Hemingway’s legacy lives on at world’s oldest restaurant

February 27, 2013
Submitted | El Botin

Submitted | El Botin

Ernest Hemingway had a lifelong love affair with Spain. He wrote multiple books on the country, including his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” and his non-fiction manifesto, “Death in the Afternoon.”

In these works, Hemingway references his favorite restaurant, and also the oldest in Spain, Sobrino de Botin.

The final scene of Hemingway’s most famous novel “The Sun Also Rises” takes place in Botin when the book’s main characters sit to dine on roast suckling pig.

“We lunched upstairs at Botin’s,” he wrote. “It is one of the best restaurants in the world…I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.”

Hemingway frequently enjoyed this same meal while in Madrid. In “Death in the Afternoon,” Hemingway writes…“…but, in the meantime, I would prefer to dine on suckling pig at Botín than sit and think about the accidents which my friends could suffer.”

As the oldest restaurant in the world, Sobrino de Botin is a place that has withstood wars, fires, and over two centuries of use – upholding a legacy so strong, not even time can touch it.

Located on a tiny street behind Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Botin embodies an interesting blend of tradition and modern life.

“If I could personify Botin, it would be as a chivalrous gentleman or courtier,” said Jennifer De Lisi-Hall, a high school English teacher in Irvington, New York. “Botin embodies a preservation of Spain’s food culture that is both noble and laudable; it simultaneously enshrines, venerates, and contributes to Spain’s culinary and aesthetic dialogue.”

Submitted | El Botin

Submitted | El Botin

Hall dined at Botin with her family in April 2007 in an experience she said that she looks back on with nostalgia.

Locals and tourists from all over the world are drawn to Botin for its historic reputation.

“El Botin was exactly what I had expected; old and rustic,” said 21-year-old Gustavo Arvelo from Tallahassee, Fla. “As you enter the restaurant, you feel like you are going back in time. You feel welcome. You feel wanted. You feel like you are becoming a part of history just by being there.”

Keeping it in the family, generation after generation

Family is one of the strongest foundations that Botin was built on, a concept that remains important to the restaurant today.

Carlos González and his brother Antonio González are members of the third generation in their family to run Botin. Carlos González, who now manages the restaurant, has lived in Madrid his entire life and been working at Botin for 22 years.

“Botin is the same in essence as it was 280 years ago,” he said. “The building, the decoration, and the old way of cooking. The wooden oak oven and the coal kitchen are the same as they were when we first began serving food here.”

The first written history of Botin dates back to 1590 when the owner of the building that today holds Botin applied for a Privelegio de exención de huéspedes (Privilege of Exemption from Lodgers,) a license that is still required for all property owners in Spain today. The restaurant was founded by French cook Jean Botin and his wife, and originally called Casa Botin. Renovations were performed on the building in 1725, and a slab at Botin’s entrance features evidence of the work and date.

After the Botins died without any descendants, their nephew Candido Remis inherited the restaurant, changing the name to Sobrino de Botin, meaning Nephew of Botin – the name that survives the restaurant to this day.

Botin fell into the hands of Amparo Martín and her husband Emilio González in the 20th century. At this point, the restaurant had seven employees: the couple and their three children. Botin survived the Spanish Civil War, and three generations later, the González family still runs Botin today.

Part of the second generation of the González  family to run Botin, was Emilio González, Amparo and Emilio’s son and Carlos’ grandfather. Hemingway formed a solid friendship with Emilio González’s during Hemingway’s time spent in Spain during the late 1920s, late 1930s, and parts of the 1950s.

“My grandfather, Emilio González, would let Hemingway fix his own martinis,” Carlos González said. “Hemingway was a regular here, and he loved the roast suckling pig.”

Hemingway has not been the only author to reference Botin in his work. Multiple Spanish, English and American writers have used the restaurant as a setting throughout history, such as, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, and James A. Michener. The famous Spanish artist Francisco Goya was even said to be a dishwasher in Botin’s kitchen as a teenager.

Building popularity through time and fame

As Botin’s reputation in art and literature grew throughout time, so did the restaurant itself, which now occupies four floors of its building when it originally only occupied one.

“When first entering Botin, I was immediately struck by the historicity apparent in the restaurant’s physical space…or lack thereof,” Hall said. “Unlike walking into a modern eatery, which is often deliberately decorated to open up a room, El Botin cannot escape from its nearly 300-year-old architecture (nor, I’m sure, would it want to). There are passageways that feel low-ceilinged, cramped, and narrow.”

Botin still exhibits the same look of wood-paneled exterior, dark wood beams, stone walls and exposed brick archways that it did centuries ago. Hall compares walking through the exposed brick archways to walking through “an ancient Etruscan tunnel.”

Although many of the restaurant’s surface characteristics remain intact, some things in the restaurant have inevitably changed.

“Now, there is a big revolution in digital marketing,” González said. “We have 8,000 friends on Facebook and a Twitter and Youtube account. Our customers make bookings online. [Charles] Darwin said, ‘The ones who survive are not the strongest. The ones who survive are the ones who adapt to changes more quickly.’ We adapt to survive.”

Submitted | El Botin

Submitted | El Botin

Botin’s ever-growing social media presence has led to its reputation as a tourist destination in Madrid.

“At first glance, I thought El Botin was a real gem; a rustic, hidden restaurant that just happened to also be the oldest,” said Taylor Young, a photographer and food blogger from West Sussex. “When it got closer to our reservation time and the tourists began crowding around the front door in their sandals and backpacks, it was obvious that El Botin was the oldest restaurant in the world. And it just happened to be rustic and a gem.”

Young dined at El Botin in April 2011 during a road trip through Spain. He keeps a travel food blog “Passport Foodie,” and his photography can be found at tayloryoungphotography.com.

A Precarious  Balancing Act

Botin teeters on the edge of the old and the new, tradition and change, history and modernity.

“At first I really enjoyed the mix of old and new, and then I just kind of wanted them to choose one or the other,” Young said. “For instance, there is an old Spanish blanket rigged up as a doorway outside, next to the main entrance, but then in the window display there are Guinness records and all sorts of things for tourists to take photos of.”

Although masses of tourists may gather on the steps of Botin every night, the restaurant still draws in an authentic local crowd, which truly speaks to the quality of the food.

“The most satisfying part of dining at El Botin is to be amongst the locals, and to realize that although this restaurant is one of, if not, the oldest, it still draws a local crowd,” Young said. “I do believe that El Botin, just like some other famous restaurant tourists traps has at its core the fundamental to serve excellent food. And that is evident at El Botin.”

Submitted | El Botin

Submitted | El Botin

Botin’s most famous dish that Hemingway enjoyed on numerous occasions is the roast suckling pig cooked in the same oven used for almost 300 years. Servers bring the pig to the table in its entirety (head and all) to dissect and distribute among patrons.

However delicious the pig may be, most people from Spain or from afar visit Botin for its atmosphere.

“Botin is not only a restaurant; it is an experience,” González said. “It is a restaurant with soul where people of all types can become friends. In the end, the people are the real important stuff. We try to work every day like the first day we opened without thinking we have ‘arrived.’”