

Mainly you are limited to croissants, but there are a few nice tapas, like anchovies with herbs atop bread. The selection of coffee varieties is probably the city's broadest.

Do not fail to visit the restroom here. It is, bar none, the most impressive I've ever seen. You walk down several flights of stairs, through whitewashed, vaulted stone walls, and arrive at an ultra- moderne Rubik's Cube of frosted glass cubicles with doors big enough to admit barnyard animals. Even a urinal looks like sculpture here.

Right down the street is probably the most popular cafe in the area, Cafe Mercado Fuencarral. It's also relatively new, in the plaza outside the metal Mercado, where the young, tattooed and pierced shop till they drop in three floors of boutiques. The Cafe Mercado has an ultra-designed, vaguely African interior with only 20 tables, but the large outside space is packed every evening. It's one of the few places around town you'll find a vegetarian menu and lots of salads, but there are also tapas and nine types of hamburgers. Hear electronic Brazilian music a la Caetano Veloso.

I also like to visit 25-year-old Cafe Pepe Botella in Malasana on the Plaza Dos de Mayo. There's no food, but it is the hangout for Madrid's literati, despite its neighborhood character. It has three rooms. I love the rear room, a narrow rectangle with cushy banquettes, relatively quiet and a good place to write. A local writer says, quite correctly, that at Pepe Botella, "if you find yourself alone, it's the kind of place where your muse will pull up a chair and sit across from you." Imagine Manuel's with a much higher IQ.

Where to eat? I have become a complete aficionado of tiny Cafe Fidel on Calle Escorial. I've never encountered another American here and only found the well-hidden place on a walk. I stopped a sanitation worker and asked for a recommendation. The food is amazing, similar and perhaps even better than my favorite in Sevilla, Casa Salva.

I go at lunch, when I usually eat my largest meal here. There is a daily menu, only about $7 for three courses and a beverage, and it often has interesting dishes. But the regular menu contains homestyle dishes you simply don't find much in Madrid these days. I've feasted on patatas secas — delicious, lumpy potatoes stained red by tomatoes and topped with a juicy piece of chorizo — and roasted game birds, juicy bonito in a red sauce of such mysterious complexity that I keep replaying it in my memory.

I also frequent the very well-known Bocaito on Calle Libertad. There may be better tapas in Madrid, but I haven't found them. You'll discover everything from exotically cured hams and the very best manchego cheese to assortments of smoked fish on toast and flawlessly fried anchovies. I always eat at the tapas bar here, which can become insufferably crowded, but there is also a dining room. The service people, particularly at the bar, remind me of the sort I used to encounter in oyster bars in Manhattan. They've been there forever and have perfected their demeanor to a blend of efficiency, friendliness and a willingness to make informed suggestions.??

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