Art, wine and a beauty queen led me to Atrio, a restaurant in the medieval town of Cáceres that earned a third Michelin star last November. Earlier this year Priscila Guevara, the Mexican entry for Miss Earth 2016, stood trial with her Dutch-Romanian boyfriend, Constantin Dumitru, for the theft of 45 bottles from Atrio’s wine cellar, which is considered the best in Spain.
The Atrio restaurant and hotel are in several medieval stone buildings located around San Mateo Square. Partners in their personal and professional lives, the art and wine collector José Antonio Polo and chef Toño Pérez met at school in Cáceres. The first Atrio opened in 1986, with the current site opening its doors just over a decade ago. Spaniards famously eat late (although Covid seems to have brought evening-meal times forward ever so slightly), but it is worth arriving before sunset to appreciate the light and vegetation of the restaurant’s inner courtyard (atrio is Spanish for atrium).
Some of the rooms have original Warhols on the wall, and there are abstract paintings by Antonio Saura in the restaurant.
And then there’s the wine cellar. On Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the British artist Maggie Hambling opted to take as her luxury item the entire contents of the wine cellar of All Souls College, Oxford. Not a bad idea. Atrio’s bodega is beautifully lit and methodically arranged in cylindrical containers. Diners are still given a tour despite repeat visits, which is how the Mexican beauty queen and her accomplice were able to case the joint.
The price you pay in the restaurant includes the right to take the empty bottle home, which is worth knowing when you consider that some are adorned with gold, and others with designs by Picasso or Miró. The 45 bottles stolen by Guevara and Dumitru, including one of Stalin’s favourites, were first valued at €1.6m, but the figure was reduced by the court to €750,000. The disparity can be attributed to the difference between market value and the price charged when consumed in the restaurant.
That local wines in regular Spanish bars are among the best value in the world generally makes me more reluctant to pay premium prices than in London or Leeds. Atrio’s wine paring combines high-end wines from France, Portugal and Spain with more adventurous choices, my favourite being a limited-edition, yeast-free white from Marc Isart, grown in a small town on the peripheries of Greater Madrid. Atrio’s sommelier, José Luis Paniagua, returned to his native Extremadura after living in Finsbury Park. He talks as garrulously about wine as he does about serving Margaret Thatcher or Rod Stewart – both lovely people apparently – in the Ritz on Piccadilly.
If the clientele at present is primarily comprised of moneyed Spaniards, the waiters speak excellent English, and Polo is keen to attract British and American customers.
The night before I visited, a wealthy Aston Martin-driving Irish customer had reportedly made a return visit. The tourist industry in Cáceres was given a boost when various episodes of Game of Thrones were filmed in the surrounding countryside.
But getting a reservation at Atrio even at short notice tends not to be that difficult. Its location in a hard-to-reach, landlocked and not especially affluent region keeps the crowds at bay. The €235 Iberian pork tasting menu is not cheap, even by Michelin standards. It also presents a challenge for me, as I am vegetarian. But on this occasion, yes, I made an exception.