Surveying her warmly-lit restaurant, filled with happy diners clustered around small tables tucking into tapas, Elena Waldberger Ruiz was flooded with nostalgic memories. “I remember a time when someone had to come through here every ten minutes to sweep the shrimp tails away,” she said. For many years, discarded shrimp tails were a sign of customer satisfaction at La Casa del Abuelo, the central-Madrid tapas bar founded in 1906, although these days changing standards of cleanliness have reduced the level of floor detritus. Still, the custom persists, and bits of shrimp dot the floor of the bar while drifts of napkins hide in the corners. The customers here are still satisfied.
Waldberger Ruiz is one of a group of half-Swiss half-Spanish siblings currently running this fourth-generation business. The Ruiz family found success at first selling baguette-style sandwiches (so much so that at its height the staff was filling 1500 baguettes a day), but all that changed when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Along with violence came severe food shortages, including bread, which made baguette sales an impossibility.
“Eventually we got that idea that shrimp was something we could serve without bread,” Waldberger Ruiz explained, and so a tradition was born. “In those days, tapas bars used to specialize. You’d go to one bar for sausage, another for mushrooms. The fact that we still specialize only in shrimp… it makes us something of a relic,” she says proudly.
If not a relic, it certainly is a supporter of tradition. La Casa del Abuelo still uses the same delicious garlic oil preparation for its variety of shrimp, prawns, and langoustines (a type of crustacean similar to a small lobster or saltwater crawfish) and prepares them using the same open-grill method. “We had to fight the fire inspectors on that one, but it was important to me that everyone could see the shrimp cooked fresh,” Waldberger Ruiz said.
The bar’s furnishings reflect a devotion to tradition, as well. The walls are lined with old advertisements and black and white photos. Waldberger Ruiz points out one, a man with a 1940s haircut leaning against the bar. She explains that La Casa del Abuelo was once famous for the devotion of its barmen, who often grew up on the premises. “I remember that man from my childhood,” she said. “We had him working here for many years. I think he even slept on the floor for a period.”
Another important element of the bar’s decoration is the wine stacked on every available surface. Even before its prawns, La Casa Del Abuelo was famous for its house wine, a sweet red from the southern region of Alicante. In fact, for quite a long time the bar itself was called “La Alicantina.” Eventually, however an adoring public starting referring to the wine as “El Abuelo,” and a name change followed in 1990.
A decade of difficulties for Madrid came next - Waldberger recalls that the city was “full of drugs and almost no one came to the center” - but La Casa del Abuelo survived and, later, flourished. The family now owns three iterations of the bar, two close to one another by the Puerta del Sol (and its corresponding metro stop) and one in the chic shopping district of Goya (with metro stop of the same name.) The second Casa del Abuelo is decorated with bullfighting murals and dark wood and offers a variety of tapas in a less-frenetic sit-down environment—highlights include spicy-salty peppers de Padron, well-spiced chistorra sausace, and mushrooms with spices. None cost more than 10 euros for a racion.
One hundred years on, a stop at La Casa del Abuelo is a must for visitors to Madrid; the restaurant provides delicious food and great ambiance in the sort of environment that has all but disappeared in favor of chain restaurants and McDonald’s. It takes only a few minutes discussion with Waldberger for the reason behind the bar’s survival to become clear. “Yes,” she says, “It’s a business, but it’s something beloved as well. My mother died young, and keeping this up is like a part of her and her history.”
La Casa del Abuelo
C/ Victoria, 12. 28012 Madrid
Article written by Alissa Greenberg.