Barcelona's cuisine shot into the limelight with the media's celebration of local man Ferran Adrià as the "greatest chef in the world." But, alas, the great man won't be around for much longer. In 2010 he announced that his famed El Bulli restaurant would be closing for 2 years in 2011, and when it eventually reopens it will be as a school for restaurateurs.
The good news is that the way is now clear for other talented chefs to make their mark: Gifted professionals like Jordi Ruiz, Carles Abellán (owner of Comerç 24), and Sergi Arola (who runs top eating spots in Madrid and Barcelona). They've long been making their own considerable waves, aided by the rich supply of fresh market produce, high-quality regional wines, and an instinctive savvy in the world of eating and drinking by both purveyors and consumers. As a result, these chefs are free to experiment, mingling traditional local dishes like pigeon with pears, cherries with anise, or pig's trotters with crab. The resultant hybrid plato is usually a delicious new taste experience.
Of course, not everyone aspires to such dizzying heights when eating out, so it's nice to see the trickle-down effect of all these top culinary concepts reaching more modest and affordable dining spots. Whether you're dining in an old-style tavern, having a late supper in one of the new cutting-edge eateries, picking at tapas at a bar, or launching into an alfresco paella, the quality of the food is usually high and the variety imaginative. Vegetarians can dine in an increasing number of creative spots, especially in the Old City. There are lots of modest international restaurants in the earthy South American, Greek, and Middle Eastern areas of El Raval.
Our new inclusions include a trio of nautical gems: Lluçanes, Mondo, and the aptly named Big Fish are all consolidating Barcelona's reputation as a great place for top-quality seafood. Add to these the chic Atril, minimalist cool Toc, veggie haven La Báscula, and uniquely homely Granja M. Viader and you have an eclectic cross section of the best that the Ciudad Condal has to offer. There's great tapas too at the fashionable Mam i Teca.
What Makes Catalan Cuisine?
Much of what Barcelona's feted new chefs do is put an avant-garde twist on traditional Catalan cuisine. But what is that exactly? Like its language, what Catalans eat is different from the rest of Spain and varies within the region, from the Mediterranean coastline and islands to the inland villages and Pyrénées mountains. Like Catalan culture, the cuisine looks out toward the rest of Europe (especially France) and the Mediterranean arc, rather than inward toward Castile. Many of the techniques and basic recipes can be traced back to medieval times, and as any Catalan is only too willing to point out, the quality of the produce proceeding from the Països Catalans (Catalan Countries) is some of the best available. The same goes for the locally produced wine. The D.O.s (domaines ordinaires) of the Penedès and Priorat regions are now as internationally renowned as La Rioja, and the local cava (sparkling, champagne-type wine) is consumed at celebratory tables from Melbourne to Manchester.
If there is one food dish that symbolizes Catalan cuisine, it is pa amb tomàquet. Invented as a way of softening stale bread during the lean years of the Civil War, there is barely a restaurant in Catalonia, from the most humble workman's canteen to the Michelin-starred palace, that does not have this on their menu. In its simplest form, pa amb tomàquet is a slice of rustic white bread rubbed with the pulp of a cut tomato and drizzled with olive oil. Top the bread with cheese, pâté, chorizo, or Iberian ham -- this is then called a torrada. The idea is ingeniously simple, and like most ingeniously simple ideas, it works wonderfully. Catalans wax lyrical about it, and you will soon be hooked.
Catalan cuisine is marked by taste combinations that seem at odds with each other; red meat and fish are cooked in the same dish, nuts are pulped for sauces, poultry is cooked with fruit, pulse (bean) dishes are never vegetarian, there is not one part of a pig that is not consumed, and imported, salted cod is the favorite Catalan fish. Concoctions popping up on menus time and time again include zarzuela (a rich fish stew), botifarra amb mongetes (pork sausage with white beans), faves a la catalana (broad beans with Iberian ham), samfaina (a sauce of eggplant/aubergine, peppers, and zucchini/courgette), esqueixada (a salted cod salad), fideuà (similar to a paella, but with noodles replacing the rice), and mel i mato (a soft cheese with honey). It's hearty and more elaborate than other food of southern Spain. In its most traditional form, Catalan cuisine doesn't suit light appetites, which is why many locals have only one main meal a day, normally at lunchtime, with perhaps a supper of a torrada in the evening. Breakfast is also a light affair: A milky coffee (café con leche in Spanish, café amb llet in Catalan) with a croissant or doughnut.
Eating in Barcelona
Catalans generally lunch between 2 and 4pm and dine after 9pm. Most restaurant kitchens stay open in the evenings until about 11pm. Try making lunch your main meal and take advantage of the menú del día (lunch of the day) offered in the majority of eateries. It normally consists of three courses (wine and/or coffee and dessert included) and, at between 8€ and 14€ per head, is a cost-effective way of trying out pricier restaurants.
Tipping always confuses visitors as some restaurants list the 7% IVA (sales tax) separately on the bill. This is not a service charge; in fact, it is illegal for restaurants in Barcelona to charge for service. As a general rule, tips (in cash) of about 5% should be left in cheap to moderate places and 10% in expensive ones. In bars, leave a few coins or round your bill up to the nearest euro.
Vegetarian restaurants are on the increase. Some, like Organic and La Báscula, even aspire to a degree of creative cooking. Contemporary places such as Pla, Anima, and Juicy Jones always have a couple of vegetarian options on offer. Apart from tortillas, few traditional tavernas serve veggie food, and always double-check: The Catalan word carn (carne in Spanish) only refers to red meat. Asking for a dish "without" (sens in Catalan, sin in Spanish) does not guarantee that it will arrive fish-or chicken-free.
Nonsmoking sections in restaurants and bars are, at the time of writing, fairly nonexistent. On January 1, 2011, however, a new law is scheduled to come into force that will completely ban smoking in restaurants. That is if the city authorities manage to go through with changing the law in the face of stiff opposition from the restaurant trade.
Below is a small selection of the hundreds of Barcelona restaurants, cafes, and bars. The constant influx of tourists means that many places on and around La Rambla now offer microwaved paella and charge 10 times over the average for a coffee. But in the small streets of the Barri Gòtic and the blocks of L'Eixample (which has largely escaped the side effects of mass tourism), there are plenty of value-for-money establishments that take enormous pride in introducing you to the delights of the local cuisine. Around El Raval, the city's most multicultural neighborhood, you will find dozens of cheap places serving ethnic cuisines, should you get tired of the local grub. ¡Bon profit!
Frommer's Favorite Local Spots
Mercè Vins (Calle Amargos 1; tel. 93-302-60-56) is a colorful little spot that is essentially a breakfast bar serving great coffee and huge ensaimadas (cholesterol-charged Majorcan buns). It's especially good for bargain set lunches (8.50€) that may include generous salads, sopa de calabaza (pumpkin soup), and longaniza picante (spicy local sausage). Its coups de grâce are the criminally rich sweets (try the chocolate flan or rich fig pudding).
Don't be put off by the cutesy faux-rustic decor that features pitchforks, wagon wheels, and gingham tablecloths at Mesón Jesús (Cecs de la Boqueria 4; tel. 93-317-46-98). The staff is so friendly and the delicious, simple food is so cheap that it's a must. Try the bargain gambas (prawns) or suquet (fish stew) and we guarantee you'll be back.
A favorite with all the family is the 80-year-old Catalan cafe-creamery Granja M. Viader (Xucla 46; tel. 93-318-34-86; www.granjaviader.cat), set in a former farmhouse dating from the days when Raval was surrounded by fields. Its specialties range from milk shakes and horchatas (a rice and almond drink flavored with cinnamon) to chocolate drinks, accompanied by rich pastries and cakes.
If huge menus don't terrify you, head for Fil Manila (Carrer Ramelleres 2; tel. 93-318-64-87), a nifty Philippine-run spot in the heart of multiethnic Raval. When you are tired of reading the menu, just stab your finger at random and trust luck. You're unlikely to go wrong and could end up with anything from sour fish soup to pork with noodles, all good and inexpensive.
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.