The Oldest Restaurant in the World Roasts 50 Pigs a Day
The key to restaurant longevity? Faithfulness to tradition and a ton of suckling pig.
This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sobrino de Botín is the oldest restaurant in the world—it's still in business and has been serving food, without interruption, since 1725. As the current owner, Antonio González, explained, his grandparents didn't stop working even during the Spanish Civil War; even though it was obviously dangerous, "everything was dangerous back then."
I first read about Sobrino de Botín in a world records book at my grandparents' house. I memorized the restaurant's name, just like I'd committed to memory the height of the tallest person in the world, the name of the one who ate the most, or the person who could put the most clothespins on their face—only to completely forget it all, years later. It wasn't until I moved to Madrid that I remembered the famous grill and decided to stop by to meet the staff in person.
You can see the packs of tourists and their constantly-narrating guides by the time you reach Cuchilleros Street, where the restaurant is located. If you're just coming to check the place out, you're only allowed in before it opens for service. After that, you can only visit if you're going to eat, and all photos are prohibited.
González is waiting for me inside. "The oven-roasted suckling pig is the star dish," he tells me. "The pigs have to be at least 19 days old or weigh at least four kilos. It takes about two hours to roast them in the oven—we've been using the same oven here since 1725," he explains. Sobrino de Botín roasts about 50 pigs a day.
"Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time here and had my father's confidence," González says. "He made his own martinis and one day even made a paella." He points to the writer's favorite corner spot, the ideal position for the sort of person who thought he was under constant surveillance from enemy spies.
Sobrino de Botín makes a brief cameo in Death in the Afternoon, in which Hemingway—an aficionado of bulls—wrote, "But meantime I would rather dine on suckling pig at Botín's than sit and think of casualties my friends have suffered."
The cellars date back to the sixteenth century and contain beautiful, never-restored brick vaults. Among the dust-covered bottles of wine, I notice some bricks that have been plastered over. "Those were entrances to tunnels that are now closed, but once connected all of Madrid's underground," González says.
I ask how the restaurant has managed to remain active since 1725. González has a clear answer: "By passing it down from one generation to the next, and barely making changes."
"During the [Spanish] Civil War, we got to the point that we had to ration food or just charge what the client could afford to pay." It was a difficult period and profits were low. "My grandfather was at the point of being shot for being a business owner, but my grandmother saved him because she confronted the militia and said, 'We can't serve you anything if we're dead. Alive, we can feed you.'"
Sobrino de Botín's story is one of tradition, legacy, and staying true to itself. Maybe that's why they've managed to hang around for centuries.
I tried the star dish. It was the best suckling pig I've ever eaten in my life, of course. If you'd like to try it, Antonio González and his family are waiting for you at the oldest restaurant in the world.