In the end it was my very American parents who introduced me to one of the greatest bars in my Madrid neighborhood. Sometime on their first jet-lagged day in my adopted city they said, “Hey, tomorrow let’s have breakfast there,” and pointed to a glass-fronted bar on the next corner that I’d never even noticed.
The next morning at 9 we walked bleary eyed into the smoke-filled bar. I recommended café con leche for my coffee-loving parents and ordered a ColaCao for myself. Mom and Dad eyed the glass case perched on the bar and decided on croissants. Our barman, whose quick movements behind the bar suggested he’d been doing this for a while, asked, “¿A la plancha?” I translated. Mom and Dad nodded vigorously and the barman shouted, “¡Tres cruasán plancha!” into the din of the bar’s morning rush. Pretty soon we were munching on our grilled croissants and my parents, whose caffeine habits have been learned at the school of Starbucks, were ordering a second café con leche. Each.
So began our relationship with Herza. We ate there every morning we spent in Madrid that September–nearly a week straight. During the road trip through Asturias and Galicia that followed, we sought out bars as bustling as Herza, where the barmen also dressed in white shirts and black trousers, where the customers were also locals and workers.
But they would never be Herza, with its enormous three-sided bar, its businessmen in suits downing breakfast before catching the metro, its garish lighting and incredibly dirty floor. Herza had another special quality, too: deliveries of hot, fresh churros and porras roughly every 20 minutes by the guys from the churrería across the street. Dad loved the guy wearing the Yankees hat. All must be right with the world if the Spanish (or Latino) churro-maker symbolically supports the Yanks. Yes, indeed.
We began to refer to our barman as Herman, just because it seemed to fit him: short and bespectacled, a real professional behind the bar. He quickly learned to put a second coffee in front of my parents before they’d even finished the first. When we told him we were going away for a week, he gave us recommendations on where to go in Galicia.
Mom and Dad eventually left Spain, but my love for Herza remained. I began to meet a friend in the neighborhood for breakfast there every week or so. And then Herza closed for a week. For painting, my friend informed me. When it reopened, the sign had changed to “Cesareo.” Inside it was brighter, less lived-in looking, cleaned up somehow. The walls were a pale green instead of a dirty white.
The bar formerly known as Herza was under new ownership. But for six months or so everything remained more or less the same. Herman was still there (and I found out his real name was Felix), and the churros and porras, and all those Madrileños dipping the fried dough into their coffee.
When I returned to Madrid after the summer, the new owner had finally made his mark. The old marbled black bar is gone, replaced by a shorter corner-shaped one. Tables are small and square and modern, the old Formica rectangles gone. The place looks spiffy and chic, the antithesis of what it once was. And Felix and all the old guys are gone. A waitress told me that Felix is now a doorman.
For the time being, the churros and porras continue to flow.
The top photo was taken by my father. Thanks, Daddy.