Madrid is a pretty city, but after a visit to Paris or Rome, I always felt something was missing: sidewalk cafés. True, Madrid had some nice ones, concentrated in touristy public squares like the Plaza Santa Ana, the Plaza Mayor or the Plaza de Oriente. But the rest of the place seemed barren. It was hard to find an outdoor seat on a hidden side street, and except for a leafy strip of terrazas on the Paseo de Recoletos, it was impossible to sip a Rioja on a broad boulevard. All the action was inside, at the tapas bars. And that usually meant standing room only.
The landscape is changing, however. This summer, sidewalk cafés are blossoming where they have never been before, like the once-sterile square next to the Parliament building, for instance. Or the Plaza de Independencia, heretofore a glorified traffic circle. The Salamanca district now has more of a Parisian feel, or at least a Barcelona vibe, and the boutique-lined Calle Serrano seems to be vying for Champs Élysées status. Well, something close to that.
The sudden boom in al fresco dining is, in part, the happy by-product of a dubious public works program that widened sidewalks while creating ephemeral jobs. The cash-strapped Madrid city hall has allowed eateries to cut into the extra cement space as long as they pay for the privilege.
The crowd now sipping red wine with lemon soda in the shade also owes thanks to Spain's nationwide smoking ban, which sent half the tavern-going population outdoors for a drag. In winter, restaurants and bars to install outdoor heaters. In summer, the heaters were exchanged for fans.