First of all, thanks to all who have previously reported particularly re the long lists of tapas bars, that enabled us to wander about until we found something suitable.
We made our peace with local tradition by concentrating on one heavy meal at a restaurant/taberna (usually around 2:00 p.m.) and a lighter meal at night (9:30 was the latest we could handle) at a wine or tapas bar.
1). I'll start with the latter: Wine/tapas bars
Unfortunately we could never really accommodate ourselves to the classic tapas crawl, finding either the establishments on our assiduously researched list to be far too crowded and oppressive for comfort--requiring far more aggression and self-sufficiency than our effacing, claustrophobic personalities would allow for--or those not on our list to be virtually empty (Why?)
So, we usually plopped down wherever we could grab an open table at those former ones (after fighting our way past the bar), stayed until we were sufficiently sated with food and wine (a cava--altho vermouth or sherry seems to be the preferred aperitif--several vasos of Ribera (our preferred red--not a light wine!), and perhaps a digestif (the muscatels were excellent)), and then staggered back home. Here are the highlights:
Casa Lucas (Cava Baja 30): Here we left ourselves totally in the hands of the waiter--often a perilous strategy when you're new to a country and a language--but in this instance we were not disappointed. He was intent on making us happy--until we cried "No mas!"--and he succeeded admirably with, among others, bechamel/jamon croquettes, quail-egg/eggplant-tapenade tostados, and black (squid-ink) canneloni stuffed with shrimp and vegetables in a light cheese sauce. Splendid.
Maceiros (C/Huertas 66): This is one of those undiscovered discoveries discovered by the NY Times et al that was invariably packed except at the sociably unacceptable hour of 8:45 when we shagged a table just as it was opening . More of a taberna than a bar, it still attacts its share of locals for, primarily, the tapas. In this case, trusting in the waiter led to us purchasing the most expensive bottle of wine in the house (16 euros, good tho), and, almost, the most expensive plates. Fortunately, I was familiar with the meaning of entrecote, quickly found it on the menu (at 14 euros), and immediately assumed control over the food ordering. The razor clams were, by the way, excellent.
Zapatero (C/Almendro 22): This is also a taberna that serves primarily tapas. We ended up here because we took a wrong term somewhere and wound up some minutes later where we had started very hungry and in no mood for additional circling. I never really succeeded in navigating at night the tangled streets of Tapas Central (Cava Baja and its environs--oh so close to the Plaza Mayor and yet oh so far), altho someone less geographically challenged than I might not have a problem. Anyway, Zapatero proved to have a good selection of wines and very simple but satisfying tapas ("suelos"=soles) served on large, flat slices of bread.
Vinoteca Barbechara (C/Principe 27): This place seems "tamer" than the Cava Baja bars and has more the semblance of a modern wine bar than the above. Nevertheless, it offers a large selection of tapas, some good values (a "surtido" of 4 tapas for 10 euros), and perhaps the best smoked salmon we had in Madrid.
La Vaca Veronica (C/Moratin 38 ) A very welcoming and pleasant atmosphere and staff, and we were very appreciative that they were open Sunday afternoon, the day of our arrival. The menu is somewhat limited, particularly since we didn't come to Madrid for pastas. But their homemade version with shrimp was very good and we would certainly return for their succulent bream baked whole in sea-salt and an excellent banana ice cream.
Casa Ciriaco (C/Mayor 84): An old-school taberna near the Palacio Real with friendly service and tasty versions of shrimps in garlic, stewed chicken (reminding me a lot of our Southern "smothered" variety), and rice pudding.
Cafe del Circulo de Bellas Artes (C/Alcala 42): A good choice for lunch midway between the Real Academia (worth a visit for its Goyas and Zuburans) and Thyssen-Bornemisza, largely because of the value of its menu del dia and the elegance of the surroundings. The food was a bit hit-or-miss, with perhaps some of the best grilled mushrooms I've ever had followed by some gristly grilled lamb, but I'd probably return because of the former. Incidentally, it struck me as being very accommodating to the single diner, whether male or female.
El Cenador del Prado (C/ Prado 4): This was the restaurant we chose for our final night in Madrid, and at 41 euros the degustation menu was an excellent value, even at the currently miserable dollar-exchange rate. It included a soupe de poisson, a cheese-leek tart, a slice of foie marinated in balsamic vinegar, a white fish filet (meagre?), a filet mignon, and a chocolate tart in pear soup for dessert-- all very flavorful and prepared in a far more elaborate manner than my simple descriptions would indicate. Excellent, attentive service, elegant decor, a good wine list (our Miros de Ribera was the best of the trip) and, altho nothing Bulli-innovative or even particularly Spanish-traditional, the restaurant IMO would be worthy of inclusion with three or four forks in any country's Michelin.
3). One other note:
If you're interested in some chocolates for friends and a sinfully rich hot chocolate that will sustain you until your 10:00 reservation at El Cenador, stop by the Madrid outlet of Cacao Sampaka a bit up the road at C/Orellana 4.