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MADRID TRADITIONS

After 86 years, Madrid’s Embassy tearoom cuts last cucumber sandwich

Owners say rents in iconic city center location too high, but they hope to reopen in another district

If the walls of Madrid’s Embassy could speak, they would have any number of state secrets to reveal. The English-style tearoom, opened in 1931 by Irishwoman Margarita Kearney Taylor on the capital’s Paseo de la Castellana main boulevard, played a key role during World War II helping Jews fleeing Germany en route to Portugal.

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The Embassy tearoom on the Paseo de la Castellana.

Its close proximity to many important embassies also meant it became an informal meeting place for ambassadors and diplomats. And lest we should forget, its lemon tart and cucumber sandwiches were also hugely popular with the capital’s wealthy señoras.

But now, after more than 86 years, having survived civil war and dictatorship, Embassy is closing its doors, albeit with the intention of moving to a new, less-expensive location, says communications director Adriana Rivera. As part of a restructuring process, more than 50 people will be laid off.

Embassy says it has been hit hard by the economic crisis

On Wednesday lunchtime, Embassy was as busy as ever. “I think people have come in for sentimental reasons more than for the food,” said one waitress. The management has asked staff not to comment on the closure.

One employee, who asked not to be named, says that he and other staff were given a letter on Monday informing them that the owners were implementing a redundancy plan. “My letter said: ‘There will be dismissals, including yours,’” he said.

Negotiations are due to begin on March 24, and staff say they are likely to last until mid-April.

Among the patrons tucking into veal cutlets and cakes, the main topic of conversation was the upcoming closure. “Where do I have to sign to stop this?” asked 68-year-old Juan Arias, who was sharing a table with seven women who said they couldn’t believe the news. “It’s a Madrid classic, there are no longer any places left like this. It’s as if they were going to close Lhardy,” said Arias, referring to the restaurant off the Puerta del Sol that opened in 1839.

It’s like a family from the neighborhood. There are special ties between the staff and the customers

Emilio Honrado, Embassy regular

Ginés Sánchez, aged 72, and the owner of a nearby restaurant, hadn’t come to eat at Embassy on Wednesday; he simply wanted to verify news of the closure. “The first wine I had in my restaurant was lent to me by the owners of this place,” he recalled. As a younger man he said he used to go to Embassy to flirt, and if things went well, he would stay for one of its famous sandwiches. “One night, with a friend, we started to chat to [Spanish dancer and celebrity] Norma Duval. This place is very special for me,” he concluded.

In keeping with the tastes of most of its clientele, Noelia by 1970s Spanish heart throb Nino Bravo was among the background music being played on Wednesday as visibly affected staff waited on the tables of equally affected customers. “It has been a privilege to work here. I want to die being with Embassy, but it is very hard to work knowing that this is ending,” said one of the staff who will be losing her job. Another added: “As well as losing our jobs, we’re losing people.”

Emilio Honrado, aged 64, says he has been a regular for decades, for most of that time with his mother, and always sitting at the same table. “It’s like a family from the neighborhood. There are special ties between the staff and the customers. Many of them have been to the funerals of those no longer with us,” he says, highlighting the role of the founder in helping Jews escape Nazi Germany. “The cake shop was known to them.”

The tearoom was at the center of diplomatic intrigues during WWII

In a press note sent to the EFE news agency, Embassy said: “At no time has closure been considered,” adding that the owners are looking for alternatives to allow it to continue in business.

“The crisis that has hit our economy, and particularly our sector, has contributed to the need for this company to look for changes to its current business model,” says the note.

Until Embassy opens its doors in a new establishment, cake and sandwich lovers will have to make do with its café in Aravaca, an upscale suburb a few kilometers northwest of the city, as well as two other shops, one in the La Moraleja gated community north of Madrid, and another in Potosí street, close to the Chamartín railway station.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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