Melo’s Bar – Home of the Zapatilla
Madrid claims to have more eating establishments per capita than anywhere in the world, and even in the depths of a brutal crisis, new places are popping up on every corner. Given this kind of competition, the long-term success of a place like Melo’s Bar is all the more amazing, and in my ten years of eating here, never once has it failed to fill up.
So what’s so special about Melo’s? It offers little in the way of decoration, design, or neatness. There is nothing about it that would grab your attention as you passed it on the street. Perhaps this simplicity is its secret. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, applies perfectly here.
Ramón opened the bar back in 1979 and has changed little since then, not even the name. “Is Melo your last name?” I asked. “No no,” he laughs. “Cafe Melo’s Bar was the name of the previous place. I just left the sign up.”
Ramón opens roughly five hours a day, five days a week. It may sound like an easy life until you realize how much prep is required for just three people to handle the crowds that descend on Melo’s each night, ordering Galician regional dishes from a picture menu that probably hasn’t changed since 1979.
Photos of the food, you ask? Don’t guidebooks dismiss places like these? And if photos are bad, aren’t old photos worse? Melo’s is a good reminder that you’re often rewarded for putting the book away and following the crowds…
If the above image frightens you, then get here when they open and you’ll be fine. Otherwise, Melo’s becomes an experience in high-density dining. You’ll stand while eating, in a reduced space that requires balancing skills you didn’t know you had.
But this is part of the fun! The bar’s energy is infectious, and the warmth that Madrileños are known for shines in places like this, with constant apologies for a shoulder here, an elbow there. Meanwhile, the lucky ones who line the bar happily pass back plates when orders are ready, like sending on crowd-surfers at a rock concert. With the right people, Melo’s is one of the most enjoyable experiences in Madrid.
As for the menu at Melo’s, Ramón follows a standard formula that has struck gold in countless Spanish establishments. Like many of the Rastro area bars, he offers a handful of tasty items, yet draws in crowds with one item overall, one thing that can’t be found anywhere else in Madrid…La Zapatilla. Translated directly, zapatillas are those comfortable slip-ons we all wear around the house, the beloved slippers.
Visiting friends have labeled the zapatilla a gourmet grilled cheese. The sandwich is a multi-layered monster of thick Galician bread, lacón (shoulder meat from white pigs born and reared in Galicia), and tetilla (a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese from northern Galicia, named after its breast-like shape). The items are grilled separately before being stacked and served.
When interviewing Ramón for the post, I’d anticipated a juicy story of the zapatilla‘s origin, something involving an ancient recipe or embarrassing family anecdote, but perhaps that was expecting too much. “I just made it up one day,” he said. “The ingredients go well together.”
Although he may be a man of few words, Ramón’s prodigious memory is something to behold. After I introduced myself, he said, “Yes, I remember you. You were here a week ago and ordered a zapatilla, a portion of croquetas, a half portion of pimientos and 6 beers.” I shouldn’t have been surprised, as this is a nightly performance. Like almost all eateries in Madrid (bars included), you don’t pay til you’re ready to leave. As you signal for the check, Ramón will take one glance, then rattle off your entire order without looking at his notes. One day I might whisk him off to Vegas and bet the farm.
While the zapatilla is divine, don’t miss out on the fried pimientos de Padrón, or some of Madrid’s best homemade croquetas with chopped bits of lacón inside. As one of Spain’s most famous fried foods, practically every restaurant offers croquetas, but far too many have settled for the factory-produced, uniform examples whose filling could double as silly putty.
Eating one of Melo’s croquetas is a whole different experience, like breaking open a Cadbury Creme Egg and catching the contents as they ooze out. The mini empanadillas and morcilla blood sausage are tasty bites as well.
Last but not least, a drink is in order to go with all that food. Amstel beer is on tap, but a more Galician way to wash things down would be the undemanding Ribeiro house wine. It’s sold only by the bottle and served with white ceramic bowls that encourage larger than normal sips. In fact, a bit of liquid courage is just the ticket for that last bite of zapatilla, the piece that Spaniards call “el de la vergüenza” – the piece everyone wants to eat, but are too polite to do so.
What about you? Have you been to Melo’s before? What was your experience like?
Cafe Melo’s Bar – calle Ave María 44. Open 5 days a week, Tuesday – Saturday, from 8pm til 1:30am. Order at the bar. Metro Lavapiés (Line #3)
Looking for things to do in Madrid? Get to know the city more in depth with a Historic Madrid Walking Tour, Gastronomic Madrid Tapas Tour, Madrid Wine Tasting, or take a wine tour of the Ribera del Duero region.
Last update: February 22, 2016