Amid the sea of ambiguously French/Italian restaurants and questionable ethnic dives that dominate the collegiate streets of Claremont, Viva Madrid! stands out as a uniquely Spanish tapas bar that smacks of authenticity. It should be noted, however, that Viva Madrid! does not "stand out" in all senses of the term. Tucked into a dark alley, it is easily missed if you don't know what you're looking for. Once you spot the steady crowd lingering outside an imposing wooden door, however, you're on the right track.
Warm colors, candles and a magnificent crystal chandelier give the cavern a rosy glow. The walls are lined with tarnished treasures and the shelves are stuffed with Spanish knick-knacks. Having never been to Spain, I can't decide if this makes the place more authentic or unbearably kitschy. I ponder this as I'm led to my table by a nimble-footed waitress who dodges the impending bar stools and dish-laden servers who crowd what seems to be the only walkway over two feet wide in the restaurant.
Kitschy or not, there is something definitively inviting about the ambiance of the place—one of the wait staff fondly referred to it as "cozy." Indeed, the Spanish atmosphere lends an important flavor to the evening's palate- enhancing the taste of the Andalusian food with a vaguely satisfying state of reverie.
Though the mounted bull horns and portraits of matadors adorning the walls are a conspicuous nod to Spanish tradition and influence, the origins of the restaurant remain curiously ambiguous. The "About Us" section of Viva Madrid!'s web site includes nothing about its history, owners or origins. But a few calls revealed that the current owner, an American (whose name, I was informed, "is not given out") bought Viva Madrid! ten years ago, one year after it was opened—supposedly by well-established L.A. chef Alain Giraud. Interestingly enough, Giraud is renowned for his traditional French provincial cooking, and no one seems able to confirm his involvement with Viva Madrid!. The menu, like the name, has not changed since its original creation, over a decade ago. And though he may be known for his bouillabaisse and foie gras, Giraud has not led us astray.
The menu is tapas-based, and should be thus observed; the entrees, while decent, are not the restaurant's strong suit. There are over 40 tapas, so for those who are susceptible to decision-induced anxiety, the salads and paellas are generally good choices. The Valencia salad, with orange slices and walnuts, is wonderfully fresh and the perfect precursor to the heavier, saucier tapas. And while two at the table pooh-poohed the paella mixture ("there's just not enough saffron!"), I found myself sneakily spooning extra servings onto my plate.
Though most tapas were excellent, I would skip the smoked salmon-wrapped asparagus and the awfully dry crab crepe—both of which turned out to be deplorable texture combinations and cold. However, the tapas standouts more than made up for it, such as the classic vegetable empanada, a chicken kabob that is grill-seared and tender, pork loin in an expertly seasoned tomato sauce and sinful bacon-wrapped dates. My attempt to recreate this last dish—with crisped and bubbly bacon enveloping a dark, plump date in the perfect blend of savory and sweet— resulted in a smoke filled kitchen and a distressed roommate avowing that I was "seriously compromising the integrity of the date." With my tapas-making ambitions dashed, I suppose I'll be stuck heading down to Viva Madrid! to satisfy my cravings for these and other delectable Spanish dishes, which doesn't seem too bad of a position to be stuck in. After all, with Viva Madrid!'s friendly service, moderate prices and authentic atmosphere, who needs to stand for another night of being serenaded by her smoke alarm?