Doing the typical tourist thing as a six-year-old.
I’ve long blamed my overly nomadic tendencies on my parents. When I was three years old and my primary interests consisted of My Little Pony and turning blobs of Playdough into larger blobs of Playdough, my family whisked me off to a small suburb of the Hague. My parents, who always have been and continue to be travelers at heart, were thrilled at suddenly having easy access to dozens of different countries. The world was at their fingertips and the fact that they had a cranky infant and toddler in tow didn’t remotely slow them down.
Much of the next few years were spent on the go. My brother and I played hide & seek in grand art museums and ordered sauce “on the side” at Parisian bistros, much to the chagrin of the waitstaff. My parents went as far as possible for as long as possible, stretching time, money and resources to see anything and everything we could.
We were, as kids often are, ungrateful at the beginning. And while now I have a tremendous respect for the patience, love and persistence it took for my parents to show us the world, for the first year I mostly would have preferred to stay in the States eating Skippy and watching cartoons. As time passed and we grew a little older though, we began to adapt without quite realizing it. Rainbows of tulips at the Keukenhof became the norm in spring, as did chocolate letters and wooden shoes full of presents (and the country’s bizarre, complicated and controversial tradition of blackface—but that’s a separate issue) in the beginning of December. Weekend trips to the Rijksmuseum actually seemed fun.
When my parents transferred back to the U.S., they found themselves stuck with two kids with a serious case of wanderlust. It’s an itch that’s stuck well into adulthood for both of us and shows no signs of subsiding.
All of this is probably why I get hit with a giant wave of warm fuzzies whenever I go back to any part of this tiny country and why I’ll use any excuse to get there. I’ve been known to deliberately reroute flights for a long layover in Schiphol Airport, which is conveniently connected to the city center via a 10-minute metro ride.
My most recent excursion was a research trip for this Guardian piece, for which I traipsed around the cobblestone streets and four-century-old canals of Amsterdam. And while I spent the majority of my trip exploring the newer additions to the city (more on that later), I couldn’t resist a trip down memory lane for a childhood food: pannenkoeken.
For the uninitiated, pannenkoeken are like crepes on steroids. These steering wheel-sized pancakes are eaten throughout the day and come with either minimalist—lemon and sugar—or maximalist—bacon, cheese and apples—toppings. There are dozens of places selling pannenkoeken throughout the city, but here are three of my personal favorites both as a seven and 27-year-old.
A sliver of a door roughly a third of the width of any normal building leads to a particularly vertiginous staircase, at the top of which patrons will find one of the city’s quirkiest pannenkoeken houses. Decorated with teapots suspended from the ceiling and boasting a mere four tables, this two-man show has been in operation since 1962. It’s worth the upward trek, but be sure not to make the same rookie mistake I did on my most recent visit. With so little space, it’s essential to book ahead, even on weekdays.
This fluorescent-lit diner makes up for what it lacks in ambiance with enormous sweet and savory crepes. International pancakes, including fluffy American-style flapjacks with bacon, are also on the menu, but what you want to order is a spinach pannenkoek doused in garlic oil and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and pepitas. The whole calorie bomb comes topped with a slab of semi-solid goat cheese.
My favorite new discovery, although it's been in town for ages, this industrial-looking spot not far from the Anne Frank museum boasts especially inventive options and a friendly waitstaff. Seasonal specialties when I was there included pannenkoeken topped with goulash and autumn mushrooms or poffertjes (basically the yeasted, buttery lovechild of a doughnut hole and a pancake) with cinnamon ice cream, poached pears, cranberry compote, Belgian chocolate shavings and whipped cream. Although they’re best known for funky creations such as a Thai curry-topped crepe, I went with the classic apples and raisins.
When I was sixteen, I embarked on a school-sponsored blitz-trip through Spain. In less than two weeks, roughly 50 Americans armed with a barely function command of the language were herded from Granada to Córdoba, Seville to Toledo, by tacky beach resorts on La Costa Brava and through Don Quixote's dreamy, almond tree-studded La Mancha and, of course, Madrid.
It was tremendous fun and we were lucky to have it, but as a perpetually discontented teenager, I remember being frustrated with two things. First, we saw most of the ravishing countryside at lightspeed and through the windows of a bus. We sprinted through the Prado in less than an hour. For the Alhambra, we might have had 90 minutes. With each destination, I found myself aching for more time, for the chance to take in these places at the local, glacial pace of life.
The second was the food. In the interest of satisfying finicky foreigners, virtually every meal of the trip consisted of chicken and French fries or spaghetti with tomato sauce. While I don’t blame the trip leaders—somehow I doubt that octopus would’ve been a resounding hit—I swore to myself that if I ever returned I would eat excessively and extraordinarily.
In the years since, I’ve been dazzled by Spanish cuisine in other regions, but never the capital. Which is why, although I gaped at the El Grecos in the Prado and quite literally teared up at Guernica, on this first return to Madrid, I spent a large percentage of my waking hours trying to eat my bodyweight in jamón ibérico. Here are a few notable standouts.
I associate Basque culture with unpronounceable words and remarkable food. This local gem was steps away from the AirBnB I stayed at off the Plaza de España and came highly recommended by the owner. Between the bacalao braised in spicy tomato sauce, silky beef tartare, and seasonal special of mushrooms piled high with lightly sizzled garlic, the kitchen certainly didn’t disappoint. The highlight of the meal though was a bloody steak with crunchy flakes of sea salt and whisper-thin potatoes. You’ll notice there are no pictures, as I was much too happy stuffing my face to give a damn.
In the States, “tapas” frequently implies tiny, exorbitantly priced plates with fussy fusion touches. In their home country, however, these dishes mostly originated as a complimentary giveaway with drinks. The tradition still lives and most restaurants in Madrid will pass a few olives your way with your vino tinto. La Castela takes the concept much farther and throws in freebies for which I would happily pay. We’re talking molten croquetas and house-made potato chips with anchovies and hot peppers, a brilliantly deranged combination I have been missing my entire life. The actual menu is both reasonably priced and even more delicious. From a pot of shrimp swimming in garlic oil to beef carpaccio with porcinis to simply grilled asparagus, everything was pretty perfect. Best of all were a layered salad of tuna with roasted red peppers and arroz con mariscos. “Seafood rice” hardly does justice to the luxuriously creamy risotto-like dish bursting with chunks of shellfish. If pressed to pick a favorite—not an easy task, I assure you—this restaurant would be it.
Simple, lively and with a slight international tinge, Ojalá is just the spot for an early evening bite and an aperitif. It’s located on a rather lovely plaza on a trendy-but-not-overly-so neighborhood. Curiously, there’s a beach bar with sand in the basement, which a locally based friend promised heats up in the evenings.
Food markets, both traditional and modern, are all over the place in this gastro-obsessed city. And while we didn’t get to all of the ones on this list, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Wrapped in glass and wrought iron, Mercado de San Miguel, which reopened six years ago after extensive restoration, is certainly the sleekest of the bunch. Flaky miniature pizzas topped with blue cheese and mushrooms, spicy bite-size sausages, candied almonds, blistered pimientos de padrón—every single thing here was sensational. Our wallets took a beating here, but we never regretted it for a second.