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Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2001

Savoring a cup in Madrid's 'alternative universe'

Special to The Japan Times

MADRID -- There are probably older ones in Paris, more elegant ones in Vienna and definitely quicker ones in America, but Madrid's Cafe Comercial ranks with the best of them.

It is nothing less than "the best cafe in Spain," according to the newspaper El Pas. An English magazine went even further last year, giving the Comercial its annual Cafe Creme award as the best cafe in Europe.

It is important to celebrate a unique cafe when Starbucks is about to open 600 new outlets across Europe. Cafe Comercial is the oldest cafe in Madrid, having received its first license in 1887, a few months before the Cafe Gijon, its more famous but stuffy rival across town.

"Everything that you see here is original," says Fernando, a waiter who started working at Cafe Comercial when he was 15 years old and had a lot more hair.

"The marble for the tabletops comes from Galicia [the northwest province of Spain]. The chairs are 100 years old. We're having a master carpenter make 10 new copies. It's amazing how expensive a chair can be."

Though Fernando is sitting across the table from me, he's practically shouting above the late-afternoon din, the time when the smoke concentration reaches its peak. (No qualms about lung cancer here.)

It's not rare to hear Fernando shout, but it is to see him sit down. He's usually whizzing by, serving up orders and a cheeky commentary. Customers keep spinning through the golden revolving doors to be deposited in front of Romanesque columns and airy windows that feel even airier thanks to the mirrors on the walls. Cafe Comercial boasts Madrid's finest art patrons: literati, people in the movies (the director Carlos Saura recently filmed a scene for his next movie in the cafe), businessmen who want to close deals as slowly as possible.

Every Thursday night, an American named Josh plays jazz piano in the main hall downstairs, while upstairs, regulars play chess in booths, or participate in tertulias (traditional discussion groups that don't necessarily talk about traditional things).

Though the sum of the cafe's parts add up to "another universe," as one of its waiters observed, the parts themselves can be rather mundane -- there's little special nowadays in an upstairs Internet center or a cigarette machine by the entrance. The cafe's Irish coffee is good, but no better than can be bought in the Italian coffee bar across the street. The Cafe's churros (long donuts that are dunked into a cup of hot melted chocolate) are excellent, but not as famous as those of San Gines near Puerta del Sol.

Part of the mystique of the cafe is embodied in the waiters. They wear white, military-style jackets with green epaulettes, and most have white hair to match their jackets. They bring orders at an eccentric pace and have often been working here for most of their lives -- a loyalty that is not unusual in the family-run establishments of Spain.

Take Ignacio, for example. He has been working at the cafe for the past 20 years and is retiring early because of a bad leg.

"Do you want to talk here," I ask him after his half-day shift ends.

"Are you crazy?" he shouts.

We move to another cafe down the street. Ignacio is supposed to talk about Cafe Comercial but after a digressive half-hour, I realize he would much rather talk about his great-grandmother and her penchant for sausage with scrambled eggs.

Finally coaxing him on to the subject of what a waiter should be, Ignacio describes his Platonic ideal of a waiter.

"A good waiter should be dignified. He should be well shaved, well combed, well mannered, in good form and always, above all else, professional," he says.

An all-male waiting staff is one of the cafe's many traditions that will not be changing any time soon.

"We've always had male waiters," says part-owner Maria Isabel Serrataco, the mother of waiter Fernando. "I don't know why. Women can only work at the bar." Since all the orders must pass through the bar, this perhaps makes the women more important in the overall scheme of things than the men.

The city has designated the cafe as an important historical institution, but municipal munificence ends there. With no subsidy, the cafe must run off of its own hoary reputation.

Christmas and New Year's Eve are especially hectic, when the locals come all night long to gobble down churros with chocolate. Cafe Comercial is open every day of the year and has shut down only once in its history, due to a small electrical fire.

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