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.