The idea of creating a list of ‘the best’ of anything can often incite passionate debate bordering on fanaticism, so lets view this a list of ‘things not to be missed”—a list of my 20 food and drink treasures in Barcelona, and where to look for them! ¡Buen provecho!
Patatas Bravas —Elsa y Fred
A warm, welcoming ‘“gastro bar” run by friendly Argentine owners, Elsa y Fred (named after an Argentine film, not the owners) makes excellent Patatas Bravas; the ever-present tapa of crispy fried potatoes, aioli, and tangy red “brava” sauce with just the hint of spice. The food at Elsa y Fred is very well-made and well-presented, and their Bravas—as well as their coffee and their ‘menu of the day’—should not be missed. The potatoes are crisp, hot, and not the least bit oily.
Mixtures of either béchamel sauce or mashed potato with ingredients like ham, mushrooms, foie, salt cod, and chicken—then breaded and fried golden brown—croquetas are typical tapas all over Barcelona. However, many you find are soggy, sad, and probably from a box. At Tossa, they pride themselves on their variety of croquetas caseras (home-style), which are not to be missed! With 40 years of history, Tossa doesn’t look especially different from the countless other bars with sidewalk terraces that line the streets of Barcelona’s modernists neighborhood of Eixample, but their all-day service and fresh, homemade tapas definitely set them apart. Just a short walk from the Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, Tossa is a great place for a snack and an afternoon beer.
Pintxos —Blai Tonight
A modern, bustling bar for enjoying pintxos alongside the locals. Pintxos—the Basque-style tapas that consist of small bites of food pinned to rounds of bread with a toothpick—are all over Barcelona, but Blai Tonight is fun, lively, and very affordable. The pinxtos are self-serve and they charge you by the number of toothpicks in your special toothpick cup at the end of your meal. They trust you! You should be honored! The street Carrer de Blai and the surrounding blocks are famous for pintxos, so after a few bites at Blai Tonight, move up the street for a second round.
Run by Xavier Pellicar, formerly of two-Michelin-star Barcelona restaurant ABaC, Barraca is a beachside restaurant with cooking of the highest precision without the prices or pomp of Catalan “modernist cuisine.” Still, the prices aren’t those of an average beachside xiringuito. However, the quality-to-price ratio is dead-on. With five different, traditional rice dishes featuring vegetables, fish, and shellfish, Barraca is a great places to experience these quintessential dishes (though paella actually comes from Valencia—a short trip from Barcelona worth taking) without risk of being served the neon-yellow, previously-frozen, tourist-trap, “paella” atrocity of Las Ramblas. My favorite is actually the Arroz Negro (black rice) with squid ink.
Sweet Vermouth (vermut in Catalan) is essentially aromatized wine; a wine that has been infused with botanicals, as well as fortified with neutral spirits. I prefer the red variety personally, and it’s usually the most popular. If you go to the right places, the vermut of Barcelona is home-made and served on it’s own as an aperitivo.
Tradition calls for just a few ice cubes, a 5oz pour of sweet vermouth, an orange slice (or an olive, or both!) and a dash of soda water from a traditional syphon jug. Vermut is strictly a mid-day drink (1pm-3pm) if you ask any local, though I am always one for reinventing tradition.
Restaurant Jai-Ca in the beachside neighborhood of Barceloneta is nearly always packed around then, especially on Sundays; vermut’s ‘golden hour’. Jai-Ca has a large variety of tapas, especially fried and grilled seafood. Ask for a red vermouth, or ‘vermut negre’ (pronounced ‘vair-moot negra’), some snacks, and enjoy a lazy afternoon like a local.
A famous, little, long-established bar (founded in 1929) known for their ambiance and serving up several types of cava (champagne-style Spanish wine) by the glass, conservas (gourmet, canned seafood), house-cured anchovies, and other small tapas. Xampanyet is nearly always packed with a mix of locals and tourists, so be ready for standing-room-only and possible spillage from the wide coupes in which the cava is often poured. In addition, their bottle list of some 13 cavas runs from €13.50-€110.00, if you feel like celebrating.
Just two and a half months old, Bar Brutal and adjoining colmado (grocery) Can Cisa are already causing a stir with the hip, food-savvy crowd in Barcelona. ‘Brutal’ means, in local slang, the equivalent of my home town Boston’s ‘wicked awesome’; basically, it’s a good thing.
Bar Brutal and Can Cisa focuses exclusively on 100% organic, natural wines. The wines they sell in the shop and in the restaurant (some 200 labels) are all made without added sulfites or pesticides, and always fermented with wild yeast; a sure-fire way to achieve an excellent representation of each region’s terroir. The wine list is about 40% Spanish, 40% French, and 20% Italian wines, with some outliers in there as well. The wine bar is capped by old wine barrels that are still in use, dating back to 1959 when the location was a neighborhood bodega—a common history shared by many popular bars in Barcelona. The term “vino libre,” or “liberated wine” is used often at Bar Brutal—wine with a sense of freedom, without rules, or over-use of technology; a philosophy that carries over into the young, vibrant atmosphere of the bar and its staff.
Chocolate Shop —Fargas
A beautiful chocolate shop that has been operating on the same corner in the Gothic neighborhood of Barcelona since 1827. The smell when stepping into the rich, wood-trimmed salón is intoxicating, as Fargas still uses the same stone grinder to mill their chocolate—sold in large, 400 gram, “stone ground” bars—that they has since the shop was founded. They have shiny, refined chocolates too, as well as bright, confit fruits, hard candies, and the famous Catalan treat Catànies. Roasted Marcona almonds that are coated in stages with first caramel, then a paste of milk, sugar, ground nuts, and white chocolate, then finely a dusting of cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar, Catànies were invented in the nearby city of Vilafranca del Penedès and are most typically served at the end of a meal with coffee. Fargas makes them exceptionally well, and they come in dark chocolate varieties as well.
The Escribà family has been baking and cooking in Barcelona since 1906. The original Escribà bakery is located on Barcelona’s Gran Vía, but there is, since 1986, also a cake shop and cafe on Las Ramblas just a couple of blocks below the Boquería market. The Ramblas location is housed in the old, striking, Casa Figueras pasta company location; a beautifully-preserved art nouveau and modernist store front dating back to 1902, with original stained glass, mosaics, iron, and stone work from some of the best designers of the time. Try their cakes, tarts, and the crema catalana (similar to crème brûlée) that they caramelize to order in their unique street-service window.
Pescaditos —La Plata
La Plata is a bar famous for their fried anchovies. With some 90 years of history, the bar is still a family-run business. A small space with a handful of marble tables that is filled with locals by day and packed with a mix of tourists and young people by night. And everyone loves the pescaditos (‘little fish’).
These aren’t the brown, salty, canned anchovies that sadly adorn slices of greasy pizza; these are fresh fish the size of your index finger that are simply cleaned, dusted with flour, and fried in oil that is changed daily. With the purity of flavor that these crunchy little fish offer, it’s no surprise that the bar sells little else.
To drink: white, red, and rosé wine, one beer, and water from vintage wooden refrigerators and wine barrels. To eat: the famous pescaditos, a tomato, onion, and olive salad, a catalan sausage on bread, and salted anchovy fillets on bread. The little fried fish come whole, heaped on a plate, without sauce or garnish, and you eat them with you fingers; heads, tails, and all. They also sell wine in porróns and are more than happy to teach you the art of the graceful pour from glass spout to mouth that will leave you laughing and probably a little stained.
Essentially just delicious rotisserie chicken, pollo a’last is something near and dear to all Catalans. The chickens are roasted slowly on a spit and flavored with lemon, rosemary, thyme, and lots of salt. Usually served with roasted potatoes that have been cooked in the chicken drippings, this comforting dish is synonymous with Sunday family meals at home. There are numerous places around the city that offer pollo a l’ast take-out, many of which have impressive lines of hungry locals snaking down their sidewalks on Sunday mornings to pick up their pre-ordered chicken.
However, to experience this simple-but-extraordinary roast chicken in a restaurant settings, head over to the famous Los Caracoles restaurant. The oldest in Barcelona, Los Caracoles roasted their chickens in a vertical rotisserie that is open to the street, inviting hungry patrons to enter (through the kitchen!) and enjoy a historic meal. The restaurant now has a reputation with some as being a bit touristy (the prices aren’t those of your neighborhood ‘mom and pop’ store), but the chicken is worth the trip.
Croissants —Hoffman Pastry Shop
A small, side-street bakery run by the prestigious Hoffman culinary school, this patisería makes the best croissants I have tasted in Barcelona. The croissant, though not Spanish, is by far the most popular breakfast item in the city. The Catalans aren’t big on breakfast the way we are in America; the joke goes that breakfast in Barcelona is coffee, a cigarette, and maybe a croissant. But these are a must-try! The croissants at Hoffman are authentic, deliciously flaky, and come in chocolate, dulce de leche, raspberry, ham and cheese, sweet cream butter, and more. Unlike many bakeries in the city, you can also get a coffee to accompany your purchase.
Baluard is famous in Barcelona for selling organic, artisanal breads and both sweet and savory pastries. Founder Anna Bellsolà is a champion of the entire natural process and old art of bread making. At Baluard they allow the slow fermentation of all of their dough starters from natural yeast, and bake their breads in a wood-fired oven. Bread is baked throughout the day to maintain freshness but they are usually quite busy, so if you want the best selection you should arrive before noon. If you are in the neighborhoods of Raval, Born, or Gràcia, also check out one of the three Barcelona Reykjavik bakery locations; organic, spelt breads in local, as well as hearty, Scandinavian styles.
Churros —Granja Dulcinea
Spanish ‘fried dough’, churros original come from Iberia, be it Spain or Portugal (the history isn’t clear) though many Americans wrongly believe that they are a Mexican creation. Very often a breakfast food, the churro dough is extruded through a star-shaped die into a vat of hot oil, often clipped in mid-air by a handy pair of scissors. They are scooped out of the oil once golden and crispy, dusted with white sugar, and often dipped in very thick melted chocolate. Also a popular ‘end of the night’ food for the party crowd of Barcelona, churros are available around the city at bakeries, cafes, and food carts.
Granja Dulcinea dates back to the 1940s and is located on the famously narrow street of Calle Petritxol. Known throughout the city for churros, tiled artwork, and the gallery that showed Picasso’s first ever exhibition (Sala Parés), Calle Petritxol is a great place to visit. Of the several churro cafes on the street, Granja Dulcinea is my favorite.
Beer —La Cerveteca
La Cerveteca is a bar dedicated to all things beer, run by a team of true gastronomes. They offer education in the form of beer tastings and specifically-theme seminars, and their beer list is an impressive representation of labels from across the globe. Try the local Catalan brand Guineu. They have a variety of styles but I really liked the bitter Antius; a hoppy flavor of home that I miss. La Cerveteca also offers a decent variety of tapas for your grazing pleasure.
Tortilla de Patatas —Flash Flash Tortillería
Founded by artists, architects, and photographers in 1969, Flash Flash Tortillería is a restaurant devoted to the Spanish omelet, or ‘toritilla de patatas’. The decor is minimalistic and tinged with the Pop Art movement of it’s time, and there are some 80 different variations of the classic Spanish tapa for you to choose from. Definitely worth the trip up town.
Cafés El Magnífico is officially the best coffee shop in Barcelona. Opened in 1919 and currently under it’s third generation of local, family management, owner Salvador Sans Velasco and associates taste coffees from across the globe and buy small quantities of the green coffee beans to roast in their open workshop on busy Carrer de l’Argenteria. Cafés El Magnífico’s slogan is “coffees with denominations of origin,” and they are committed to supporting sustainable practices when purchasing their 37 different varieties of coffee beans from South America, Central America, Africa, and Asia.
If that isn’t enough, they also employ Barcelona’s Best Barista 2013, Carolina Hernández. The roasting house has a small coffee bar where espresso shots packed with care are pulled with bottled, filtered water (Barcelona’s tap water is quite high in unpleasant calcium and chlorine) and the milk they expertly steam is full fat and always fresh (not in the shelf-stable, long-living tetra-briks). Being a lover of big, steaming cups of “American” coffee, I was excited to see gourmet French Press, Syphon, and Filter coffee on the menu. Sold in 360ml quantities, these non-typical offerings (for Barcelona) are great to share. However, seating is scarce, with just a handful of spots to sit inside the tiny service area.
Catalan Pastries —La Colmena
While croissants may be the most consumed pastries in the city, there are many typical Catalan baked goods that have a whole lot of tradition, if not recognition. La Colmena is one of the oldest bakeries in the city, dating back to 1849. They have laid claim to the title of “oldest caramelos in Spain” (caramel fruit candies produced since the shop first opened), and La Colmena has been run by the same family since 1927. Among the things that the famous, ultra-central bake shop is famous for are Xuxos de crema, Encasadas, Coca de lardons (pork rind, sugar, and pine nut bread), and Yema Tostada turrón (egg yolk and caramelized sugar nougat).
Xuxos de crema are my favorite. Originally from the nearby city of Girona, Xuxos de crema are soft, sugar-crusted packets of lightly-fried dough filled with an orange-cinnamon pastry cream. The other most typical pastry of the city is the Encasada (meaning ‘made at home’ in Catalan). Encasadas are round, moist sponge cakes made with fresh mató cheese, wrapped in a thin layer of pastry dough, and baked before finally being dusted with a delicate shroud of powdered sugar.
Catalan Cuisine —Meson Jesus
A small, family-run restaurant with simple food and a pleasant, equally unassuming ambiance, Meson Jesus is quite close to the Rambla but is a bit of a hidden gem. The exposed brick, red-checkered table clothes, family memorabilia, and ‘menu del dia’ for around €11 are refreshing in the touristy center of the Gothic quarter. The ‘menu of the day’ is a wonderful way to eat in many local restaurants; a lunch consisting of a first, second, and dessert course with bread and your choice of a wine, beer, or water included in the wallet-friendly price. Typically, the ‘menu del dia’ is only offered for at lunch time, and an a la carte menu is usually available as well.
If you are looking for an expertly-made artisanal cocktail in a hip, off-the-beaten-path environment, check out Collage cocktail bar. With cool lighting and a nostalgic, 1950s-vibe coupled with jazz music and a vintage decor, Collage is a great place to enjoy a drink and conversation. Plant yourself either on the plush couches of their lofted sitting area or at the short, tiled bar, and let the bartenders mix you up something new. I personally am a fan of the classics, which they do with great finesse as well. Also, the art on the walls of the bar is all by local artists and changes regularly, and they offer complementary snacks in the early evening.