It had been 25 years since I visited Spain. My memories of Madrid, Toledo, Costa Del Sol and Cordoba are still quite vivid. The sights, the smells, the food. Yet, I had an overwhelming need to correct a wrong. I never made it to Barcelona. On May 11th, I would be celebrating my 50th birthday (yikes!) and I thought it appropriate to do so in style and with great food. Here’s how I ate my way through Barcelona.
First off, let me say that
I usually do some planning for my vacations. However, I do not go overboard or stick to a stringent itinerary. The things I research from places to food are really a guideline or “skeleton frame plan” for my journeys. I find it comforting and exciting to have a list of restaurants, bars and food markets on hand. It takes the guess work out of where to eat in a newly visited city. This time, Barcelona food blogs and old Anthony Bourdain episodes helped me to cultivate my food list.
Consider this. Are there award-winning or buzzed-about restaurants? Is there a well-known chef about town? Where are the cool kids hanging out? Is there a particular dish at an off-the-beaten-path location? It’s great to know this stuff ahead of one’s trip. However, do allow yourself to be open to those unexpected food finds. You know, the places you stumble upon or hear about through the locals or other travelers.
My Barcelona trip was a no exception. There were some restaurants I never visited either by choice or, in the case of Tickets, a hard to get reservation. I did not plan that one out far enough in advance to score a table there. I hear this place is quite something to see. Over-the-top fun. Next time, I guess!
First off, and most importantly, I do not drive at all. So, I would be reaching my food destinations via mass transit. Barcelona, like other big cities, has a great subway and bus system. Once I got a map and some direction from my hotel staff, it was no different than riding mass transit in New York, Chicago, Boston or other European towns. Nothing to be worried about.
I arrived in Barcelona extremely jet-lagged but excited to dig in. After I checked into Hotel Cram, located in L’Antiga Esquerra de L’Eixample, I headed over to Flauta for lunch. It was recommended to me by one of the fabulous hotel concierges. It was not on my list and I am so grateful for being turned onto this place. It is a favorite among the locals, especially food industry people.
Flauta is located just 2 blocks south of Hotel Cram, on Carrer Aribau. It’s always busy. On my first visit, I sat upstairs. I ordered a comforting bowl of fries topped with poached eggs (a Spanish poutine) and this most excellent bacalo (salt cod) with honey. It’s a specialty of Barcelona. The salty and sweet dichotomy of this dish was truly wonderful and different from any preparation of bacalo I’ve ever had. What a great way to begin my culinary exploration of Barcelona!
After a very late afternoon nap, I jumped up and hopped on the local subway to the Bibera neighborhood. Otherwise known as “El Born” or “Old Town.” This place has a ton of history and it looks exactly like what you’d expect and old-world European city to be. It reminded me a bit of Venice.
My friendly concierge/front desk guide at Hotel Cram, Adriano, pointed me in the direction of Bar del Pla which I read about on a Barcelona blog. It is located a couple of blocks from the Picasso Museum, off of the Jaume stop on the yellow line. After a couple of twists and turns down old streets (calles) in the dark and the rain, I found it.
Bar del Pla is a hoppin’, vibe-y spot. Filled with mostly locals and some other tourists, I left my name with the host. It would be 30 minutes before I could be seated at the bar. No worries. I am nothing if not flexible. The extra time gave me an opportunity to explore the nearby streets and businesses. I stumbled upon a fabulous Argentinean bar name La Bona Sort. In business since the 1836, this place was warm and welcoming.
Eduardo was my bartender that night. I told him I had time for just one glass of Cava and he was happy to comply. He is from Argentina like a growing number of immigrants to Barcelona. We talked about my visit to Barcelona and my past trip to Argentina in some detail. Eduardo was very happy to speak only in Spanish with me, so I could keep my vocabulary and conversation fresh 🙂
I made it back to Bar del Pla on time for some delicious tapas. I tried the fried artichokes and fried bomba stuffed with creamy octopus and some potato. Both were fantastic. A second glass of Cava helped to wash it all down 🙂
Day 2 in Barcelona brought me more energy and more fabulous food. After a good night’s sleep, I grabbed my map a headed south to the Gothic neighborhood. I was NOT looking to visit the extremely touristy Barcelona Cathedral. I’ve seen my great share of imposing and scary religious edifices. I was on a mission to find Satan’s Coffee Counter. My map helped until I hit the bowels of the the square where the cathedral stands.
From that point, it felt like a treasure hunt. Many locals don’t know about Satan’s Coffee Counter, so I was relying upon my Spanish language skills to communicate the cross streets to tiny store owners on the narrow and winding streets to get me there. Well, let me tell you that this coffee bar is located on a dead-end street, a stones throw from some very cute antique shops and a cool sombreria (hat shop). You are not very likely to find this place, unless you get lost or your body is being disposed of by some unsavory mobster (HA!) Just how “Satan” would like it, I guess 😉
The hunt for Satan’s Coffee Counter was well worth it. Cute as a button, this place is serving up some great coffee. I had an Americano with steamed milk and a wonderfully light and flaky croissant with homemade jam. Barcelona is quite close to France, so great croissant can be found all over town. Bliss! The many other menu items flying by my tiny table were insanely drool-worthy. So glad I found this spot.
After getting properly caffeinated, I walked back north out of the Gothic neighborhood toward La Rambla. I wanted to have lunch at the historic, 13th century, Mercat de la Boqueria. This is the premier farmers’ market of Barcelona. Whether you are a local chef, resident or tourist, you can get some serious food shopping accomplished here in this open market. Or, drop by for some breakfast or lunch. Whether you graze while shopping or belly up to one of several tapas bars, you cannot go wrong.
Mercat de la Boqueria is a feast for your eyes. A veritable Crayola crayon box full of meat, fish veggies, fruit and more. I sampled a cone of jamón Ibérico. Sublime! I stopped by the famous El Quim de Boqueria for one of the lightest and most verdant veggie omelets ever. I am always amazed at how much better vegetables taste in Europe as opposed to the United States. It’s because European soil is different and not riddled with the pesticides that the U.S. insists on using.
Finally, I stumbled upon a pretty legendary pizza stall, E-Slice. for some handmade pizza. Qué rico!
Fat and happy I walked out of Mercat de la Boqueria and strolled through Plaςa de Catalunya, a central square in Barcelona, off of La Rambla, where people gather.
Dinner that evening was at Teleféric, a somewhat new addition to the L’Eixample neighborhood, just 1 block from my hotel. This place was not on my pre-arranged list but the hotel staff recommended it for great tapas. Once again, their suggestion was spot-on.
The L’Eixample area of Barcelona reminds me a lot of Manhattan’s upper east side but way nicer. There are many more shops, food establishments, better architecture and more history. Teleféric fit the vibe of this neighborhood very well. It’s sleek and modern with a slightly old-world charm. The menu consists of tapas and smaller hot and cold bites (pinxtos). Even when it’s raining (as it was on my visit), there are covered tents on the outdoor sidewalk pato with fire lamps to keep you dry and warm.
I ordered 1 grilled octopus tapa and a few hot and cold pinxtos from the bar. When you choose the hot pinxtos, the server will heat those up for you and return them to your table. I loved everything I ate here, especially the octopus. Barcelona is a coastal city, so the seafood is super fresh here. I ate a healthy amount of seafood all around the city on this trip.
Next, I took a short walk over to the newly opened ArtTe (also recommended by my hotel staff). It’s a colorful café specializing in tea service. However, they have a food menu, a bar and free live musical performances. While there was no music on tap the night I was there, I enjoyed the energy of the place, along with some Cava and chocolate truffles. Nice!
I ended my second night in Barcelona at Hotel Cram’s rooftop terrace and bar. There are stunning views of the city and the mountains from up there. When I entered, there was a rowdy chorus of singing coming from some Austrians and Germans at the bar. They invited me to join their little party. Of course, I did. After a drink and some laughs, I turned in for the night.
Day 3 was my birthday. The BIG 5-0!. Prior to arriving in Barcelona, my plan was to take a train or a bus to Cadáques, an historic town along Costa Brava to the north. While it was possible to do so, I was informed by Adriano, my kind guru at Hotel Cram, that there is limited train and bus service to Cadáques. So, the nearly 2 hour commute each way was not necessarily worth it. Instead, Adriano suggested I spend the majority of my day at Sitges which is only 40 minutes outside of Barcelona. I cannot thank him enough!
After having the most righteous coffee of my entire trip at Café di Marco (I’d make a few more visits here during the week), I packed a tote bag and hopped the Renfe (train) to the stunning seaside village of Sitges. Aside from beautiful houses, narrow, winding streets, hotels and the massive Playa San Sebastian beachfront, this town is the birthplace of Bacardi rum 🙂
I could not have picked a more perfect day or location to celebrate my birthday. I felt like I was living in a postcard for a day. Once I made my way toward the beach, I headed down the narrow cobble stone steps to Fragata restaurant for a lovely lunch with a view of the sea. It was simply gorgeous! A beautiful meal.
After being greeted by a lovely hostess, I was escorted to a table on the outside patio overlooking the beach and promenade of Playa San Sebastian. This Fragata is not inexpensive nor is it unreasonably priced. I began with some Cava and an order of pan con tomate (a standard, paid add-on in most restaurants).
The menu at Fragata is, not surprisingly, focused on seafood. If you are going to enjoy fresh fish anywhere around Barcelona, Sitges is the place, folks! There are so many great options, I chose the freshly hooked and grilled hake. It was accompanied by octopus, crispy leeks and a special Cava sauce. This was some of the most tender and sweet fish I’ve ever eaten. Super light, yet plenty filling.
My hake entree was rivaled only by my dessert (postre). The “Crepes Catalana” were as light as air and made with the most perfectly sweet and tart lemon/raspberry coulis. Best dessert I’ve eaten in my world travels, to date! It made me smile and cry at the same time. Go get one of your own.
After I walked off my lunch on the beach, I stopped for an afternoon coffee at another cafe. So pretty here.
After I returned to Barcelona, later that evening, I caught the subway over to the legendary Quimet y Quimet. This was on my pre-arranged list. It’s probably the most unique food spots in Barcelona. A hole in the wall lined with wine bottles plays host to tapas a la canned fish. That’s right! Spain has a well-known canned fish trade and Quiment y Quimet is turning those little swimmers into an array of bocadillos (little sandwich bites) for us.
Be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder (literally) as there are no seats here. So, if you are claustrophobic or are turned off by the idea of canned fish (though, they have meat and veggie options here), don’t bother. Honestly, it was very cool to check this place out but I wasn’t particularly impressed by the fish. I found it flavorless compared to the freshly caught fish I enjoyed earlier that day in Sitges. That said, the masses around me could not get enough. I heard a lot of oohing and ahhing. So, maybe I needed to manage my expectations.
Day 4 in Barcelona brought me back to Cafe di Marco for some coffee and free Wi-Fi. That latter is pretty rare, as Barcelona is not widely wired for Wi-Fi, except in hotels.
Cafe di Marco is a lovely, little spot run by some young women. The coffee is sourced from Lucca, Italy. Extraordinary! I really felt like I was living in Barcelona on the mornings I spent here.
La Cova Fumada was my afternoon destination for lunch. Its reputation is huge among locals and tourists in-the-know. It’s located in the Barceloneta neighborhood, an old, working-class, fishing village and beach town on the south side of Barcelona. There is no conspicuous signage outside. You’ll know it be the line of people waiting to get in.
This place in da bomb! It runs like a well-oiled machine. I waited about 15 minutes for a table, as my feet were tired. It gave me a chance to eye-ball all the lovely offerings. I am so envious that this place is not located in my Chicago neighborhood. I would be there everyday. No joke!
I ordered a local Estrella beer, the signature fried artichokes with yummy marinade, some local butifara sausage and the equally awesome bacalao in a spicy tomato sauce and ample olive oil. The latter was my second favorite thing I ate in Barcelona.
PRO TIP: Bring plenty of Euros to La Cova Fumada, as it is CASH-ONLY!
Dinner that night was spent at Gresca in my L’Eixample neighborhood. I did not know how close this spot was to my hotel when I contacted Hotel Cram 2 weeks in advance of my trip to help me get a reservation. Gresca’s website was not functioning, so I could not book a table online. My hotel staff came through right away in advance of my trip. Put this restaurant on your “must-do” list. It’s foodie heaven! What a wonderful surprise!
Here’s how my dinner went down:
Amuse bouche: Sardine with dill and some local salt
Appetizer: Signature egg souffle with potatoes and cream
Entree: Turbot with pickled onions, dill and a dash of cinnamon
Dessert: Santa Domingo chocolate cream with pistachios, olive oil ice cream and an olive oil candy which oozed over the entire dish when cracked – sublime!
I would make Gresca a necessary stop on my next visit to Barcelona.
My 5th and last day in Barcelona was spent in the uber gorgeous and posh Graçia neighborhood. At the suggestion of Adriano, I set out to have some paella at Envalira, a restaurant located in Plaza del Sol. They specialize in cuisine from Galiçia in the north of Spain.
My meal started with a super fresh salad dressed with a local honey vinaigrette and topped with local Cebreiro cheese. The latter is smooth, tangy and slightly smoky. Very different from any cheese I’ve ever eaten.
I chose the seafood paella with a mix of various white fish and head-on prawns. It was very tasty.
I finished my lunch with a housemade lemon meringue tart which was drizzled with a raspberry sauce. I washed it down with some coffee and a shot of Orujo (“firewater”) from Galiçia. This potent drink was a cross between Sambuca and Limoncello. I did NOT finish it all because I wanted to remember my own name 🙂
After walking off lunch from Envalira, I wandered through the streets of the Graçia neighborhood and stumbled upon another well-known tapas bar, Bar Bodega Quimet (not to be confused with Quimet y Quimet, mentioned earlier in this post). It was on my list but I was not actively seeking it out. Isn’t it cool how these things happen?
Of course, I stopped in to check it out. I was too full from lunch to partake of the many delicious looking tapas on offer. So, I just looked around, sat at the bar and ordered another drink. Very cool. It was happy hour at this point, so the joint was filling up with the after-work crowd. I would definitely return here. It’s a super comfortable place.
The next day before my flight home to Chicago, I go up very early and strolled along La Rambla. It’s the wide pedestrian stretch of space which is home to cafes and vendors. At this time of day, the sidewalks were being refreshed for the day’s visitors. This allowed me a different perspective of this tourist attraction. I was headed to Grandja Viader, a 150 year old cafe/bakery for some churros and suisso (hot chocolate). Can you say “breakfast of champions?! (HA!)
Grandja Viader is well-hidden and one block off of La Rambla on a square in the shadow of Le Meriden Barcelona hotel. I am so happy that I made a point of stopping in. It’s a piece of Barcelona history that should not be missed, if you have the time.
There you have it my fellow foodies! My culinary tour of Barcelona. I think I covered a lot of territory and different neighborhoods in my 5 day visit. It was mighty tasty. I cannot say enough good things about this vacation.
In keeping with the spirit of Feeding Off The Rails, I encourage you to ditch the car and take the local subway and buses to the above-referenced Barcelona restaurants and tapas bars. Save on gas. Avoid traffic, road rage and parking. Reduce pollution. Don’t drink and drive!