The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Madrid's Casa Botin as the oldest restaurant in the world. How old is it, Johnny? It's soooooooooo old that...the help lived in the Cervantes quarters, the original specialty of the house was Hapsburger Deluxe and the patrons downed wine by the galleon.

Well, maybe not. The truth is, Casa Botin has been standing at 17 Calle de Cuchilleros in the heart of Old Madrid since 1590. Originally a coach house, Casa Botin became a restaurant in 1725 and has remained one ever since, making it the oldest eatery still in business, according to the folks at Guinness. Like many successful restaurants, it owes at least part of its longevity to word of mouth.

Even some of those words, in fact, are considerably older than most other restaurants. "We lunched upstairs at Botin's," wrote Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. "It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."

The man currently in charge of this legendary lunch stop for the literati, which has also been celebrated by Graham Greene and James Michener, is 66-year-old Antonio Gonzalez—more popularly, if inaccurately, known as Antonio Botin. When pressed, he will reveal what First Lady Nancy Reagan ordered when she and Spain's Queen Sofia ate there in May 1985 (gazpacho and sole), or he will display a clipping from his scrapbook containing the words of satisfied customer Jack Nicholson: "I'll always remember the Botin restaurant in Madrid: such perfection when I bit into my veal cutlet, I almost wept."

For the most part, though, the Barcelona-born Gonzalez keeps his proprietary pride on the back burner and denies any unseemly fascination with celebrities. "I'm too busy concentrating on the efficiency of my kitchen," he explains. "Celebrities are not so important—tomorrow is. Tomorrow the restaurant has to be filled, and the day after, and the day after that, and everybody has to leave happy. A dissatisfied customer not only doesn't return, he tells other people."

Sure enough, the wood-paneled walls of the darkly labyrinthine restaurant, with their discreetly peeling paint, bear no photographs of the famous who have eaten there—among them Linda Evans, Jane Seymour and Stacy Keach. The iron tables are topped with plain marble and linen doilies embroidered by Antonio's mother. A few gastronomical awards and citations, including the Spanish government's modest two-fork rating, are scattered about. All that has changed here in the last 40 years are the prices. In 1935 a portion of Botin's renowned suckling pig sold for less than a nickel. Today it costs about $14.

The Gonzalez family acquired Botin in 1885. Antonio's father, Emilio, was the cook, and his way with a pig or a cutlet made the place a favorite haunt of a correspondent from the Toronto Ster named Hemingway. Remembers Antonio: "In the late '20s, when Ernest came to the restaurant alone, he always sat at the first table on the right so he could see my father working in the kitchen. He sat with his back to the wall. He thought everyone was after him—the IRS, the FBI, jealous husbands."

In those days Antonio was not much taken with the restaurant business. "When I was about 8 years old," he says, "I got up at 5 a.m. to make the pastries. I remember standing on a box to reach the mix, then I had to sell them, go to school and then come back to do the bills, which usually took until 1 in the morning." He also got to polish the vintage copper pots that still hang in the spotless blue-and-white-tiled kitchen. "When your nails are so dirty you can't get them clean, the pots are shiny," he says.

From 1936 to 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, Botin's was closed (though the family continued to live there, sleeping in the wine cellar). At the time Antonio regarded the hiatus as a blessing. Afterward he began to feel differently. "Once the restaurant was a curse," he admits. "Then it became my life. I saw its possibilities. I thought this could be a great place, full of satisfaction."

The restaurant, popular with both Madrileños and tourists, is always full and accepts no reservations, so that crowds seven-deep can often be seen waiting outside for a chance to sample the timeless specialties of roast pig and Castilian lamb. In order to turn a profit, Botin has to and does serve 360 meals daily. Since 1939 Gonzalez has worked there seven days a week, 14 hours a day; only in the last six years has he given more responsibility to his eldest son, Antonio Jr., 36. Even now he is at Botin four days a week, taking orders, bustling about and chatting easily in both French and Spanish. Wouldn't it make sense to cash in on his beloved Casa Botin's huge popularity by opening a sister establishment somewhere else in Madrid? The very idea makes Gonzalez indignant. "A restaurant is like a horse," he says. "You cannot ride two at the same time."

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Barker.