A Meal at the Oldest Restaurant in the World

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Clear another item from your Bucket List and have a meal in the Oldest Restaurant in the World, favored by authors, movie stars and royalty.

Photography by the authors

Physicians learn to be skeptical about life. Once, a study at a large multi-discipline university, we believe in Britain, showed that university rumors (false and deliberately started for the investigation) stopped once they reached the medical school. So, as health professionals, we are cautious about claims in general.

Indeed, assertions for the oldest eating place — even in a new country like the United States — come with some misperceptions.

Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass. tries to pass itself off as the oldest in America, but it was named Howe’s Tavern when built in 1716 and was actually called that when Longfellow wrote his poem in 1862 (writing that romanticized the inn as much as his over-enthusiastic poem about Paul Revere’s ride idealized that event). The Wayside Inn has had celebrity guests sign in on a wine barrel!

The Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, N.Y., takes the date 1766 for its beginnings but it moved twice before being called the Beekman Arms — although it may be a more worthy contender as an older inn as, in contrast to the Wayside Inn, it hosted horses as well as persons and the Wayside didn’t.

The Griswold Inn in Connecticut established in 1776 is the oldest “continuously” operated in the country and surely that justifies its claims for age. Our image of its dining room shows the 28-inch illegal planks used for its walls — “illegal” because such large tree trunks were meant to be sailed to the Royal Navy in England for the masts of its warships.

So if it’s hard to nail down the validity of claims even in our own country. Thank goodness for the wild Irish who have done the work for us in the Guinness Book of Records. We have become comfortable with its proofing. And, certainly, Botin’s 1725 date trumps anything we have in the New World.

Bob Hope said “You know you’re getting old when the candles cost more than the cake,” but that doesn’t apply to this restaurant. It seems even better than when we discovered it in 2006. The cliché about restaurants says the important factors are location, service and having the owner-on-the-premise; some say that may be more helpful for success than the cuisine — and if so a historical claim must help.

A nice thing about a Madrid restaurant that has been around for a long time is that most Spaniards know where to find it. We are now in Plaza Mayor, the biggest square in Madrid. We ask, the locals point. We head for the exit on the southwest corner, we walk down the stairs under the arch and there it is, a hundred yards down in the Calle de Cuchilleros (Street of the Cutlers) at number 17: Restaurante Botin.

Have a good look in the windows. It’s like looking into a small museum. Inside, the place bustles. Every attendant knows his job — the staff seems to be all male, perhaps part of the chauvinistic and macho Spanish tradition.

We have our appetizers, which include croquettes and black sausage from Burgos (there were two croquettes, of course, but one of us got hungry before the camera was ready!) and calamari. We use the Botin’s great knives (cuchilleros means knife-makers) for the restaurant’s celebrated roast suckling pig. We pass on dessert. We have a half pitcher of Sangria at €7,60 and pass on the baby eels at €102,60.

A “house menu” prix fix including bread, Gazpacho Andalusian soup, roast suckling pig, ice cream, half a bottle of house wine or beer or mineral water costs, at the moment, €44,15 per person — so for about $120 per couple plus gratuity you can clear another item from your Bucket List and have a great lunch in the Oldest Restaurant in the World.

We are next to the Hemingway table, the author’s favorite spot in the restaurant. Nancy Reagan sat at this table when she had lunch with Queen Sophia in 1985. (That visit to Spain was also when the First Lady had a flamenco demonstration by students of the Royal School of Dance at Madrid's Royal Theater and took “a whirl on the stage herself” when invited to do so by the young people. The White House had received inquiries before the trip as to whether it would be OK if Mrs. Reagan were asked to dance, and the White House gave approval without telling the First Lady! How can you not help liking Ronnie Reagan?) A framed letter of thanks from the White House dated June 19, 1985 hangs on the wall.

Many testimonials show up online now from writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, James Michener and Frederick Forsyth — and from actors like Jack Nicholson. Veal cutlet, breaded with potatoes, priced at €18,80 today, had Nicholson emoting, “Such perfection when I bit into my veal cutlet, I almost wept."

The managing director of the restaurant is greeting guests at their tables and comes up to talk to us. He is Antonio Gonzalez Gomez, a third-generation owner of the restaurant since 1930, whose son, “the fourth Antonio,” now works downstairs. He reminds us that Hemingway loved Spain and Sr. Gonzalez tells us “the last scene in the second last page” of the 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises takes place in this very room.

Many celebrities have come to Restaurante Botin, but the owner chooses not to identify his customers unless, like Hemingway, they’ve already written about it. One who has is Ingrid Bethancourt, the Colombian politician who was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2002 and has written that what kept her alive for six years was the memory of the sanctuary of this restaurant.

“Life is a collection of moments — and my family is proud to be part of preserving people’s moments,” says Antonio Gonzalez Gomez. “My grandfather was the original cook and the dishes are from his family’s recipes.” He adds: “Ninety nine percent of my staff start in their teens and don’t retire until they are 65.”

There is no turnover of staff. Successful institutions always credit their people for their success. We see the same face in the kitchen we saw seven years ago and the same confident waiters in the rooms we met in 2006. The cellar may be the original inn that was established in 1590 and built upon in 1725 when the ground floor was restored.

Guests with an interest in history can get their final fix simply by peering in the window as they leave and marveling at how a one-time “shanty one floor house” in Medieval Spain could become such a celebrity restaurant.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.