Eating is an extremely important social activity in Catalonia. Eating out remains a major pastime, whether in the evening with friends, at lunch in a local bar with colleagues, or with the traditional Sunday family feast. Although Barcelona is a fast-paced city, mealtimes, especially lunchtime, are still respected, with the whole city shifting into low gear between the hours of 2 and 4pm. Many people either head home or crowd into a local eatery for a three-course menú del día (lunch of the day).
Catalan grub is quite different from the food of the rest of the Spain. In Barcelona, the mainstay diet is typically Mediterranean, with an abundance of fish, legumes, and vegetables, the latter often served simply boiled with a drizzle of olive oil. Pork, in all its forms, is widely eaten, whether as grilled filets, the famous Serrano ham, or delicious embutidos (cold cuts) from inland Catalonia. Another local characteristic is the lack of tapas bars. Very good ones do exist but not in the same abundance as in the rest of Spain. Instead Catalans tend to go for raciones (plates of cheese, pâtés, and cured meats) if they want something to pick at.
Many restaurants in Barcelona close on Sunday and Monday, so check ahead of time before heading out. Hotel dining rooms are generally open 7 days a week, and there's always something open in the touristy areas. If you really want to get a true taste of Catalan cuisine, stay away from places in La Rambla. Dining in Barcelona can range from memorable to miserable (or memorable for all the wrong reasons!), so it pays to do a bit of research. If possible, always book ahead for reputable restaurants, especially on the weekends.
Breakfast -- In Catalonia, as in the rest of Spain, the day starts with a light continental breakfast, often in a bar. Most Spaniards have coffee, usually strong, served with hot milk -- either a cafe con leche (half coffee, half milk) or a cortado (a shot of espresso "cut" with a dash of milk). If you find these too strong or bitter for your taste, ask for a more diluted cafe americano. Most people just have a croissant (cruasan), doughnut, or ensaimada (a light, sugar-sprinkled pastry). If you want something more substantial, ask for a bocadillo (roll) with cheese or grilled meat or cold cuts, or ask to see the list of platos combinados (combination plates). These consist of a fried egg, french fries, bacon, and a steak or a hamburger. A bikini is an old-fashioned toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Lunch -- This is the most important meal of the day in Barcelona. Lunch usually includes three or four courses, although some smart eateries in the Old City are now offering one course with dessert for lighter eaters. It begins with a choice of soup, salad, or vegetables. Then follows the meat, chicken, or fish dish, simply grilled or in a rich stew or casserole. At some point, meat eaters should definitely try botifarras, the locally made sausages. Desserts are (thankfully) light: Fruit, yogurt, or a crema catalana (crème brûlée). Wine and bread are always part of the meal. Lunch is served from 1:30 to 4pm, with "rush hour" at 2pm.
Dinner -- If you had a heavy or late lunch, you may want to go for tapas or a few raciones in a wine bar; this is the perfect time to try the quintessential Catalan snack pa amb tomàquet (rustic bread rubbed with olive oil and tomato pulp, served with cheese, pâté, or cold cuts). If you choose a restaurant, expect a slightly finer version of what you had at lunch but with a larger bill, as the set-menu deal is a lunchtime-only thing. The chic dining hour is 10 or 10:30pm. In touristy areas and hardworking Catalonia, you can dine at 8pm, but you may find yourself alone in the restaurant.
What to Eat
As well as producing many dishes that are uniquely its own, Barcelona looks toward France and central Spain for some of its culinary inspiration. Its bullabesa (bouillabaisse), cargols (snails), and anclas de ranas (frog's legs) are clearly Gallic-influenced, while a classic stew like escudella i carn d'olla -- viewed by singer-songwriter Lluis Llach as "reflecting all the wisdom of Catalan people" -- is really a blend of the French pot au feu and Madrileño cocido, and the ubiquitous lechona (suckling pig) is an import from central Castile. In countryside inns (or ventas) you'll often find game like hare and pheasant, which again show influences from the rest of Spain.
But the real traditional cuisine throughout Barcelona and its inland areas is rather like the inhabitants: Solid and gutsy. Meaty dishes such as veal and blood sausage are accompanied by hearty garbanzos (chickpeas), lentejas (lentils), mongetes (white beans), or judias blancas y negras (white- and black-eyed beans). And the traditional fishy paella of southerly neighbor Valencia is often transformed into noodle-based fideuà containing rabbit, chicken, and rich regional botifarra sausage.
Since Barcelona is right beside the Mediterranean, conventional seafood and rice paellas also abound. The long Catalan coast shelters over 30 fishing ports and fish is a supreme passion with local gourmets; the choice highly varied. A popular local dish is suquet de peix, a rich fish-and-potato stew that was once a favorite breakfast of fishermen who'd been out on the water with their nets all night. Another masterpiece is zarzuela, a stew that combines an extraordinarily wide range of Mediterranean fish, from salmonetes (red mullet) and besugo (bream) to mejillones (mussels) and gambas (prawns). Sardinas (sardines) are particularly scrumptious -- and inexpensive -- when grilled over a pine-wood fire. Squid, octopus, and sepia (cuttlefish) feature heavily, from calamares romana (deep-fried squid) to chipirones (bite-size baby octopus, also fried) to squid cooked in its own ink. Basque-style bacallà (salted cod), originating from chillier Northern Atlantic waters, is another favorite, whether it's simply baked (a la llauna) or forms the base of a cold garlicky hors d'oeuvre called esqueixada. (Don't confuse this, by the way, with the similar-sounding escalivada, which consists of strips of chargrilled sweet peppers and eggplant/ aubergine, and is also served cold.)
Catalans are particularly inventive with their tortillas (egg, not corn variety), and these can include white beans, asparagus, and garlic shoots, often served with pa amb tomàquet, that Catalan gem of simplicity consisting of bread, garlic, crushed tomato, and generously applied olive oil. (Some of Spain's very best oil comes from Catalonia's Lleida province.) A pungent white sauce that adds an extra dimension to any meal is alioli, made from garlic, salt, and mayonnaise.
Vegetables are not common accompaniments to main courses, but an ensalada catalana -- a salad of lettuce, tomato, onions, and olives -- is invariably available, with the added bonus of local cold cuts like mortadella or mountain ham. Vegetarians and vegans should always check that no meat is included in what appears to be a vegetable dish or salad on the menu. Desserts are more modest and include the nifty milk-and-egg-based flan (caramel custard) and crema catalana (crème brûlée). Probably the best local cheese-based dessert is mel i mató (mel is honey and mató a very soft goat's cheese almost resembling yogurt: Quite delicious). Another popular creamy goat's cheese is garrotxa, which comes from inland Catalunya; while a more conventional dry tangy goat's cheese is serrat from the Pyrénées.
Barcelona for Foodies
Though foodie frontiers in the city are not absolute, there are certain areas that are known for certain types of food. The heart of the Barri Gòtic quarter is, for example, one of the best spots to sample good old-fashioned Catalan cooking (as at Can Culleretes), while Barceloneta is an unrivaled location for gorging on Mediterranean seafood. In sophisticated L'Eixample, the food is as richly inventive and innovative as the moderniste architecture it touts. Eat lunch at a key spot like Gaig and you'll get the picture. Also don't miss L'Eixample's elegant Toc, which offers the classiest traditional escalivadas (grilled peppers and eggplants/aubergines marinated in olive oil) and esqueixadas (shredded salt cod salad) in town.
In polyglot El Raval you'll not only find cheap and cheerful Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Filipino joints, but also some stunningly stylish Mediterranean "fusion" establishments (check out the delectable Lupino). Although Barcelona is not traditionally known for its tapas, you'll find some highly imaginative versions all over, but especially in a chic La Ribera bar like Comerç 24 and in the delectable Mam i Teca, back in El Raval.
You can find excellent country cooking without heading out into the lovely Catalan countryside in the Pedralbes district, where, high above the city beside a serenely beautiful monastery, the homely Matóde Pedralbes offers rustic venta (country inn) style dishes such as anclas de ranas (frog's legs) and cargols a la llauna (snails). If seafood takes your fancy (and where better to enjoy it than beside the Med?) then Barceloneta's Mondo and Lluçanes are just two of the newer incentives among the veritable sea of marisquerías and tabernas that fill this uniquely nautical quarter.
The traditional covered markets are a must-see for foodies. They were built in the city's moderniste heyday and are worth visiting as historic monuments as much as exotic food emporiums. Top markets are the famed Boqueria, Santa Caterina, Sant Antoni, and Barceloneta. Feast your eyes on their curving arches and high ceilings before savoring the colorful cornucopia of local produce filling the stalls.
What to Drink
Catalan wines, though less world-renowned than the northerly Riojas, are in fact among Spain's best -- particularly in the southerly Penedès wine region where enologist Miguel Torres produces rich Corona reds and Viña Sol whites. Penedès also accounts for about 75% of all the cava (sparkling wine) made in Spain, and the infinitely different varieties range from small family-made "garage" bodega wines to international brands like Freixenet and Codorníu, produced in cava capital Sant Sadurni d'Anoia. Codorníu is housed in a spectacular moderniste building that is part of the Spanish heritage trust, with 15km (9 1/3 miles) of underground tunnels to explore while you learn about the cava-making process.
The jewel in Catalonia's winemaking crown, however, is Tarragona province's deep, dark red -- and impressively expensive -- Priorat. Its most notable promoter was Carles Pastrana of Clos L'Obac, who set about establishing a set of D.O. (denominación de origen) standard rules and regulations.
The famed sangria, a red-wine punch that combines wine with oranges, lemons, gaseosa (seltzer), and sugar, was originally conceived as a refreshing summer drink blending cheap wine with gaseosa or lemonade, though today's spirit- and additive-boosted touristy versions tend to be artificially stronger, so take care.
If you prefer something lighter, there's lager-like San Miguel cerveza (beer), which, though originally from the Philippines, has been produced for decades in inland Lleida. This is by far the province's most popular beer. All beer tends to be lighter, more like the U.S. version than the British. A clara is a glass of beer mixed with lemon soda. A small bottle of beer is called a mediana, and a glass is a caña.
Although water is safe to drink, many find the taste of Barcelona's tap water unpleasant. Mineral water, in bottles of .5 to 5 liters, is available everywhere. Bubbly water is agua con gas; noncarbonated is agua sin gas. Vichy Catalan, salty carbonated water that many people believe acts as a digestive aid, is very popular. Soft drinks are also popular, and standard, nationally produced versions of cola are widely available.
The coffee you have with your breakfast or after your meal is invariably first-class, rich, and strong, and if you've waded through a particularly large lunch or dinner, a carajillo, coffee containing a dash of cognac (Catalonia's top cognac brand is Mascaró), will either finish you off or help it go down.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.