Last days of the Caffe del Arte

Business plans are what the experts say Spain needs to get out of the economic doldrums. But a business plan doesn’t make a neighborhood . . . or provide jobs to the eccentric or underdressed.

Caffe del Arte Madrid

The day before Easter vacation started, they rolled down the metal door and papered over the windows of our local café. All week long, we heard banging and scraping from inside. Occasionally the metal door would be hauled up partway to accept cans of paint or disgorge broken lengths of molding.

We were encouraged by the noise — in Madrid, where we live, the economic crisis means that most papered-up shop windows are bookended by two signs: first “Liquidación Total,” followed shortly by “Se Alquila” (for rent). The blind shopfronts linger, and are everywhere — it’s not an optimistic time. But with its prime location on a sunny corner a block from the park, we held out hopes that our Caffé del Arte — purveyor of a kind of assertive shabbiness — was just closing down for a spring face-lift.

Se alquila -- for rent

My husband, Stephen, and I got to know the Caffé del Arte (two ‘f’s a la italiana and one ‘l’ al español) our first few jet-lagged weeks in Spain. It had one draw over all the other cafes in our neighborhood — it was the closest one to our house. We could lurch out of the park with our three boys at half-past nap-time and land at the Caffé for a nearly civil glass of wine on the terrace. More importantly, Stephen and I could sneak out for an early meal on nights we couldn’t make it all the way to Spanish dinner hour (the earliest sitting at most Madrid restaurants is 9:00 pm, a fact that took many weeks to stick in my head. There is nothing more mournful that loitering outside a restaurant at 8:30, waiting for the waiters to finish with the napkins.). Anyway, we kept coming back.

At the Caffé del Arte, every glass of wine came with either a bowl of freshly fried potato chips from the fábrica across the street, or a cup of olives and pearl onions pickled in brine. This would be plonked unceremoniously into the middle of the table by the grim-faced and permanently sweaty waiter, who would then promptly leave before you could order any food. The menu was extensive and suspicious — there was no way that moussaka, pasta a la bolognesa, and steak frites could be both prepared and plated successfully in the tiny kitchenette behind the bar. In fact, the waiter confessed once, with little prompting and no embarrassment, that all the restaurant dishes were made elsewhere and calentado (heated in the microwave) in the kitchen for the guest’s enjoyment. We learned to stick to the pasta and the house wine.

The only decorations in the place were a spectacular bronze beer tap in the shape of a woman’s hand holding a stein and a rotating display of mostly terrible local art for sale. For a while, there was a poster board advertisement for a Spanish cookbook, El Arte del Cupcake, by the local queen of cupcakes, which gave us all manner of cognitive dissonance.

The waiter, who could have been Steve Buscemi’s Spanish cousin, was always there, in the same clothes, in varying degrees of dishevelment, at every hour of the day. His main job seemed to be to make customers feel slightly apologetic for taking time away from his talking to the four or five bar girls who worked on rotating shifts. They were all young and gorgeous in tight black t-shirts with matching eye makeup that suggested an exciting and louche life far beyond the barriers of our slightly stodgy Salamanca neighborhood. At long and frequent intervals, the waiter would flagrantly ignore all customers and lean up again the bar to gossip or remonstrate with the girls, like a slightly mangy hen with her chicks.

We arrived in Madrid in October, and spent most of the fall and winter getting oriented — bus, post office, playground, grocery. By the time the makeover started at Caffé del Arte, we had begun to feel we were putting down fragile roots. Stephen at work; the older boys settled in school; the two-year-old in rounds of parks and play dates. In the neighborhood, I was noting the ways I was beginning to feel visible — a loaf of our favorite bread saved behind the bakery counter, the cheese man asking after the children, getting on a first name basis with the supermarket store manager (Marisol, if you were wondering). And, among them all, a slight but significant softening in the waiter’s manner whenever we walked into Caffé del Arte. Not a smile, but an acknowledgment — he was never going to like us, or anyone for that matter, but at least now we were his not to like.


On Saturday morning before Easter Sunday, the patio tables and chairs were unstacked and the cafe doors flung open to reveal a new mirrored bar, white chairs and tables in place of the old pockmarked benches, and fresh window decals indicating the transformation of the Caffé into the latest branch of a local coffee and tea chain. The waiter and his muses had been replaced by a set of, if not smiling, eager young clerks in cafe aprons. You can still get a glass of wine or a light meal any time of day, as the sandwich board reminds you, and the more streamlined menu will likely yield more pastries and less moldy hummus. I haven’t been inside yet.

It’s no offense to the coffee and tea chain, whose successfully clean, well-lighted space no doubt derives from a business plan with accompanying power point (one that would not include, say, a monosyllabic waiter who aggressively ignores the hand-washing sign). Business plans, like customer service training and a heightened entrepreneurial spirit (along with cheaper and more secure bank loans) are what the experts say Spain needs to get out of the economic doldrums. But a business plan doesn’t make a neighborhood. It doesn’t make a place feel different from some other place. It doesn’t sneak your children lollipops under the table, or provide jobs to the eccentric or underdressed.

My friends here tease me that I rarely leave a four-block radius of my house in this eminently walkable city. It’s true that I’m lazy, and can come up with a hundred good excuses to avoid being stuck miles from home without a spare diaper or a snack (street stands selling lovely fried calamari sandwiches don’t count when your companion is a two-year-old). But there is a method behind my circling back to the same places day after day, week after week. It’s the only way I know to construct a place for myself in this new place. I never get tired of the gentle pleasure of being recognized, that first time that “Buenos días” is accompanied by a nod that means, “Welcome back.” Now the Caffé del Arte is gone, and I miss it.

Comment (1) Add yours ↓
  1. meg

    Yes indeed. Back in my travelin’ days (when my mother described me to her friends as an “international vagrant”), that was my reliable way of creating community: Eat at the same restaurant for every meal. By the third meal — and sometimes by the second — they knew you, they claimed you. Not bad when you’re only in a place for three days or so.

    May 28, 2012 Reply

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