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Hank de Vre

The word tapas has become part of the global vernacular. Yet, the true adventure of the tapeo, a venerable social institution in Spain, just can't be imitated, try as the rest of the world might. Chefs elsewhere may make the dishes, and bartenders may pour the wine, but only in Spain does the tapeo rise to an actual art form. To partake is an almost sacred act, especially in the capital city of Madrid. There, it's taken very, very seriously.

Tapeo: The limitless ramble from bar to tavern, during which one pauses just long enough in each to nibble a meatball or two, munch a couple of garlicky shrimp, and try a forkful of octopus before moving on to the next bar (and plates) of choice.

In Madrid, there's no shortage of tascas for practicing the art of the tapeo.
Here are six of our favorites.

1. La Venencia: an oldworld Madrid watering hole. Calle de Echagaray, 7

2. Mesón de la Guitarra: a cave beneath the Plaza Mayor. It often has a guitarist. Cava de San Miguel, 13

3. Cervecería Alemana: a popular sight that's located in what's arguably Madrid's most famous area (Plaza de Santa Ana). Plaza de Santa Ana, 6

4. La Trucha: just like an old-time Andalusian tavern. Manuel Fernández y González, 3

5. Casa Carmencita: established in 1840 and once the favorite bar of poet Federico García Lorca. Calle Libertad, 16

6. Taberna Toscana: features stools that are hand-carved and sausages that hang from the ceiling. Try the morcilla (blood sausage). Plaza de las Cortes & Huertas.

 Tapas-ing 101

1 Be prepared - Madrileños can eat a lot. Tapas may be small, but all those teeny platefuls add up.

2 Madrileños stay out late, sometimes until dawn, grazing all the way. The grand finale as the sun comes up? Churros and thick-as-syrup hot chocolate for breakfast.

3 Tapeo outings can occur anytime, from the late afternoon to a 10 or 11 p.m. dinner, or starting after dinner and lasting all night.

4 Don't be afraid to join a crowded bar. You're always welcome, especially if you're willing to try a local specialty like spicy tripe or lamb's brains.

5 Don't sit. Most tapas-goers stand. (It's cheaper and more fun to order at the bar.)

6 Order your drink and wait five minutes. Usually, the barman will bring you something for free, perhaps some almonds or olives, to whet your appetite.

7 Most bars proudly letter their tapas menu on the outside window as well as display it at the bar. Don't hesitate to point if your Spanish fails you.

8 Keep moving. No matter how much you love a place, the goal is to hit as many tascas (tapas bars), to try as many diminutive bites, and to down as many minidrinks as possible.

9 In some bars, you can order your food in three portion sizes:
pincho (a mouthful)
tapa (saucer-size), and
ración (a small plate)

10 Go ahead, act like a local: Throw your napkin and olive pit on the floor. If the bar isn't littered with napkin debris, something is wrong.

11 At each place, you pay at the end of your tapas snarfing. In most typical taverns, barmen charge you by your pile of plates or toothpicks, adding them up with chalk on the bar.

10 Dishes to Try

1. Queso Cabrales: a blue cheese from Asturias

2. Jamón Ibérico: a cured ham

3. Boquerones en vinagre: fresh anchovies sprinkled with vinegar, garlic, parsley, and olive oil

4. Gambas al ajillo: peppery, garlic-laden shrimp

5. Tortilla Española: a flat potato omelet 

6. Pimientos de Padrón: grilled small green peppers (Beware: Some are hot and some are not.)

7. Pescaditos: tiny, fried fish

8. Mojama: cured tuna

9. Pulpo a la gallega: octopus, usually served on potatoes and sprinkled with paprika

10. Setas: wild mushrooms, usually grilled

Cheat Sheet:
If you stay at the Intercontinental Madrid (www.intercontinental.com), the hotel can arrange a guided tapas tour for you that takes the guesswork out of the tapeo.