At Casa Alberto you enjoy not only its good cuisine but also its unique atmosphere
by Muriel Feiner
Dámaso Pesquera and Victoriano Sanz, both from Segovia, opened a tavern on Calle Huertas, 18, which they sold in 1914 to the Cantalejo brothers, Juan de Dios and Alberto, the latter of whom lent his name to the establishment.
When Alfonso Delgado took over Casa Alberto in 1993, he decided to paint the front door red, because for many years of its most recent existence, this bar with its tatty dark wood entrance, went quite unnoticed. The current color is also typical of the 19th-century establishments, such as this one which dates back to 1827. Alberto explains: “I wanted to return it to its former splendor, by preserving its traditional essence, while adding a touch of new life.”
To achieve this goal, he conserved almost all of the original furniture and introduced only those changes that were strictly necessary. He confesses that it was not an easy or inexpensive undertaking and he had a hard time restoring the original wood, the plumbing, the bronze lamps, the wrought iron columns and the other decorative elements.
He relied on the expertise of specialized craftsmen to return everything to its optimal state: “It was an arduous task, but it was worth it, because at Casa Alberto you enjoy not only its good cuisine, but also its unique atmosphere.”
The wood and onyx counter is an icon, with its vermouth tap, the tin fountain once used to superficially rinse the glasses and the Seltzer saturator, which produced carbonated water, to add to the vermouth and another popular beverage of that era, the non-alcoholic sarsaparilla.
The walls are covered with paintings and photographs, that reflect the history of this 200-year-old establishment: Bullfighting posters, paintings by José Puente, Lope Tablada and José Núñez Cortes, two old clocks and cautionary signs: PROHIBIDO ESCUPIR and PROHIBIDO CANTAR Y BAILAR [Forbidden to Spit and Forbidden to Sing and Dance, respectively].
Clearly, the restoration of Casa Alberto was both a major challenge and a “labor of love” assumed by its new owner, who began by consulting the Archivos de La Villa preserved in the Cuartel del Conde Duque, in search of old documents confirming its history and background. A plaque on the façade indicates that Miguel de Cervantes lived and died in an earlier construction located in block 235 of Old Madrid. It was here that the author of the universally popular Don Quixote, wrote “Persiles and Sigismunda” before he died on April 22, 1616. His remains were buried in the nearby Convent of the Trinitarias Descalzas on Calle Lope de Vega, 18.
Casa Alberto congregated the most varied sectors of society, politics, theater, bullfighting… The theatrical aspect is due to its proximity with half of the major theaters in the city: The Español, Comedia, Zarzuela, Calderon, Monumental, Reina Victoria… Actors, directors, writers and spectators would meet here before and after their performances. In addition, there was a ticket office in the same bar to dispatch tickets for the Spanish theater and also for the “claque”. The claque offered much cheaper tickets or even gave them away, but those who occupied these seats were obliged to applaud, laugh or whistle, on cue.
The bullfighting ambiance can be explained by the fact that the Hotel Victoria (now the ME Reina Victoria) in the Plaza Santa Ana was the hotel where all the bullfighters stayed including Manuel Rodriguez “Manolete”. In addition, the official headquarters of the Plaza de las Ventas were located on Calle Victoria, 9, until the 1980s when they were moved to the bullring.
Alfonso reminds us that in the past, people were not always in a rush and they loved to have a drink and chat with the bartender: “The barman did more than just serve drinks. He was the echo of society before the era of newspapers and the internet. He spread the latest news to his customers. A bullfighter announced that he was training for a corrida in so-and-so city, an actor mentioned that he was busy rehearsing for a play and a politician was talking about the latest developments in the nearby Congress, and, in the meantime, the barkeeper circulated these rumors. In other words, he not only dispatched wine, but also information, advice and even compassion to a disconsolate customer.”
Delgado has many anecdotes to share, such as the time when former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was in Madrid to participate in the Summit of Civilizations. At the end of the meeting, Gore told his host, the then president of Spain José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, that he wanted to go to dinner at Casa Alberto, because his son, who had studied in the capital, had recommended it. Even though it is just a few blocks away from the Parliament building, his team of official escorts drove around in circles, unable to find the restaurant. Finally, Gore stopped the car, got out and said: “I’d rather walk and I’ll get there faster…”
A word about the enticing menu of Casa Alberto, which respects, on one hand, the classic cuisine, that includes cocido madrileño, callos (tripe), snails, cod, pig’s feet, empanadillas …, while introducing more creative dishes, such as Piquillo peppers stuffed with squid, lamb kidneys, sautéed mushrooms with prawns, picantones with applesauce and veal carrillada, and for dessert, homemade cakes, leche frita and apple fritters …
Madrileño by birth and entrepreneur by profession, Alfonso Delgado is president of the Asociación de Restaurantes y Tabernas Centenarios de Madrid, whose Vice President is Daniel Waldburger, owner of the Casa del Abuelo chain. In 2019, the two formed an excellent tandem to rescue the centenary Casa Ciriaco, on the Calle Mayor. After the death of the previous owners Ángel and Godo Chicharro, the restaurant was on the verge of being “occupied” by an American burger, which would have been sacrilegious: “We created the Association for this purpose: to promote and protect the excellence of the traditional Madrid gastronomy both in Spain and abroad. Our goal is to preserve our heritage and prestige and achieve just recognition for the philosophy of hard work and dedication involved in maintaining a 100-year-old establishment.”
Featured image/Muriel Feiner
Casa Alberto facade/Muriel Feiner
Cervantes plaque/Muriel Feiner
Quote mark/Oakus 53, CC BY-SA4.0
Barman (generic photo)/Florin Radu from Pixabay
UNAOC logo/UNAOC, CC BY2.0. Al Gore/World Resources Institute Staff, CC BY2.0.
RCM logo, Fair use
Artichoke and Piquillo peppers courtesy Casa Alberto
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