Ode to drinking coffee at old man bars

Friday morning, 7 a.m. I am rifling through the cabinets in panic–could it be possible? Had we really polished off all of the canisters of coffee that Andres had brought back from Colombia? There was only one solution: the trusty old man bar.

In Spain, the old man bar (known as “los Manolos” or “bares de viejo” in Spanish), is an institution. You can find them in any Marileño neighborhood; they will be your only option in older, more castizo barrios, but they are just as easily found tucked among the hipster hangouts in Malasaña. (In fact, in some young circles it is now fashionable to hang out at old man bars as a way of being an ironic hipster! Bonus points for berets.)

Old man bars can easily be identified by the half-hewn ham leg on the counter, slot machines in the corner, and, of course, the clientele. It is impossible for you to overlook the TV, which is either blasting music videos or fútbol matches, as the volume is age-appropriate for a place known as an old man bar. If you have lived in Spain long enough, you will be able to smell an old mar bar before you see it; their scent, which is a mix of strong coffee and buttered croissants that have been squashed against a griddle, will cling to you long after your drink is finished.

This morning I managed to escape to the old-man bar next to school for a much-needed pick-me-up. For such a tiny place, they seem to offer everything imaginable. For drinks there’s tea, orange juice, liquor, and coffee served a million ways. You can even request a mug or a clear glass for your café–there are fans of either camp. And of course you can always select a nibble; the glass display at the counters sports a range of pastries, mostly packaged cakes with the plastic removed. Further down, a homemade tortilla begs to be cut, and a platter of churros spreads its fried smell like a blanket over the whole locale.

“Me pones un café con leche?” I know exactly what l want. As the barman fits the espresso machine with a heaping mound of coffee, l observe the clients. This bar, which I have known for three years, is as colorful as ever. Two middle-aged men with bloodshot eyes play the slot machine, a much-older man drinks straight cognac at 9:30, and a group of postal workers gets caffeinated before starting their rounds, carts of mail parked beside their table. Two older women tuck into grilled croissants and toast slathered with tomate rallado. Tomato for breakfast might seem odd, but here no self-respecting old man bar would fail to offer it.

My order appears, along with the question “How do you want your milk?” If this were the states, the options would be whole, skim, or soy. Here, in old-man-bar-landia, all milk is whole and UHT. However, you get the choice of hot milk, cold milk, or “templada,” which is when the barman pours from the hot and the cold pitchers simultaneously. The latter is fun to watch, which is the only explanation I can give for the popularity of lukewarm coffee.

The default coffee in old man bars is torrefacto, which is cheap-cheap-cheap and not so good for you. Because of this, the glass in front of me ascends to “guilty pleasure” status. I stir in a packet of sugar for good measure, and drink up. The tiny amount packs a one-two punch, and soon I am practically bouncing in my seat. As easy as it is to poke fun at old man bars, their unpretentious, no-frills approach has a welcoming familiarity. More importantly, they keep me caffeinated in my most desperate, cloudy-headed moments, which is more than enough to keep me coming back.

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14 Comments

  1. I loved this post, mainly because it is such an accurate representation of the bares cutres de viejos that I love so much, too. :) Props for pointing out that torrefacto coffee is the norm in most bar-cafés; the fancier cafés will use legit stuff, but only the fancy ones, sadly.

    “a much-older man drinks straight cognac at 9:30” hahahahaha but so true though

    • Cassandra

      Thanks, Trevor! It’s fun to think that the same morning rituals are happening all over Spain.

  2. Yes yes yes. The old man bar is my favorite and the birthplace of my obsession with tomate rallado – I still have it pretty much every weekend for breakfast :)

    • Cassandra

      That’s great! I remember the first time I was served tomate rallado–it wasn’t immediately clear to me how they got the tomato into that shape! I’m glad that you’re keeping up the tradition back in the Chicago :)

  3. Old man bars are my go to for everything – a coffee, a snack, a piropo. One of the best things about my neighborhood is the abundance of them and not a swanky fusion place in site!

    • Cassandra

      Haha, a piropo. Gotta be careful when ordering those with your pre-dinner caña!

  4. I actually never thought to ask for my milk templada. I always just choose hot or cold. Thanks for this tip! :)

    • Cassandra

      De nada :) Some of my co-teachers order their coffee this way if they are in a rush to get to class; the cooler temperature makes it easy to chug!

  5. Ahh, the bares “de toda la vida” are always enjoyable. I love the old men who order cañas with their toast! I don’t understand how Spaniards are able to drink scalding coffee from glasses- I always order mine in taza, por favor.
    Great post!

    • Cassandra

      I prefer the taza too, since it keeps the coffee warmer. However, I will admit that the aesthetics of a glass cup are a bit nicer!

  6. I go to an old man bar during my break at school with co-workers. I love it and there is always this old lady playing the same casino game. The two men that work there are so nice and teach us new Spanish words when we come in. It’s the best! You’re right the no frills approach, and necessary caffeine fix, make them the greatest!

    • Cassandra

      I’m glad that you have an old man bar to escape to, as well :) That’s great that the workers serve your coffee with a side of Spanish!

  7. Oh my goodness I love this post so much! And old man bars. (perfect name for them). My favorite pastime on a rainy morning is sitting in an old man bar and listening to their perfect hasta luegos as they leave. aka: aa-oo-eh-oh. Because obviously in old man bars there is no such thing as consonants. :) xx

    • Cassandra

      Thanks, Jen! I like how you pointed out the no-consonant rule–that also seems to be par for the course in my own old man bar!!

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