El Brillante

“Ya no quedan cafés como este,” my professor informs us as we walk up Calle Dr. Drumen to El Brillante. The little street is littered with mismatched storefront signs, some old, others crooked. They signal a few run-down bodegas, two hotels, one Starbucks. El Brillante’s green awning is among them, printed with loopy white script that sports a gaudy star over the ‘i.’ When we reach the café, the nine of us—a group of Spanish literature students—file through the glass door and into the fluorescent-lit interior. My professor holds the door for us.

We are here in Madrid for one rainy January week. He spent the past semester teaching us about the literature and architecture of the city at the turn of the century. Now is our chance to see it all for ourselves: the neighborhood where Trapeillo based his short stories, Moneo’s modern extension to the Museo del Prado, the skyscrapers built to compete with the scales of London and Paris.

But before we head out each morning to wander, we stop in at El Brillante. The place does not have the glamorous, intricate interior one might expect from a European café. Rather, it features a scuffed linoleum floor, photographs of meal combos hung along the walls, and metal-topped bars that stretch the length of the narrow eatery. The bars lead down to another set of double doors that open onto the parallel street, Paseo de Sta. María de la Cabeza. Men in neatly pressed navy blue uniforms stand behind the counter, taking brusque orders. Everyone (but us, of course) is a regular. Nadie pide la carta.

My professor explains that this is the way cafés in Madrid used to be: sparse and unwelcoming, with waiters that remembered your name, your family’s background, who your plumber was, that your mother-in-law visited last weekend, and, naturally, your order.

He had a friend once—una puertorriqueña—who lived a block away from El Brillante. She ate breakfast here every morning and ordered the same thing almost always. One day, something came up and she left Spain, went back to Puerto Rico, or perhaps to the United States. When she returned to Madrid those years later, she stopped in at El Brillante. Before she could close the door behind her that first time back, the waiter turned to her and asked, “¿Lo de siempre, señora?”