This is the unedited and unabridged version of a feature I originally wrote for Expedia UK.
Spanish tapas offer more than just a way of eating, they also encapsulate the Spanish way of life. In fact the locals call it “tapeando”, which basically means “to go tapas-ing”. Tapeando is a lively and informal way of spending time with friends and family, hopping from bar to bar whilst socialising and sharing delicious Spanish cuisine. And, what’s more, it’s an extremely affordable way to explore the many different flavours of Iberia.
But in the cultural melting pot that is Barcelona, where chefs from all over Spain (and much farther afield) come to showcase their region’s culinary delights, you’ll find that not all tapas bars are the same.
The different barrios (neighbourhoods) each offer they’re own style of tapas, their own specialities and they own traditions. And what’s more, each area has a different vibe and a different way of doing tapas.
In Barceloneta, the old fisherman’s quarter that borders the beach, it’s all about seafood. My friends and I go here to hop from El Vaso de Oro to Jai-ca Bar and Cal Papi to Bar Jordi, sipping vermouth and nibbling on donut-sized calamari and fistfuls of pescaditos (tiny fish), fresh out of the sea and drizzled in zesty lemon juice.
Deeper into the centre of the city, the barrio of El Borne is an eclectic mix of ultra-trendy tapas bars and ancient establishments. The Mercat Princesa is a glitzy new food hall where you can feast on classic tapas dishes such as spicy patatas bravas and ham croquettes, whilst sampling local ales and wine. And then there’s El Xampanyet, which a legend within the local tapas scene and has been in the Esteve family for three generations. They’ve been seducing the locals and savvy tourists with their montaditos – toasted bread topped with anchovies, grilled peppers and butter-soft Iberian ham – for decades.
And resting at the foot of Montjuic, away from the tourist traps of the city centre, you’ll find my favourite neighbourhoods for tapeando. The unassuming but utterly charming barrio of Poble Sec (the dry village) has become one of the liveliest gastronomic hotspots. With an easy-going nature and strong community spirit, its streets are lined with trendy bars serving classic pinchos (or “spikes” in Spanish), which are a type of tapas that originate in the north of Spain, particularly in the Basque country. The idea is that you help yourself to the pinchos, which are ‘spiked’ with a toothpick, and simply take the toothpicks to the bar after you’ve eaten to show how many you’ve had, so you can pay accordingly. It’s a system that’s based on trust. For serious pincho tapeando, don’t miss Carrer Blai. This long pedestrianised street is constantly evolving, with new pincho bars popping up on a weekly basis to meet the demand. You’ll often find standing-room only, but with bargain prices drawing in the masses – €2 for a beer and a pincho – it can be hard to find room even for that.
I spoke to a some of the local local tapas bar owners about the different neighbourhoods and their speciality tapas offerings. Here’s what they had to say:
Santi de Cruylles, owner of Manolete in Barceloneta
La Barceloneta is the old quarter of sailors and fishermen and it’s full of rustic character and charm. It’s the perfect neighborhood for eating good fish tapas – anything with ‘pulpo’ (octopus) is a must. Although, patatas bravas are unquestionably the queens of all bars in this area!
Vermouth is going through a revival here in Barcelona and it’s what all the locals drink.
We suggest vermouth and beer for brunch and cava (locally produced in Catalonia) with lunch and dinner. Later at night, cocktails are the main protagonists. Head to Arco in Passeig d’Isabel II for some of the city’s finest.
Oscar and Simone, owners of Blai 9 in Poble Sec
The food in Poble Sec is diverse and extremely affordable, served in an up beat and cheerful environment. Many bars on Carrer Blai like to get creative with their pincho dishes, with combinations such as chorizo and potato pancakes with poached quail eggs and chives, and Angus burgers with havarti Cheese, caramelised onions and mustard, there’s always something new and exciting to try.
Poble Sec is also a very popular place to drink vermouth aperitifs before lunch or dinner.
We would recommend asking for “vermut de la casa” (home made vermouth) for a taste of what the local producers are doing. We also highly recommend wines from the nearby Penedès vineyards, especially the cavas.
Jordi Galopa, Manager at Bormuth in El Born
El Born is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Barcelona and one of the biggest pedestrianised areas in the city. It’s an cosmopolitan mix of locals – many of whom have lived here their entire lives – and culturally-curious tourists who come to enjoy the lively restaurants and attractions, such as the recently remodelled Mercat del Born. It’s also close to Parc de la Ciutadella, the city centre and the beach, all of which are walkable within five to ten minutes.
I would recommend the traditional tapas dishes such as breaded eggplant with honey; calamaris, and ‘revueltos’, which is a classic dish of eggs, potatoes and Spanish ham.
As the name of our restaurant suggests, we believe the star drink of the barrio is vermouth. It’s all about drinking and eating with friends, sharing tapas and good times. We also highly recommend Catalan wines, which are still little known among tourists but are of a very high quality.
So no matter what flavours you want to explore during your time in Barcelona, you’re sure to find a tapas bar to satisfy. And of course, if there’s one in particular that you simply fall in love with, don’t be afraid to throw the rule book out the window and stay there all day and night. As my Spanish friends tell me every day, “You’re in Barcelona now, you’re free to do what you want!”.