On Hype

Botin, in Madrid, is the oldest restaurant in the world, dating from 1725. (Europe-old is so different from America-old.) Hemingway wrote about it. Lonely Planet called it a top pick, their suckling pig a must-eat taste of Madrid. So, obviously, I went.

And now, obviously, I feel like a dupe and a rube and a fool. Which I am. Because I just dropped about fifty bucks on a totally average meal.

Here’s the thing–I should have known. OF COURSE a spot like this has become despicably touristy. (I’m assuming at some point it was the real deal.) And OF COURSE they’re charging three times what they should. Because they were absolutely packed at lunchtime with Japanese tourists and Australian tourists and little old me, there to soak up the atmosphere (which is delightful, by the way, a little dark cave of a cellar dining room and charming waiters) and eat the food that the book said was soooo good and soooo famous.

And therein lies the problem. The “famous” bit and the price that comes with it. This was a perfectly fine meal. The gazpacho was smokey and creamy, the bread was fresh and crusty, and the pig was juicy and savory and had skin that crackled like dangerous ice on a pond. But I can’t imagine what in that simple meal (plus utterly superfluous potatoes and ice cream and a half-bottle of two-buck-chuck-tasting wine) was worth fifty dollars. Maybe once or twice in my life have I ever dropped that kind of cash on a meal, and I’ve never regretted it. Until today.

Tasty? Sure. Worth it? Meh.

If it hadn’t been so talked up–I trust Lonely Planet’s recommendations, which is maybe my first mistake, though I can’t recall another time they’ve steered me wrong–and if I wasn’t so swayed by the glamor of Hemingway (I’m a sucker for literary places generally and adore Hemingway more than is reasonable for a modern feminist) I would have passed it by in favor of one of the hundred tastier and cheaper nameless places in the same neighborhood. But I was won over by the history, by the story–by the hype.
I’m an experienced traveler and, you know, human being. So why do I still fall for this stuff? What is it about fame that can dazzle even a worldly cynic? Does any place live up to the legend that got created around it?

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