The leaves tumble across the worn sidewalk tiles. They gather against the buildings and huddle together in small corners. Jacket collars are turned up against the fierce wind that blows mercilessly down the long open avenue called Paral·lel. Bright florescent lights shine on the marquees announcing the latest shows, but the theaters stand empty–almost abandoned. No one waits in line. The old windmill stopped turning a while back. It is winter in Barcelona, an anomaly of sorts.
It is difficult to believe, but this nondescript strip of road was at one time a lively boulevard soaked in gin and jazz and cabaret. It was once the fashionable font of culture and arts in the city, home of the famous El Molino club so named after its Parisian counterpart, La Moulin Rouge, as a way to bring the spirit of old music hall to Barcelona. Today, Avinguda del Paral·lel is a central thoroughfare which runs connects the ship port area around Metro Drassanes to Plaça d’Espanya and marks the divide between the neighborhoods of Sant Antoni and Poble Sec. Housing a variety of cheap bars and cafes tucked among the area’s theatres and concert halls, the area has often been more of a transit point than a destination.
Yet, Barcelona’s city council, working in concert with the El Molina Foundation, is finally trying to change the years of neglect the area has faced since the Franco’s reign. Since 2009, the area around Parallel has been undergoing a facelift, one which is meant to restore the area to its former glory as a posh theatre district that once attracted the most well-to-do in the city.
With its faded facade, the wide avenue certainly seemed an odd place for the opening of Tickets, Albert Adrià’s first major gastronomic venture, in 2009. Yet, the star chef has gone on to build a small empire in the area, partly out of nostalgia for the place as it once was. Since opening his flagship restaurant Tickets and the adjoining bar called 41º, Adrià has gone on to open several more restaurants a stone’s throw from one another including Bodega 1900, Pakta with its Japanese-Peruvian nikkei fusion cuisine, a Mexican venture called Hoja Santa and its more informal brother Niño Viejo, and the upcoming Enigma, which will replace 41º Experience.
While it may be a foodie’s dream to sample all of the restaurants in Adrià’s kingdom, there’s much more to the area than star-powered gastronomic culture. Barcelona is filled with excellent and affordable tapas restaurants if you know where to look. Tourists are led by guidebooks into the heart of the city, often sticking to the most central neighborhoods of the Gotico and the Born while missing some of the best local haunts. However, it is worth getting to know the other areas of the city, where visitors can soak up the atmosphere of the quieter streets and immerse themselves in the local food and traditions found off the beaten path.
The areas of Sant Antoni and Poble Sec which frame the wide boulevard of Paral·lel offer visitors and locals alike the chance to dine well. Each of the neighborhoods in Barcelona has its own character, and these two are no different. A once quiet local barrio, up-and-coming Sant Antoni, which abuts the Raval, is known for its cute restaurants and hip bar culture. Not to mention, it is a very popular place to stop for a vermut on Sunday afternoon. Yet, Poble Sec too yields up some treasures for those willing to explore its steep and narrow streets. Both are easily accessed from the either the Paral·lel or Poble Sec metro stops and a ten minute walk in either direction will bring visitors to some of the best that Barcelona has to offer.
Where to Eat and Drink in Sant Antoni
It is essential to know that afternoon is vermut (vermouth) time in Barcelona, and Sant Antoni has become one of the hippest stops on the vermut tour. With stores closed on Sundays, the locals usually wander forlornly through the streets wondering what happened to the city’s vibrant street culture. On Sundays, the streets are empty and many Catalans spend the day visiting with family. Yet, insiders know that the place to be is Sant Antoni. Locals divide their time between the ever-popular Bar Calders and its quainter neighbor, Bodega Vinito, where they stand around old wine barrels with a glass of vermut or wine in hand, soaking up the sun and catching up with friends.
Opened in 2006 as Inopia by Albert Adrià and his partner Joan Martínez, Lolita has retained some of the classic dishes from its former incarnation as well as selection of small dishes, ranging from vermut-style tapas like olives and sardines to grilled meats, in addition to their simply presented seafood and shellfish. Tuck into a plate of mussels swimming in escabeche sauce, the bright vinegar sauce found in many Mediterranean dishes whose sweet tart flavor matches so well with seafood. Try the soft jamon ibérica done a la Gallego style with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika. If you are lucky enough to find a table outside, grab it. Inside, the lights are bright, the pace frenetic, and the crowd lively, but the service is always offered with a smile.
Just around the corner from Lolita, Taranna offers seasonal plates that highlight the freshest ingredients of the season. The weekly menu often changes and features plates like caramelized endive with goat cheese or provolone with fig jam. They also have small snacks like olives and local cheeses as well as simple tapas of canned seafood–a traditional way to enjoy delicious shellfish–such as cockles, clams, or anchovies.
When it opened, Adria’s 41ºExperience was simply 41º, an informal spot that served up the freshest cocktails and some of the haute cuisine tapas from the main dining room. Once it transformed into an experience, it became impossible to get a foot in the door. No matter. If it’s cocktails you are looking for, just down the road, the latest trend has arrived in the form of Ultramarinos, a small but atmospheric bar which specializes in gin and tonics. Most nights it’s very full, but it’s worth packing in to try one of the many sweet or savory versions of this classic drink made with one of the many specialty gins on hand. The bar is packed with a colorful row of bottles filled with a variety of handmade flavorings, from cardamom to rose, used to create the subtle flavor combinations that remind visitors why the gin and tonic trend is here to stay in Barcelona.
Where to Eat and Drink in Poble Sec
This quaint tapas bar is an age-old Barcelona institution touted in every guidebook imaginable but one which remains extremely popular with the locals. The ambiance is simple and unadorned and the food is simply unforgettable. If you don’t mind standing room only, it’s an excellent spot for afternoon tapas. Belly up to the bar, order a vermut, savor the food, and throw your napkin on the floor. In many of the old bars in the city, it’s a sign of respect. The smoked salmon, yogurt and truffled honey small bites are a must.
Up the hill in Poble Sec is El Sortidor, which opened its doors in 1908 and is still serving the same classic comfort food today. The food is Mediterranean and draws from the cuisines of Spain, Catalunya, and Italy. Sit inside the intimate atmosphere of the old dining room and admire the art nouveau detailing of the stained glass windows while enjoying some of the classic dishes of this institution. Choose from appetizers like sardines under a blanket of salmorejo sauce, the rich tomato garlic purée from southern Spain, Italian pasta and risotto dishes, and main plates such as tuna belly with smoked eggplant.
It’s a bit uphill but worth the walk to this sweet little Venetian eatery at the top of Poble Sec. Run by Italian brothers Max and Stefano Colombo, Xemei is a work of art. A handwritten menu highlights the day’s dishes and reflects the market-fresh, seafood-forward approach of this small restaurant. Choose from pasta dishes like tagliatelle with fresh spring peas, or the small freshly grilled squid called morralets which sit atop a soft bed of polenta.
Mind you, this is just a sampling of what this unprecedented area has to offer. There are dozens of exciting, innovative gastronomic treasures flanking both sides of Parel.lal, and we’re eager to hear about your favorites!