Cafe con leche. It was one of the first phrases I stumbled over in high school Spanish. It was one of the first things I sought out upon moving to Spain. And, for a little while, it satisfied expectations.
But, eventually I began to miss much of what coffee had to offer back home in Chicago. I’m not talking about watery crud that comes in infinitely refillable quantities at every corner diner. (Though, to be honest I miss that on occasion, too.) I’m talking the intermingling smells of an international panoply of fresh ground beans wafting through the air, the encyclopedic geekery of a great barista guiding you like an experienced sommelier, an array of preparations that ranges from classic and functional to outlandishly decadent.
The idea of grabbing a coffee and just sitting in the plaza didn’t exist.
Maybe most of all, I missed the ability to grab a cup to accompany me on a Sunday morning stroll around the city. While Madrid has long been well-possessed of a strong coffee culture, it just never blossomed into the full bourgeois, hipster glory that has become commonplace in so many other major metropolitan areas.
Santi Rigoni, one of the owners of Toma Café agrees: ”Good ideas are always born of necessity.” Santi has travelled and seen the explosion of innovative coffee producers and providers around Europe and North and South America, but says that “In Madrid, we just could’t find it. There was good product available, there was fresh coffee being served, but something was happening, some strange atmosphere or alignment of the planets, where the final product was coming out bad. We said to ourselves, we’re going to do it. And we did it.”Given the state of Madrid’s coffee scene, they had to look abroad for references. Santi says internationally he has countless influences, but he cites San Francisco’s Blue Bottle, London’s Monmouth, and Chicago’s Intelligentsia (my personal fave), among his biggest.
The space that houses Toma is small, simple and elegant. It was put together by Santi — who has a history in marketing and design — in what’s becoming a familiar minimalist mixture of the rustic and the futuristic: think plywood, chalkboards, exposed metal. There are a few seats, always occupied, provided by a bench along one wall. “People come here to have a coffee, pick at something sweet, and that’s it.”
The simplicity coupled with the quality makes this a place that calls its customers back morning after morning, the paper cup with the Toma! stamp becoming a ubiquitous sight in early morning Malasaña.
Santi says part of the idea is “to return life to the street. Madrid has a lot of life outside of the house, but it’s in the bars. You sit in a bar and have a beer, but the idea of grabbing a coffee and just sitting in the plaza didn’t exist. Now we’re seeing it more and more: food to take away, drinks to take away, people sitting out in the park for breakfast.”
That ethic of bringing people back outdoors is reinforced by another theme that is hard to miss in Toma: bicycles. There is a bike hanging above the bar, a bike on the logo, a team of bikes–usually of the fixed-gear variety–locked up out front, and even the door handle has been fashioned from a set of handlebars. An infectiously creative and active spirit permeates the space and makes it an ideal environment in which to kick off your day. As Santi puts it “There’s no better way to start a day than to have a coffee and go for a ride. It starts us up. Everyone loves bikes. Everyone loves good coffee. It gets us moving.” By the way, if you need air in your tires as well as caffeine in your veins, they have a bike pump behind the bar.
And, Toma is on the grow. In keeping with, and even doubling down on, the motif of tight spaces, Santi is in the process of opening a series of esquinas, or coffee corners. The most recent can be found in The Passenger on Calle Pez.
Ryan Day is a writer who lives in Madrid. He and some friends run The Toast Cafe, a space for literary and other artistic events that happens to make a pretty mean hamburger and a whole array of veggie cuisine… and lots of coffee for those who just want to sit and scribble. You can find more of his writing at The Nervous Breakdown.