The Oldest Restaurant in the World

Brick cellar walls arched over white-clothed tables like a tunnel, and the echoes of flawless Castilian Spanish exchanges were almost as smooth as the sangria generously trickling from bottles like garden spouts. Sudden movements caused glints of light from the wall sconces to catch on wine glasses like the sun-baked scales of exotic fish.

Our heels clattered on the wet, brassy cobblestone near Plaza Mayor in Madrid. It was our last night in Spain after studying here for the past month, and my peers and I wanted our final dinner to be special. Any trace of daylight was long gone, as the Spanish ate their dinner very late at night. We finally turned the corner to find a wood-paneled exterior, where thick gold letters reading “Restaurante Sobrino de Botín Horno de Asar” told us that we had arrived at the oldest restaurant in the world.

The dining room was like a box gift wrapped in black and white linoleum and vermilion Spanish tiles, stickered in photographs, artwork, certificates, mirrors and hand painted ceramic dishes, all telling stories of this historic restaurant. Unlike modern establishments with sharp-cornered martini glasses and neutral color schemes, Restaurante Botín rejected the influences of Scandinavian and Japanese minimalism.

We were ushered past the generously stocked bar, which was topped with a gothic candelabra with bright red candlesticks and a wedding-cake-shaped tower of green and yellow apples. Climbing down the narrow stairs felt like descending back into 1725, the year this place was founded, as the smell of damp wood hit us. Had we been in a mystery novel, these stairs would have been the hidden entrance to a meeting place of some underground rebel group.

Brick cellar walls arched over white-clothed tables like a tunnel, and the echoes of flawless Castilian Spanish exchanges were almost as smooth as the sangria generously trickling from bottles like garden spouts. Sudden movements caused glints of light from the wall sconces to catch on wine glasses like the sun-baked scales of exotic fish.

My friend had said that this restaurant is famous for its suckling pig, and the menu, which touted croquettes, gazpacho, stewed partridge and melon with ham, confirmed that of all these dishes, suckling pig was the favorite of Hemingway. I never knew what “suckling” meant beforehand. It sounded more like a verb than a noun, and nobody wants to picture the meat on their dinner plate being capable of any action. But Hemingway, who wrote about Botín in The Sun Also Rises, prompted me:

“We lunched upstairs at Botin´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.”

Unlike Lady Brett Ashey, I polished off every bite of the suckling pig. Even as my plate was being taken away, I sucked on the crispy, browned skin of the pig, savoring the flavors of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, bay leaf and white wine. Shipped in from Segovia, it was roasted in a clay cooking pot in an old oven fed with holm oak wood. The recipe hasn’t changed much since it was first added to the menu, as the owners live by Gaudí’s belief that originality is achieved by returning to origins. This philosophy rang true not just in the menu but within the walls themselves, as they’ve preserved this lily-white old world for centuries. From the cellar to the attic, there’s not a trace of yellowing by Napoleon’s capture of Madrid, the World Wars or the Francoist regime.

We washed down our dinner with glasses of Valbuena, a red wine from Ribera de Duero in Castile and León. We tasted the bittersweetness of the wine and of the remaining time we had in Spain, which was down to mere hours. The conversation carried an air of anguish only felt by young people cyclically having to say goodbye to people and cities, never knowing if they’ll again find that same feeling of life just beginning. It was an anguish likely understood by so many travelers who had sat there before us — some long dead, some only alive in the imaginations of writers, and some only alive in the imaginations of writers who are long dead. But the bullfighters, Lost Generation vagabonds and Cold War spies all had to leave at some point, and so did we.

Ramón Gómez de la Serna described Botín as the place you go to celebrate “your golden wedding, your silver wedding, your diamond wedding and even your fossil wedding.”

I won’t be celebrating any weddings for a while, unless I’m presented with a ring from an inheritor of Botín and I could spend the rest of my days eating suckling pig until the juices seep into my pores and bloodstream. Until that happens, I’m sure I’ll find plenty of other things to celebrate.

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Kate Brennan

Journalist, Newhouse grad, subpar snowboarder, rock climber, caffeine addict & 80s horror movie fanatic.