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The NewSLU

The NewSLU

Pandemic’s Legacy Lingers in Madrid Nightlife

Even though restrictions are a distant memory, some Covid-era habits and innovations persist in bars and restaurants.

The sun glistens on the buildings lining Calle de San Vicente Ferrer on a quiet Thursday afternoon around 3 p.m. The vibrant tile-covered storefront of Casa Macareno attracts people as they escape the corporate work life for their lunch break. Students are eager to satisfy their hunger after classes conclude as they file out of the metro Tribunal in the distance, searching for the nearest tapas bar to grab croquetas or tortillas and a Cerveza or Tinto Verano.

Chatter starts to fill the congested bar area where various green olives lie under a glass case while the background sounds of trumpets from the Latina music on the speakers pierce through the customers’ conversations. The owner, Pepe Roch, scurries around Casa Macareno, ensuring customers are pleased, waiters and waitresses are working efficiently, and patatas bravas are crisped to perfection.

“COVID was difficult because we couldn’t have full capacity in the restaurant, and we had to socially distance tables while limiting each table to a maximum of six people,” said 48-year-old Roch. “What you see next to the bar with the crowdedness of people talking so close and sharing tapas would not have been possible two years ago during COVID.”

Casa Macareno illustrates how tapas bars in Madrid have survived after a pandemic that caused many restaurants and bars to close permanently. But they are not the same as before the pandemic. The bars were forced to make some changes due to social distancing rules that have stuck, and some customer behavior has changed too.

Madrileños continue to order takeaway pork bruschetta and truffled sea bass sashimi at places like Juana La Loca, a chic modern tapas restaurant on Plaza de Puerta de Moros in La Latina. And they still make reservations, once required because of limited-capacity rules, at places like Casa Macareno.

COVID-19 affected the emphasis on socialization that comes with Spanish tapas culture as many harsh restrictions were put in place to protect the citizens of Madrid, which caused many tapas bars to adjust and adapt to survive. Roach is one of the thousands of Madrid tapas bar owners who experienced an abrupt shift in business when COVID-19 shut down the city and reshaped the tapas culture.

Spanish Tapas Culture is a shared experience combining a meaningful social activity with the opportunity to indulge in a well-priced lunch or dinner of many different tastes and flavors.

Today, many of the same features in the tapas industry that were introduced when the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place are still prevalent in tapas culture and have created new prosperous areas in the industry.

During the peak of COVID-19, bars and restaurants were mandated by the government to close at 10 p.m. and only admit 50% capacity at a time. Socialization up at the bar was prohibited, bar seating was removed, and tables had to be 2 meters apart from one another.

These restrictions put a damper on the tapas culture, which involved large groups bar hopping and sharing tapas dishes while sipping wine or half pints of beer.

“Everyone comes to BAR SIDI to spend time with friends, share the best tapas in town, and drink a lot,” says Willy Goyez, 27, a waiter at BAR SIDI. When COVID was going on, and the restrictions from the government were very harsh, you couldn’t come in and get the same tapas experience with all your friends and enjoy your meal.”

Roughly 85,000 bars and restaurants across Spain closed due to the crippling COVID-19 restrictions, and the industry lost half of its annual €123 billion earnings in 2020, El País, a national Spanish newspaper, reported. The surviving tapas bars had to find ways to attract customers by catering to their health concerns.

Instead of crowding around the bar, fighting for space to stand and handpick your tapas that lie uncovered on the bar top, you had to sit down at a table and order from a server off a QR code, menu, or chalkboard. Even when restrictions were lifted, this formality stuck.

“Sometimes I think I like the new tapas style better,” says a 22-year-old student at IE University, Francisca Martinez. “It is more personable to get to chat with a waiter and figure out which tapas they recommend based on your likings and dietary restrictions. Instead of standing up at the hectic bar and being overwhelmed trying to get your tapas, you can just sit back and relax.”

Before the pandemic, people used to eat tapas later in the night, around 10 p.m. When tapas bars were forced to close at that time, they began eating earlier, around 8 p.m. People have continued to do so since the restrictions have been lifted, which allows businesses to turntables all night rather than just await a surge of late-night customers.

Restaurants like Juana La Loca began to allow customers to takeaway or have their food delivered if they feared leaving their house or dining in a restaurant. This was a

necessary strategy to continue serving people around Madrid when customers were extremely concerned about their health during the pandemic. Now a lot of tapas have continued takeaway and delivery services.

However, 46-year-old waiter at BAR SIDI, Goyo Calendez, questions if takeaway ruins the concept of tapas as a social experience and fails to deliver high-quality food. “Now people will sometimes ask for food that is takeaway, but it is hard to package up tapas to go and still get the same tapas quality and experience as you would eating and drinking at bars with your friends and sharing food,” he said.

People loved the ease of dining at a tapas bar before COVID. You walked right in, ready to face the crowds and excited to socialize over good food. Since restaurants had to limit their capacity to 50%, prohibit socializing at the bar, and restrict it to only tables, many tapas bars started relying on a reservation system.

Even after the restrictions were lifted, some fine dining tapas style restaurants and bars continue to bring in customers through a reservation system and only have a limited number of tables available for walk-ins. For waiters at Juana La Loca, they have seen fewer customers walk in to eat every day than before COVID.

28-year-old Richard Lugo believes this is due to the fact they only operated on a reservation system when the COVID restrictions limited capacity and hours of operations for restaurants and bars. “Since we mainly did reservations during COVID, I guess people might think you can only dine at Juana La Loca if you have a reservation, so they don’t try to walk in and put their name on a waitlist,” Lugo said.

Customers like 28-year-old Orlando Salas believe that the reservation system ruined the tapas experience because it made it too complicated. “Restaurants got shorter shifts and had a 50% restriction on capacity,” Salas said. “You felt like you had to do huge planning just to get tapas.”

Now Salas is eager to go back to the way things were before. He still prefers to make reservations to avoid waiting but often enjoys takeaway after a long day of work in the comfort of his own home. Since life returned to normal, Salas thinks that tapas culture is smaller than it was before COVID-19, but nonetheless still an important traditional Spanish custom.

“Tapas culture is an amazing experience in Madrid. It’s pretty much what we Madrileños do. Make a reservation at dinner for tapas, then go to any bar, then go clubbing, then repeat. Not a bad lifestyle,” said Salas.

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