‘World’s Oldest Restaurant’ Serving Suckling Pig Since 1725 Hyped by Hemingway—Still Fresh Today

‘World’s Oldest Restaurant’ Serving Suckling Pig Since 1725 Hyped by Hemingway—Still Fresh Today
(Background: Brian Adamson/CC BY 2.0; Insets: Max Alexander/PromoMadrid/CC BY 2.0; Courtesy of Antonio González)
Michael Wing
10/23/2023
Updated:
10/24/2023
0:00

You know you’re old when your baby pictures are actual woodcut engravings. But if you’re the oldest restaurant in the business, you have to somehow stay fresh.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín in Spain is the world’s oldest restaurant, according to the Guinness Book of Records. It predates America by a half-century and still serves its world-famous suckling pig 300 years after opening its doors.
Over a century before black and white daguerreotypes were a thing, Botín was born in Madrid in 1725. But what’s key isn’t whether Botín has endured the test of time—its three centuries prove it has—but how has the food fared in modern days?
Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Sanchez/CC BY 2.0)
Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Sanchez/CC BY 2.0)

It fared well enough last century, many famous figures say.

Ernest Hemingway himself wrote of Botín in his 1932 book featuring Spanish bullfighters, “Death in the Afternoon”:

“But in the meantime I preferred to dine on suckling pig at Botín than sit and think about the accidents which my friends could suffer.”

Sobrino de Botín was favored by famous patrons like Hemingway for its excellent food and noteworthy age. But he is both old and dead. Might some celebrity closer to our time give a more contemporary review?

Alongside literary giant James A. Michener, British author Frederick Forsyth, 85 and still alive, mentioned the restaurant in a novel. In his Cold War-era thriller “Icon” (1996), Botín’s medieval cellar makes a cameo as a rendezvous point for spies:

The basement has brick vaults and is an old cellar dating from the Middle Ages. For many years, it has served typically Spanish food under the name of Sobrinos de Botín.
The food was good. Monk ordered a Marqués de Riscal …
That very same medieval cellar predates Botín itself and evidences how the building, dating to 1590, is even older, Botín’s website explains. Spanish musicians still play dashingly in that cellar.
Spanish musicians play in the medieval wine cellar of Sobrino de Botín. (Edmund Gall/CC BY 2.0)
Spanish musicians play in the medieval wine cellar of Sobrino de Botín. (Edmund Gall/CC BY 2.0)

Today, a dining room rests in the downstairs winery that “has remained unchanged since the 16th century,” one of Botín’s three current owners Antonio González, 72, told The Epoch Times. It was part of an old inn before Botín ever opened.

Mr. González still has papers kept by its then proprietor. These include a privilege of exemption from lodgers (privilegio de exención de huéspedes) to keep out royal cortege visitors who might freeload at the inn.

The French cook Jean Botín and his Asturian wife later arrived and opened a small tavern in 1725. That became the restaurant we know today. He meant to work for a nobleman under the powerful Hapsburgs.

By then, the Spanish royal court had begun a grand refurbishment of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor—from 1620 when it was still “thronged with rabble-rousers engaged in various activities,” Botín’s website writes.

Lively illustrations depict charming Old World scenes of Sobrino de Botín. (Courtesy of Antonio González)
Lively illustrations depict charming Old World scenes of Sobrino de Botín. (Courtesy of Antonio González)
The façade of Sobrino de Botín as it looks now. (Public domain)
The façade of Sobrino de Botín as it looks now. (Public domain)

Crooked streets were made straight and given trade-specific names as the area became a commercial enclave: There was Tanners Bank (Ribera de Curtidores); Blacksmith Plaza (Plaza de Herradores); Cutlery Street (Calle Cuchilleros); and so on.

Along the street called Calle Cuchilleros, the Botíns started renovating to close an existing arcade and open the doors of a small inn.

A slab with the date remains in the building’s entrance today. Even the ancient wood oven still in the restaurant dates from that year.

“Botín’s main specialty is the roast, cooked in the original oven from 1725, with oak wood,” Mr. González said. “The star dish is roast suckling pig and also roast lamb.”

The restaurant purportedly has kept the antique oven’s flame burning, never to be extinguished, all this time.

The antique oven in Sobrino de Botín dates back to when the restaurant was founded in 1725. (Max Alexander/PromoMadrid/CC BY 2.0)
The antique oven in Sobrino de Botín dates back to when the restaurant was founded in 1725. (Max Alexander/PromoMadrid/CC BY 2.0)

From those early years until well into the 18th century, meat and other foodstuffs were harder to obtain than fuel to fire the ovens in Spain. Selling such goods was seen as an imposition that could jeopardize other trades. Restaurateurs could serve only what guests brought to be cooked, hence the saying:

“In Spanish inns you only found what the traveler brought.”

Besides said authors, older famous names have glitzed the establishment like Francisco Goya, the painter, who reportedly worked there as a waiter while awaiting acceptance into the Royal Academy in 1765.

After the owner died and his wife’s nephew took over, it became Sobrino de Botín. The name has stuck.

Patrons dine inside Sobrino de Botín. (DIMSFIKAS/CC BY 3.0)
Patrons dine inside Sobrino de Botín. (DIMSFIKAS/CC BY 3.0)
The 19th century saw more renovations to Botín’s ground floor. A polychrome wooden frieze with gold leaf was added at the entrance, along with large windows and a confectionery counter where “fritters, crème pastries, sugar-topped sweet rolls, and cream glory cakes” were displayed.

At the time, Botín wasn’t considered a restaurant per se but a tavern. Back then, the term “restaurant” was reserved for the few rather exclusive places that tried to emulate Parisian establishments.

The 20th century saw the arrival of both Botín’s current owners and the war that Hemingway’s classic, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), is based on. The González family took the reigns in 1927 with hopes of expanding the business, yet the breakout of the Spanish Civil War nearly dashed their dreams.
A plate with Botín's emblem and a painting that decorates the wall of the restaurant. (Above: Den C/CC BY 2.0; Below: public domain)
A plate with Botín's emblem and a painting that decorates the wall of the restaurant. (Above: Den C/CC BY 2.0; Below: public domain)
Suckling pig being cooked and served at Sobrino de Botín. (Courtesy of Antonio González)
Suckling pig being cooked and served at Sobrino de Botín. (Courtesy of Antonio González)

Botín became a dining place for members of the military until the war’s end. After a terrible period following this, the González boys Antonio, José, and Carlos took over, making Botín what it is today.

The original team of 7 employees expanded to 89. The former main floor establishment swallowed up four floors. The same great suckling pig is served in the old-fashioned manner. Botín’s dashing atmosphere lasted.

So, after all these centuries, what keeps Botín fresh? Its patrons constantly coming back?

A vacant table at Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, Spain. (Maria Morri/CC BY 2.0)
A vacant table at Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, Spain. (Maria Morri/CC BY 2.0)

It takes more than decorum and “historical charm,” Mr. González tells us. The key to lasting so long is having “loyalty to the culinary personality of the house.”

Botín’s culinary roots are Castilian and Spanish, he said, as interpreted by his talented grandfather, Emilio González.

Excellent customer service and top-quality ingredients are also essential, the website adds.

“Three or four times every week, the restaurant receives suckling pigs straight from Segovia and lambs from Spain’s renowned magic triangle: Sepúlveda-Aranda-Riaza,” they write.

Enticingly, they add, “The lambs and suckling pigs are roasted slowly and carefully in the old wood-fired oven.”

But what? It’s all talk, you say?

Well, the proof is in the pudding—and on the palate. So if you’re in Madrid, find a seat at Botín and judge the lamb roast yourself. With all this suckling pig talk, we might even join you.

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