With its European-inspired design, live flamenco performances and a menu featuring fresh seafood and imported meats, Madrid Spanish Taverna in Columbia would not have diners too far off in thinking they’ve been swept away to a tavern in Spain.
Concept curator and founder Abelardo “Abe” Ruiz, born and raised in Puerto Rico, wanted to bring an authentic Spanish tavern experience to the states when he opened the restaurant’s original location in Roswell, Ga. Ruiz’ first location has seen great success, despite opening at the height of the pandemic in 2021. Ruiz attributes this success to how the restaurant stands out among its competitors in the dining scene.
“This is not a typical restaurant concept,” Ruiz says. “Here, there’s a lot of culture that comes from all of Spain. You have to understand the music, the colors, the flavors… it’s all very intentional.”
Madrid Spanish Taverna’s main focus is on tapas: small appetizers that can be combined for a larger meal that are staples of bar cuisine in Spain. Specialty plates and charcuterie boards known as tablas are also part of the menu. As for main courses, the restaurant specializes in paella, serving seafood, meat, and vegetable varieties.
The restaurant’s partnership with The Greene Turtle—a popular sports bar franchise throughout Maryland originating in Ocean City—is what led Ruiz to open a second location in Columbia, close to the sports bar’s headquarters. Since July, the new taverna has served to fill a gap in the area’s Spanish food niche.
To execute his vision successfully, Ruiz is armed with 33 years of industry experience, serving as a concept creator and helping restaurants find their unique aesthetic, designs and flavors. He continues this role at Columbia’s Madrid Spanish Taverna.
The restaurant does not operate with an executive chef. Instead, Ruiz oversees a culinary team and has direct influence over the menu.
“Everything you see, feel, perceive, or taste, whether it’s food or beverages … Every single recipe has passed through my hands. Their tastes, their smells, and the colors used in the decor of the restaurant are all very intentional,” he explains.
The taverna’s brick walls, wooden-beam ceilings and hanging lamps shaped like barrels are all meant to invoke its Spanish inspirations. A shelf of imported Spanish wines is on full display, and legs of jamón ibérico — a type of Spanish ham sourced from prestigiously-bred Iberian pigs — hang from the ceiling.
Both locations were designed by Luisa Casas, a Georgia contractor who specializes in restaurants. Casas has a background in film production, which helps her to visualize and design her projects. For this project, she also drew from her own experiences.
“I’ve been in Madrid a few times,” says Casas, who was born in Colombia.
“I love Spanish culture. I love their food. I always wanted to do something related to tapas and wine, and the Spanish tradition. I started going through pictures and getting to know more about the country, its food, its traditions. That’s how everything came into place.”
Casas points out the use of ceramic tiles and metal in Madrid Spanish Taverna’s interior, which serve as signature design elements for her.
She also prides herself on the restaurant’s open bar area, where customers can enjoy a glass of red sangria — the taverna’s most popular cocktail.
Currently, the restaurant team is working on having a mural painted in one of its dining rooms.
The exotic-yet-homey atmosphere created from its design fits the menu well. The taverna imports many of its ingredients from Spain, particularly its jamón ibérico. (The meat actually used to be illegal in the U.S., over fears of African swine fever affecting Spanish pork, but in 2007 the first legal shipment arrived, and the ham—widely recognized as one of the best meat delicacies in the world—now makes up some of the taverna’s most popular dishes.)
“It costs almost $50 a pound — in comparison, a pound of lobster costs about $18 right now,” Ruiz notes. “But, we don’t mind. We want to provide our customers with the best quality ingredients we can find, and we’ve worked hard to source them because they’re not easily available.”
Future menu items will also be incorporating more local ingredients, including tapas with Maryland crab and Old Bay seasoning.
Part of the experience of local and imported pairings at Madrid Spanish Taverna is the entertainment that transports guests to the taverna’s country of inspiration. Ruiz hosts weekly events so diners can enjoy performances while they eat.
On Thursdays, Columbia’s location has live flamenco dancing with the Laurel-based Arte Flamenco dance company. Ruiz boasts that Natalie Monteleon, the company’s director, is one of the top three flamenco dancers in the country.
“I think people come to experience that,” Casas says of the dancing, “because I believe there wasn’t any scene for that the first time I was [in Columbia].”
The taverna also features live Spanish guitar music starting at 7 p.m. on Fridays. Ruiz sources most of the restaurant’s entertainment locally, and plans to bring in local artists that diners can watch paint on site.
According to staff, the live entertainment has really boosted popularity for the restaurant, as evidenced by its presence on social media. Its reputation in Georgia made it an anticipated addition to the Howard County restaurant scene.
“A lot of people were waiting for us to open the restaurant,” said Julio Koc, general manager for Madrid Spanish Taverna. “They’ve been coming back regularly.” Koc also helps to create new menu items.
Aside from menu changes, the future of Madrid Spanish Taverna holds a lot of growth. Ruiz says with the ease of opening his second location, he sees the possibility of expanding the restaurant’s footprint even more.
“The good thing about tavernas is that they’re pretty simple to open,” he says. “We keep it pretty simple, and we let our guests dictate what we do. We listen to our guests constantly, so that will dictate our path to further growth for sure.”