Barcelona is a city that gets written about so much that there is little that has escaped the guidebook author or magazine writer who drops in for a taste of the ‘real’ Barcelona – particularly when it comes to tapas in Barcelona.
Whether it’s tapas in Barcelona, or any restaurant associated with the legendary Ferran Adrià and his very talented brother Albert (at this stage, Ferran Adrià’s dishwasher could open a tapas bar and have food tourists salivating), or if it’s been written about in guidebooks and magazines, you can expect to see people queued outside and studying their guidebooks and menu before attempting the ‘must-do’ experience they’ve been told they have to do.
Most of it is nonsense and the hype is out of control. (Although some of it is warranted, of course). And the over-hyped eateries are just as much to blame as food and travel writers for creating artificial experiences far removed from the authentic, often rowdy, frequently messy meals that made Barcelona’s tapas bar scene so endearing in the first place.
Tapas in Barcelona – Holy Grail or Grilled Sandwich?
Unfortunately, as much as we hate to say it, one of the worst offenders at the moment is Inopia Classic Bar, run by Albert Adrià, whom we have an enormous amount of respect for, we confess. Inopia is billed as a tapas bar, but I haven’t been to any tapas bars where there is a doorman who takes your name but can’t really tell you when you’ll get seated. “Maybe one hour, maybe two,” he told us, clearly agitated by the huge crowd gathered out front.
When we finally got in (after he lost our place on the list the first time round), we were crammed into an area that really should have only been enough for one, right next to the toilets, before a sympathetic waitress reseated us.
Some of the food looked great, but of course it was sold out by the time we tried to order it and disappointingly the dishes we did manage to order were no better than a decent neighbourhood tapas bar. The dishes we received, that is.
Ninety minutes after ordering, our patatas bravas still hadn’t arrived. But as I swung around in my chair to survey the scene, I saw a cook plating some up. The chef went over and grabbed a couple of pieces of potato and ate them hungrily. The plate wasn’t for us, obviously. And so we left.
At Cal Pep, one of the first tapas places we ever went to in Barcelona some 12 years ago, the tourists now line up half an hour before opening, clutching their guidebooks and chatting excitedly. After the shutter is opened they’re each steered to a seat at the bar, where a place mat, plate and cutlery await.
Sadly, it’s no longer tapas of the sort we used to know and love, where you casually rocked up to a place (no waiting in lines), propped yourself up at the bar (no table settings), and ordered plates as you felt like them (from a blackboard not a menu), picking at tasty morsels with your fingers or a fork (never silver-plated cutlery!), chatting to your companion and occasionally the bartender, taking all evening if you liked.
Now, a meal at Cal Pep feels like a tapas show put on for tourists, just like a ‘flamenco show’. As we watched, astonished, as people filed in and were seated at their spots, local shop owners on the same square looked on, equally bemused. We asked one what he made of the nightly circus, “publicity, just good publicity. The food was good there… 10-15 years ago.”
This is another place with a link to the great Ferran Adrià. The owner, the talented chef Carles Abellan worked for Adrià for many years. As a result, the hype over this place is equally crazy, but the food was unfortunately just okay on the night we went. There were also lines and the space was uncomfortably crowded.
We did enjoy Abellan’s Bar Velodromo for the cava and oysters, the buzzy atmosphere, and the elegant, atmospheric space. However, certainly not for the very sloppy version of the celebrated ‘Bikini’ (a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with truffle paste). It tasted sublime, but it appeared to have been very hurriedly put together, without the care or attention to the task you’d expect of such a place.
Curiously, people seem to have bought into the hype of the association with Ferran Adrià, despite these places having nothing in common with the cuisine of Adrià’s at elBulli. And don’t get us wrong, we respect the man enormously and admire what he has done for gastronomy. One of our biggest regrets is never having been able to eat at elBulli.
Perhaps after travelling to Barcelona, and waiting in line for an hour or so (or even arriving before opening time – very un-Barcelona), people want to believe that they’re biting into some of that elBulli magic, rather than a croquette that’s exactly the same as the one a local is eating at the neighbourhood tapas bar next door, except it’s half the price and they’re not surrounded by salivating tourists on some sort of foodie pilgrimage.
Even a very ordinary bar on Las Ramblas – the last place you’ll head for a decent dish in this fine food city – has been lauded by no less a journal of record than The New York Times. Food scribbler Mark Bittman, an accomplice on perhaps the most-maligned cooking-cum-travel show ever to hit the airwaves, Spain – on the Road Again, lauds the ham sandwich (flauta d’ibèrico) at tacky Café Viena.
Sure it tastes good, but it’s nothing that can’t be had at a hundred fine places across Barcelona. Or by buying some great ham and freshly baked bread at the markets and just eating it with your hands – the traditional way. You don’t even need the bread when the jamón Ibérico is so good!
The New York Times even goes so far as to call Café Viena a restaurant, which it most certainly isn’t. It’s little more than a Viennese-themed McDonalds with laminated signs and pictures of the food above the bar and on the walls.
Over and over again during the last two weeks locals told us that Barcelona wasn’t really a tapas city anyway, unlike Madrid, Seville or San Sebastián, where tapas-bar hopping is a ritual among locals.
Although if you want to sample San Sebastián’s version of tapas, Basque pintxos (as they call their h’ors d’oeuvres-style tapas there), try Taverna Basca Irati (Cardenal Casañas 17, Barri Gòtic), an old favourite of ours from many years ago that is still going strong.
While it’s worth dropping into these places if you’re into food, what’s really special about the cuisine in Barcelona isn’t the tapas at all. It’s the ‘bistronomic’ restaurants – but more about those in our next story.
Here’s a list of places we enjoyed having some ‘little plates’ at over the last two weeks. It’s by no means comprehensive, but unlike many guidebooks and magazine stories, we don’t write about anything unless we’ve experienced it. And we don’t buy into the hype.
Tapas in Barcelona – Our Picks
A massive, buzzy place that’s very stylish – shelves crammed with food supplies and a herb ‘garden’ at the back. The tapas isn’t amazing (apart from the Calamares Plancha we tried), but it’s still worth dropping into for the atmosphere. Don’t worry if you can’t get a table, we prefer the bar as it’s a place to eat and run for us.
Mercat de Santa Caterina, Francesco Cambó, La Ribera
Quimet i Quimet
Miniscule but generally packed to the rafters, it strikes the right balance with decent tapas plates (we love the seafood), loads of atmosphere (floor-to-ceiling shelves of bottles, all for sale), friendly professional staff, and a mix of locals and visitors who know how to order and understand the local version of personal space.
Poeta Cabanyes 25, Poble Sec, Tel: 934 423 142
A wonderful, atmospheric space in an antique building with lofty ceilings and enormous windows. Many more locals here than we experienced at the other places, most partaking of the six sublime oysters and a bottle of cava for 18 euros deal.
Muntaner 213, L’Eixample
D.O. Vins i Platillos
Creative, contemporary tapas in a tiny space in the heart of Gràcia. Plenty of Asian-inspired tapas, including tuna sashimi, salmon ‘kebabs’, and Thai-style prawns, alongside Catalan-influenced plates. Good fun and a predominately local crowd.
Verdi 36, Gràcia
Flash Flash Tortilleria
Groovy, retro, black and white interior that wouldn’t need one thing changed to feature in an Austin Powers movie. Popular with local office workers, couples, and businessmen. Fresh tortillas and omelettes are the things to order here – the tortilla trufa negra (tortilla with black truffles and cheese) was to die for.
Granada Del Penedès 25, Sarrià-Sant Gervasi