Café del Real, Plaza de Isabel II
I first came here on my first day in Madrid, when I was a little overwhelmed by the plurality of cafes and decided to test Lonely Planet's standards by starting with the first cafe they mention in their Madrid guide. Either I did not have enough respect for Lonely Planet guides, or I underestimated how cool Madrid´s cafes are. Both, probably.
Café del Real is old-bistro style with dark-red painted woodwork, cigarette stain-coloured walls and ceilings and proper bistro tables and chairs. It seems to have mastered the pseudo-contradictions of having both a good ambiance and air-conditioning, and an appreciation for both good coffee and proper drinks. I really appreciated the excellent coffee (cortado for me please), which I do my best to take for granted while I am in Madrid. Rather than dwell on it, I just settle in to things tasting better; same goes for the supermarket at El Corte Ingles.
The music varies a fair bit, depending on who is working: the first time it was trendy Mobyesque stuff that I did not recognise, and the next time it was nostalgic early 90s music. It is also a nice place in the afternoon, but with very different staff, when you probably end up listening to Vivaldi. Most relaxing, although you start wishing there was more than one Vivaldi tape after a few visits.
On another visit, I popped into the usual again for the usual, and found more employees than customers which means I got to talk to them without the irritation of them having to serve other customers. Rosa, off-duty and having a beer at the bar, always got me to talk to her in Spanish; Fernando, who is doing a PhD in sociology, was on his first day; and Elio, from Paraguay, told me about his photos of the cafe online. They are a friendly bunch, and that time Fernando would not even let me pay for the coffee and beer I drank.
A few days later, Franco wanted some camomile tea, which I am told you can get at any cafe, so it seemed like a good idea to take our homework to Cafe del Real for a while. Downstairs was too busy to we headed for a corner upstairs by the front window. Only then did I remember Rosa explaining that their busy tourist crush is from about 4 p.m. until early evening. With this many people, the air conditioning downstairs was not able to stop the upstairs part from getting horribly hot and smoky. What is more, small bistro tables are not actually very practicable for studying with someone, so we went home to finish the ejercicios.