Barcelona's cuisine shot into the limelight with the media's celebration of local man Ferran Adrià as the "greatest chef in the world," founder of Spain's famed El Bulli (now closed). Nowadays, gifted 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.
One reason why Barcelona has evolved into one of the world’s top gastronomic destinations is La Boqueria. The great market displays everything that is available in the city, from the catch of the day to still-warm-from-the-sun berries. With no mystery about ingredients, the chefs and cooks have to work their magic to make a dish that is somehow even better than the pristine ingredients you saw in the market. Sometimes that’s as simple as pá amb tomate—toasted or grilled bread rubbed with fresh tomato, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. In tomato season, it is served instead of a breadbasket.
You can eat fabulously at some of the most old-fashioned and casual spots in the city—places like Cal Pep, or the ultimate comfort food restaurant, Los Caracoles. But Barcelona is one of the world’s great eating cities, so it’s worth splurging here if you can. It need not break the bank; some of the top chefs have opened tapas restaurants and other bargain venues to showcase their culinary creativity using less expensive materials. Barcelona dining hours are closer to the European standard than in Madrid. Lunch is usually served from about 1:30 to 3pm (and can represent a great bargain), and dinner starts around 8pm, although dining before 9pm is unfashionable.
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 is a cost-effective way of trying out pricier restaurants.
Tipping always confuses visitors as some restaurants list the 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. 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.
When Something Spanish Just Won’t Do
Spaniards and Catalans do many things well in the kitchen. But among the weak links in the local cuisine are bread (usually bland and lacking in texture), pasta, and ice cream. So once you’ve had your fill of tapas, remember that neither France nor Italy are far away.
Superb breads and buttery croissants (unlike the local “normal” version which is made of lard or olive oil), for instance, can be found in Barcelona in a few places, like the delectable Crustó in Eixample at Carrer Valencia, 236 (www.crusto.es), or the two Baluard bakeries, one in Eixample at Carrer Provença, 279, and the original at Carrer Baluard, 38, in Barceloneta (www.baluardbarcelona.com).
Authentic Italian gelato is proudly mixed daily by a couple who are half-American (wife Tracy) and half-Italian (husband Giovanni) in Swiit, a friendly gelateria with a lovely Gothic Quarter location at Baixada de Viladecols, 2c (www.swiitbarcelona.com).
Real Neapolitan pizza is dished out by real Neapolitans at several locations, including the homey but delicious Sports Bar Italian Food, Carrer Ample, 51, and at NAP (Neapolitan Authentic Pizza) in two locations, one in the Born and one in Barceloneta (www.facebook.com/nap.pizzeria).
Can’t wait for that next trip to Italy for the perfect dish of pasta? Visit the cozy and friendly trattoria Bacaro, behind the Boqueria on a narrow alley called Jerusalem #6 (www.bacarobarcelona.com).
Mexican food is finally finding an audience here (Iberians don’t like it picante), and a host of taquerias offer variations on the Mexican theme, where you can order it hot, or not. Our favorites are Costa Pacifico on the lovely Plaça Sant Augurtí Vell (www.costapacifico.es), dirt-cheap Taco Alto, Carrer del Portal Nou, 62, near Arco de Trionfo (www.tacoalto.es), and the hip Machete Street Food in the Gothic Quarter on Carrer Ample, 20 (no website).
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.