Spain is revered as the home of modernist gastronomy, having liberated fine dining from the clingy hold of French butter and cream with sultry oils and a fearless approach to technique. The thing about Spain is, they cook. Every city block has at least three restaurants, often feet apart. For every aspiring elBulli or Cellar de Can Roca out there, there are at least 1000 greasy tapas bars. You have to be selective. If, like me, you like fresh food or an element of freshness in your food, consider yourself slightly screwed. Oil and salt are constants in this flavour landscape. But let’s look at the good stuff, shall we?
From absolutely bloody brilliant to better than average
Tickets Bar: Ferran and Albert Adria’s brilliant take on tapas. I’ve tried other gastro tapas bars and nothing comes close to this. The Adria’s might be slumming it compared to the gravitas of elBulli but Tickets, for all it’s playfulness, serves little morsels of genius. The best tapas in the world. Reservations via their website only and they’re booked out three months in advance. Read my review of Tickets and 41 Degrees here. If you are intrigued by elBulli, do go to the elBulli exhibition at Palau Robert on paseo de Gracia.
41 Degrees: The disco sister of Tickets, also owned by the Adria brothers. Recently blinged-out with an installation of 20 000 crystals that manipulate light and sound, 41 Degrees is hailed as the ‘baby elBulli’. It’s a 16 seater that serves a mind-fluffing 41-course menu. The same tricky online reservation system applies. I’m going end of July and can’t wait to experience the sparkly new 41 Degrees. Watch this space.
Dos Pallilos: A sensual synergy of food savvy. Exquisite Japanese food served tapas-style. After 11 years as elBulli’s headchef Albert Raurich – inspired by his Japanese wife – opened this übercool eatery next to the trendy Camper Hotel in the Ramblas. Good luck getting a table at short notice. Read my review here.
Gresca: Creative, contemporary fine dining in an informal, chic space.One of the really good restaurants where you might get a table at short notice. Details here.
Alkimia: Modernist gastronomy with strong Catalan roots. Set menus offer a well curated overview of the best this area has to offer. Reserve online.
Dos Cielos: Comes highly recommended. The website gives a clear idea of what to expect and how to get a reservation for this sensory joy ride, engineered by handsome twin brothers Sergio and Javier Torres. I might have to go soon.
Rias de Galicia: For the best seafood in town. Enough said.
Of course, the most sought-after table to be had in all of Spain would be Celler de Can Roca. Rated second in the world after Rene Redzepi’s Noma and just an hour’s drive from Barcelona in Girona, this would be well worth the effort if you’re serious about sampling the best.
La Boqueria: Barcelona and probably the world’s best fresh produce market. On las Ramblas, the city’s main tourist drag, the market offers freshly pressed juices popping with colour and flavour. Choose from guava and coconut, kiwi and pineapple – the list is near endless. I start every market visit with a different flavour. Buy fresh produce or wait your turn for a seat at one of the popular tapas bars in the market. Or just eat with your eyes. It’s a visual orgasm.
Las Ramblas has tourist trap written all over it but you have to see it. Eating there is perhaps not such a great idea. Except for Bar Lobo. As you wander down Las Ramblas, turn right on Pintor Fortuny and first left onto a charming square. Surprisingly authentic and accessible considering the location. A clever menu that offers tapas but also heartier meals, catering to a global palate whilst retaining some Spanish flavour. Good value for money and no reservation required. With a bit of luck and patience, I’ve always managed an outdoor table after a few minutes’ wait.
El Born is a great barrio to stroll through. Ancient, bohemian, bustling. Get lost in the narrow lanes but keep an eye open for Cal Pep on Placa de les Olles. Tiny tapas bar, always jam-packed with desperadoes queuing at the door.
Everyone will confirm that Spain’s North is the holy food grail. Specifically San Sebastian. Famous for having more Michelin stars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world, and for pintxos. Basically tapas of the North. Generally served on a slice of baguette, impaled with a toothpick. If you’re not going North and want to experience pintxos, el Born is also home to Sagardi Euskal Taberna at Carrer de l’Argenteria, 62. Grab a plate, pile it high and hang on to those toothpicks. That’s how they keep track of how much you’ve eaten…
Sick of tapas and fancy a hamburger the size of a toddler’s head, made American style – because burgers here are often served without a roll, lettuce and tomato – with everything? Pim Pam burger on carrer del Sabaret is considered the best in town. Sadly I can’t say the same for their hot dogs.
If you think the Spanish like chili, think again. They managed to colonize most of South and central America for centuries without succumbing to the charms of this hot little fruit. In search of a fix, I suffered some bad Mexican until I found Tlaxcal, also in el Born at 27 Calle Comerc. Classic Mexican, cleanly presented. Best nachos ever and do try the taco soup.
Barcelona has a lot of beach and many beach bars. The best paella is to be had at El Xiringuito de Escriba, by the famous Escriba family. The paella from the sea and the mountain (rabbit and seafood) is the best. Check out the fabulous Escriba website for info on Xiringuito as well as their two pastry shops. A must if you love confectionery. Candy rings, fantastical chocolate sculptures and some of the best pastry Spain has to offer. There’s a small Escriba pastry shop a few meters down from la Boqueria. Enjoy…
Barceloneta is riddled with groovy beach bars. If the food isn’t that great at most of them, the cocktails, views and people-watching will more than make up for it. Lying on the beach, you can’t miss Hotel Bella to your right, which looks like it’s about to strut into the sea. Also home to Michelin-star chef Carles Abellan’s Bravo 24 terrace restaurant. Much of what we ate here arrived with smoky grill flavours. I absolutely loved the lettuce, drizzled with chicken stock and cooked on the grill. A suave elevated seaside option with spectacular Mediterranean views. Abellan also owns Tapas 24 in the city center, close to paseo de Gracia. The poor man’s Tickets and a great place to get to grips with tapas without burning up your pocket.
‘What do Spanish people REALLY eat, besides bread and tapas, what is real Catalan food?’ That was the question after my first few months here. Fancy restaurants are great but with all that reinvention you need a set of tweezers to separate the traditional from the showstopper. I’d say the jury is still out on that one. But I do like Casa Paloma for several reasons. The interior is an unfussy blend of old world and contemporary sophistication. Much like the menu. Good Catalan food for discerning locals. Their daily specials offer comfort classics. And brace yourself, the steaks can be overwhelming in size.
Fancy a Catalan barbeque? Head for the hills and get your hands dirty at Casa Juaco, a truly rustic Catalan grill restaurant. One of my very best food experiences here. You’re given large plastic gloves (thin versions of the type normally used for cow insemination…) and a bib because it gets messy. Old terracotta roof tiles are plonked down, piled high with leeks charred over an open grill. It’s dirty work releasing the sweet center but very rewarding. This was my favourite part of the meal. Tiles of charred seasonal veg with aioli and romesco dipping sauces. Jugs of sangria and beer served in spouted glass vessels encourage communal drinking. Followed by a main of grilled meat (sausage and chops) and traditional creme Catalan for dessert. Go for the view, the vibe and the charred vegetables. Totally off the beaten track, it doesn’t get more traditional than this.
Rambla de la Catalunya is a great street to stroll down. Parallel to paseo de Gracia (Barcelona’s highest of high streets) but with less traffic and more trees, ambient cafes and interesting little shops. Close to the corner of Rambla de la Catalunya and Majorca you’ll find Cerveceria, an above average tapas bar. Also home to the best hot dogs I’ve had here, albeit in tapas form so you have to order about 8 portions to get your footlong in… whatever it takes, right?
Hotel Ohla offers a 1 star Michelin restaurant, gastro tapas bar, chic cocktail bar and roof terrace. Impressive tapas of the not-so-pedestrian kind on the edge of the Old City.
All Italian food is comfort food to me. And sometimes when you travel you just want a big bowl of pasta or a pizza that doesn’t talk back when you chew on it. Considering our proximity to Italy, this city is not inundated with great Italian fare. The only one that’s given me joy is La Bella Napoli. Try the pasta in a parmesan basket.
Spain doesn’t have much of a breakfast culture. Generally a baguette with cheese or ham and a coffee will do. It took five months to find eggs Benedict in this town but I did. At a charming French bistro Cafe Emma at 142 Paul Claris in the city center. Good value for money lunch and dinner set menus make it a popular choice, which is why the service is somewhat disappointing. Open all day, every day.
I’m in my fifth month in Barcelona and there is still so much to discover. Areas like el Born and Gracia are riddled with little neighbourhood bars and restaurants and my advice would be, if the locals are having a good time, give it a bash. Vegetarians tend to have a hard time here in the heart of ham country but this link might provide some relief. For the rest, bear these pointers in mind when choosing an eatery.
1. Don’t eat anywhere with picture boards. Especially if the photos are sun-faded to a generic pulp. Because the food very well may be too.
2. Eat at tapas bars owned by Spanish folk. By the same token, Chinese restaurants should be owned by Chinese. You follow.
3. This one is global. The Michelin Guide said it best on Twitter “Why is it that the dining rooms with the best views serve food that rarely matches the optics? Location, location, frustration.” Couldn’t agree more. Am actually starting to think tourism is detrimental to food quality. So if your feet can carry you further, don’t eat right next to that atmospheric Gothic cathedral.
4. Aaah… la vida tapas! The world has truly gone tapas berserk. Like repeating your own name fast, I hardly know what it means anymore. Here, portions can be ample so eating tapas on your own doesn’t really work. You’ll end up eating a hell of a lot of one thing. A few roasted padron peppers are nice but you don’t want three fists full. Most dishes are either deep-fried or perched in a puddle of oil. Order in waves to avoid bombing yourself with too much of the same thing. When tapas is good, it’s wonderful. Back in the seventies in the Eastern Cape, my mom used to call it pick-n-mix. The best way to eat.
5. Plato del dia or meal of the day, available from most restaurants at lunchtime. Generally a 3-course meal with a drink or coffee included for around 12 Euros. Great value but don’t expect to be blown away. It’s simply a feeding so you can carry on with the business of having a good time.
6. “Hablas Ingles?” Shocker. In a city riddled with tourists, you’re lucky to encounter a poco English from the hosts. Without Google translate I might have starved in my first months or suffered death-by-tortilla (though, when in doubt a slab of potato omelet is a good filler). The bitch about Barcelona is it has two languages. Spanish (Castillano) and Catalan. Restaurants in touristy areas usually have an English menu but not always. Ask for carta Ingles. I’ve had to rely on my cellphone a lot and it helps if you know whether you’re dealing with Spanish or Catalan. Look for the word ‘with’. Can’t write a menu without it. In Spanish it’s ‘con’ and in Catalan ‘amb’… so, now you know what language you’re dealing with, order forth! And let me know if you find the good stuff.
This post may be subjected to updates and revisions. Follow me @kitchenvixenSA on Twitter for bite-by-bite updates.
And on a non-food note, don’t forget to always look up at all the gorgeous buildings. There’s much more to Barcelona than Gaudi… although he is the most crazy beautiful of the lot.