Located in the centric quarter of Chueca and with 70 years of history, this impressive three-story building, known among the locals as Mercado de San Antón, has grown to become one of the most popular hangout places in town in recent years.
Photographs were shot with the following kit:
As is common with Madrid’s markets, this one owes its name to the nearby church of San Antón. The market was already in use during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), although back then it was an open-roof market. It didn’t get its first proper building until 1945, the date which is now considered the real birth of the San Antón market.
The market had a troubled existence during most of the 20th century, alternating periods of both great relevance and near disuse. After Chueca’s explosion as perhaps the most trendy neighborhood in all of Madrid during the first years of the 21st century, the market was in dire need of an update. As such, it was demolished in 2007 in order to perform a full renovation, bringing it in line with the modern spirit of its surroundings. Renovations took the better part of four years, but the market was finally reopened in 2011, with the same structure and layout it has today.
San Antón is a market like perhaps no other. Inside its three stories, there’s a vast array of different culinary options for all tastes, and the building itself is cleverly arranged in order to make it easier for everyone to get what they want.
Ground floor: the market
The ground floor is where the actual food market is located. You can find pretty much anything you usually find on a regular food market here, plus a few other gourmet-oriented delicacies for the more discerning customers. Shopping for groceries, meat or dairies is a perfectly fine choice here, although be advised, prices will be quite a bit higher than in your typical, run-of-the-mill supermarket. The scenery, however, is tough to beat.
Also at ground level, you’ll find an excellent cocktail and tapas bar, discreetly tucked away in one of the corners of the building. This secluded place is a great option for those seeking a bit more discretion, or for those days when the upper levels are completely crowded, which, as you may have guessed by now, happens quite often. The wine selection in the bar is incredible, easily beating many specialized restaurants and even liquor stores, and the food is also quite decent. Pro-tip: As per business policy, all tapas need to be cleared out daily by closing time, so if you don’t mind staying around a bit longer, you may end up getting a free meal, besides the experience. Now, this obviously doesn’t happen every day but it’s worth a shot, particularly on weekdays.
Middle floor: the tapas
Moving upwards to the middle floor, we reach the tapas territory. The building has a clear structure, meaning that the upper levels are basically corridors that run along the outer perimeter, with the center of each floor being empty space. This makes for a wonderful sight and gives the space a great sense of amplitude. Combined with the glass ceiling that lets in vast amounts of natural light, it almost feels like being outdoors. Unfortunately, this also means that when the market gets crowded, as it invariably does, moving around in the upper levels can be a bit uncomfortable.
The middle level contains different types of bite-sized food — or, you know, tapas — shops, arranged by region. All kinds of specialties from all over the world can be found here, from Japanese sushi to French foie but, logically, Spanish dishes are by far the most common. If you want to try a few samples from Spain’s incredibly rich and diverse gastronomic landscape, this is a great place to start.
Mid-way through the middle level, there’s an access to the first of two outdoor terraces. This is a fantastic place to relax and have a drink to go with an interesting conversation, and it’s also one of only two places in the entire building where smoking is allowed.
Towards the end of this level there’s also a proper bar, with larger food portions and a wider selection of food and drinks to cater to those who prefer to just sit down and do all their eating at the same place. This bar, just as the rest of the level, is usually pretty crowded, but if you manage to find a place to sit down at, you’re set. Then it’s just a matter of sending a scout or two to the smaller tapas shops. That way everybody gets to have their cake and eat it, too — in this case, quite literally.
Rooftop deck: the heavens
The upper level contains both a fantastic rooftop cocktail bar, as well as a great restaurant: La Cocina de San Antón (San Antón’s kitchen).
The restaurant has a very complete menu, filled with tasty Spanish specialties such as salmorejo, which they aptly define as “_Andalusian tomato cream topped with diced egg and 5J ham shoulder_”. Another personal favorite of mine is the grilled wild boar with bread crumbs and raisin juice, which is just spectacular. And, of course, trying the Iberian ham is simply a must. Do keep in mind that prices are definitely high-end here, and if you’re liberal with the wine things can quickly get out of hand. That being said, it is still well worth it.
Another unique thing about La Cocina de San Antón is what they call “cooking service”. What better way to take advantage of the fact that they’re literally sitting on top of a fresh food market than to offer customers the option to buy their own groceries and a portion of meat or fish of their choice downstairs at the market, and then have it cooked upstairs — or, as they so eloquently put it, “in heaven” — by one of the restaurant’s own chefs. Having personally done it a couple times, I can attest to this being exactly as perfect and delicious an experience as it sounds. In fact, it’s such a total no-brainer when you experience it for the first time that I have no idea why the formula hasn’t spread all over the world yet.
Finally, the rooftop cocktail bar is one of the best places in the city to go at night for a quality drink and, though the sights are certainly not the best in town, it is one of the very few places I know where they can make one hell of a Dry Martini. Gin & Tonics are another house specialty, with nearly a hundred different options to choose from. All in all, a very solid choice for a classy night out, be it with friends or your significant other. Just go early if you want to grab a seat, because this, too, gets crowded just about every night.
A winning formula
San Antón’s market is an amazing place, perhaps different from any other. While the modern trend of renovating traditional food markets and turning them into hangout places is certainly spreading, no other market so far has managed to capture what makes San Antón special.
It may be the unique energy of its neighborhood, the welcoming nature of its open space, or the clever distribution of its different levels, but there’s no denying San Antón is one-of-a-kind. If, as most Spanish people, you believe great food tastes even better in great company, this is a place you’ll definitely want to check out. Never has the old saying “de Madrid, al cielo” (from Madrid, to heaven), been truer than here.