Beneath the layers of bright yellow paella and oversized pitchers of sangria that tourists stumble upon along the now infamous Ramblas, there is a strong and distinct food culture in Barcelona. Here’s a list of 10 places to try Catalan food at its finest.
There are places for tapas, and then there’s Bar del Pla, which offers up some of the most classic Catalan dishes in true form. The space, full of tourists and locals, is cozy and the waitstaff reliably no-nonsense. They don’t expect their customers to dilly-dally, and you shouldn’t. Order anything on the menu because it’s all equally delicious. From the thinly sliced crispy eggplant, to the coca bread with sardines, to the monkfish with a creamy garlic allioli, there’s a lot to delight in. The mother of all Catalan dishes, pa amb tomàquet – that crisp bread with fresh tomato and flaky sea salt – is also some of the best in town here.
A small but elegant gastro-bar on the border between Eixample and Gracia, Bar Mut is a simple and unpretentious place to enjoy small plates and excellent wine. The cozy space calls to mind an old zinc bar. Its interior is all dark wood and marble and brass, a familiar old neighborhood friend. The name plays on the word vermut – the ubiquitous aperitivo here in Spain – a specialty of the house. But its incorporation of the word mut, Catalan for mute, is a brilliant little move. It calls to mind that wordless moment when you bite into something stunning. Bar Mut is like this, full of moments where something as simple as a perfectly cooked scallop on the half shell, renders you silent. The daily menu leans heavily toward seafood, and the dishes change by the moment, depending on what’s fresh. The website sports only an art house film, but it doesn’t matter because there’s something to be said for leaving an experience open to pleasant surprise.
Petit Comité is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. It’s hidden down the beautiful little passageway, Passatge de la Concepció, in the Eixample area. This bastion of Catalan cuisine offers Michelin-starred chef Nandu Jubany’s fresh contemporary take on the classics. Every classic dish is dressed to its finest under Jubany’s deft hand. The fresh seasonal cuisine features locally sourced regional staples such as the famous Catalan sausage from Vic, red shrimp from Blanes, anchovies from L’Escala, and the red Vera-pepper infused sobrasada sausage from Cal Rovira. Each dish on the continually changing menu is artfully created to present the simple, fresh flavors of the ingredients. Shrimp is paired with a rich and aromatic creamy rice and a rich stew of veal hosts a collection of seasonal mushrooms. Meanwhile, the cuttlefish and artichoke meatballs are the best nod to the region’s staple land and sea (mar i muntanya) dish.
Xiringuito Escribà, Barcelona | Image courtesy of Xiringuito Escribà
Xiringuito Escribà – well worth the walk down past Port Olimpica on the north side of Barceloneta – offers a view of the sea and some of the best seafood around. Crispy calamari, mussels in a rich broth, or pan-fried squid accompanied by perfectly cooked vegetables are all good choices. Those in the know come for the large pans of fragrant paella. When visitors come to town looking for a hearty paella lunch, however, they must learn that to eat it like a true local, they’re going to have to give up their rice for noodles. Fideuá pasta forms the base of the Catalan version of this Valencian staple, and what a stunning surprise it is. This restaurant is well-known among locals for their classic seafood fideuá, although they offer a vegetarian version as well. The seafood fumée they cook it in is dark and rich. The mortar full of thick garlicky allioli they serve alongside is a gift in itself. Topped with a signature sprig of smoked rosemary, the fideuá at Escribà never lets us down. Reservations are essential.
As with most good places in the city, La Pepita is hard to get a table at, but luckily they’ve opened up a sister bar next door called La Cava, their own take on the vermuteria. This means there’s more food to love and hopefully a shorter wait list. At both, they offer their classic small plates, as well as a changing menu del dia. La Pepita specializes in their pepitas, an open-faced tartine with decidedly un-Catalan toppers like smoked salmon and dill or blood sausage with apple. Nevertheless, you’ll find a number of regional dishes like fried eggs with artichokes and cured ham, mussels cured in a vinegary sauce called escabetx, and boquerons which are anchovies marinated in vinegar. The latter is a dish that actually hails from the south of Spain but one that nevertheless makes most Catalans swoon. The gin and tonics are another specialty of the house, so make sure to leave room for one or maybe two.
When Inopia disappeared, the locals openly grieved. When Lolita took its place, a collective sigh of relief was heard through the barri, and the place has been packed ever since. This longstanding outpost of Albert Adrià’s team is a reliable favorite for local dishes. This includes many crowd favorites from Inopia and a few others from friends in the neighborhood, like the smoked salmon and truffled honey tapa from the famous Quimet and Quimet. A frenetic experience of light and noise, this is a place where eating is the main agenda, which is good because there’s a lot of that to be done. The beer on tap may be German – every chef has his quirks – but the spirit is wholly Catalan. They offer all the classic appetizers found on a vermut menu, and a host of heartier tapas. The tapas include tomato and tuna belly salad, roasted rabbit ribs with garlic mayonnaise, ham croquettes, and all manner of fried fish.
It’s hard to mention Catalan cuisine without including one of the star chefs of the restaurant scene, Albert Adrià. His fierce dedication to his roots appears in true form at Bodega 1900, his loving tribute to the classic vermuteria. The small but nostalgic space is a study in history, from the classic architectural touches to the decorative flourishes – the legs of cured ham, the quaint tins of seafood – to the perfectly executed menu. Start with a vermut, and move on to an array of small plates. These feature the freshest ingredients from the region. The spherified olives are one of the few carry-overs from Adrià’s signature molecular gastronomy. They’re worth their weight in liquid gold, in this case the fruity, rich olive oil inside them. The rest of the dishes are decidedly simpler and showcase the pure flavors of the food itself. These include a board of local cheeses, fresh tomato salad with tiny peas from Maresme, mussels in escabetx and simply dressed sardines. There is also air-cured tuna dressed with a single almond, known as moixama in Catalan. When the waiter offers a taste of ratafía – a local herbal digestif – to finish the meal, say yes. It will be one of the best decisions of the meal.
It’s not a bad idea to head to Jordi Cruz’s restaurant, Ten’s, at the Park Hotel in the Born neighborhood. The menu is a lively play on the traditional with fairly modern touches. Despite clear Asian influences, there are plenty of locally sourced delights like oysters from the Delta del Ebre. These are served up with a local arbequina olive oil, apple and celery or perfectly prepared octopus served alongside a potato puree served under a glass cloche infused with wood smoke. Try the lobster rice, which is made extra decadent with a topping of foie gras. Or, keep it simple with a coca bread served up in the most Catalan of ways, with fresh tomato and a drizzle of local olive oil. While the desserts are hard to pass up, it’s a good idea to try the cheese plate for dessert.
It may not be fancy, but Bar Angel nevertheless feels like a splurge. The menu is simple, and the minimal preparation throws the spotlight on freshly sourced ingredients. The scallops wrapped in iberico are perfectly cooked and served with little more than a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of pepper. There are fried eggs and jamón, a perfectly cooked piece of tuna over a simple salad of fresh tomatoes and white onions, and grilled botifarra sausages, just to name a few of the more memorable dishes. Dessert is a tough toss-up between dark chocolate truffles drizzled in olive oil and sea salt or the chef’s take on the classic carquinyoli cookies. These are orange scented with chocolate chips and a shot of ratafia on the side. No matter the decision, it’s impossible to go wrong at Bar Angel.
If you’re looking for market fresh, seasonal Catalan cuisine, then look no further than La Pubilla. Nestled behind the Mercat de la Llibertat in Gràcia, this cozy little restaurant serves up a rotating menu of whatever is fresh that day. The local onions known as calçots make a regular appearance in the spring. Meanwhile autumn finds hearty dishes such as veal in a rich mushroom sauce, pork cheek with a purée of potatoes, or roasted lamb. The menú del día is a great way to try more than one dish, including dessert. It’s also a great place to stop in at the bar for an aperitivo or a Sunday afternoon vermut.