Barcelona, pronounced BarTHelona, is the economical, cultural, gastronomical, alcoholical centre of España – a country already with major standing as one of the cultural centres of the world. When people talk about Barcelona, they usually only mention either Gaudí, soccer, or night clubs. However for me, Barcelona is tapas, sangria and jamón Ibérico Bellota (Spanish cured ham from acorn-fed black pigs).
On my second trip to Barcelona, I was determined to eat myself to the brink of death on all the wonderful and varied food the city has to offer. For 5 days, I ate out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I researched the best places to eat, I asked locals, read Trip Adviser, and best of all, stumbled upon little hidden gems that the online world has not yet discovered.
The Spanish adore their food; eating a meal is not just a refuelling stop, it’s an indulgent, rejuvenating experience, which can take place over several hours and several restaurants. Furthermore, the meal times are a little different to Australia. Everyone is familiar with the concept of the siesta, but most travellers, including myself, are always surprised by how seriously the locals take it. Seriously. I was yelled at in an apartment building in Costa Brava at 4pm for walking up the stairs too loudly.
In the smaller Spanish cities, all shops and eateries shut down at 3pm and can remain shut until 5pm… 6pm… in some Southern cities in the summer months even until 9pm, before reopening for late night shopping and dinner. Therefore, the meal times are a little counter-intuitive.
In summer, all cities in Spain remain asleep (and I mean dead asleep) until, at the earliest, 9am, before the shops and cafes start to open at 10am. This is breakfast time. The huevos are then packed away a few hours later and lunch begins at around 2pm. Once you’re stuffed to the brim with lunch, it’s time to descend into a 2-hour long, or potentially 6-hour long food coma from 3pm onwards.
At 8pm, the streets will still be full of families shopping and running their errands. Kids will be running around with ice creams as if it were the middle of the day… which it practically is to them. At this time however, some locals get started with aperitivo, i.e. pre dinner drinks, i.e. sangria o’clock. Most restaurants in Spain have most of their seating outdoors in squares, courtyards or on footpaths. These tables will start to fill up with all varying groups of people drinking anything chilled, smoking cigarettes and enjoying this sacred time of day in their own way.
On my first night in Barcelona this trip, we headed out to dinner at 9pm, and we still felt like geriatrics opting for the early-bird special. It wasn’t until we were paying the bill, at around 10:30pm, that the restaurants started filling up.
By our second day, we’d gotten the hang of it and tuned our body clocks to Barcelona time. By our last day, we’d racked up an excellent number of delicious meals. So here is my ideal day of food and liquid consumption in one of the best cities for it.
Breakfast: Flax & Kale
After recently celebrating their first anniversary, Flax & Kale – health food cafe and cold pressed juicery – have been exposed to blistering success. Tucked away down one of the many ever-so-trendy side streets near Plaça Catalunya in the city’s centre, this huge cafe and apparent fruit factory can’t be missed. When approaching from the street, you will see a huge glass windows looking in on Teresa’s Juicery – a cold-pressed juicer company attached to the cafe.
When you walk in, to your left will be four giant fridges, fully stocked with countless different flavours of freshly pressed bottled juicers, with Teresa’s “office” directly behind. You will see the juices being made before your eyes. Turn right and take a seat in one of the booths and take a minute (or 20) to read to detailed menu of complex and modern, raw, vegan and paleo foods.
What to order: açai bowl. It’s not the healthiest version as it is topped with a macadamia cookie crumble along with the usual mixed berries and hemp seeds, yet it was one of the best açai bowls I’ve ever ordered (NOTE: it is possible I was so açai-deprived from travelling that I would’ve loved it no matter what, but unlikely).
Lunch: Elsa Y Fred
Elsa Y Fred is a gastrobar serving tapas with a boisterous atmosphere and zealous staff to match. This bar is open everyday from 9am – 1:30am with non-stop food service to suit all eating habits, and it is a perfect place for a relaxed light lunch. Having been open for just three years, this sophisticated tapas bar stands out as some of Barcelona’s best traditional yet modern food.
If the rule of thumb for designing a menu is under-promise, over-deliver, Elsa Y Fred have nailed it. You’ll see gazpacho on every menu in Spain, yet Elsa Y Fred’s chilled summer soup was a surprise. I was given a bowl of perfectly uniform, beautifully random balls of things, which, after inspection I noticed were a collection of whole skinned cherry tomatoes, balls of buffalo mozzarella, and balls of honeydew melon. The waitress behind the bar then poured a jug full of thick, glossy, sumptuous sweet and savoury watermelon soup over the top. Simple yet delicious, these guys really know how to tapas. A great place to come in a group, but an equally exciting experience to come as a couple or a single and sit at the bar.
Afternoon Tea: Mercado de Boqueria.
If Gaudí and Picasso are the visionary brains of Barcelona, then this market and its food is the heart. Le Mercado de Boqueria dates back to 1217 when it was a simple meat market. It has been constantly evolving since then and is now one of the most visited places in Barcelona, located on the famous La Rambla, and is definitely one of the best markets in Europe.
You can find everything there from fresh meat, seafood, charcuterie, preserves, cheese, tropical and local fruits and vegetables, wines, spirits and best of all, street food. No matter the budget, there is something here for everyone. There are literally hundreds of stalls.
Pull up a stool and one of the many upmarket seafood bars and indulge in a glass of Cava with some freshly shucked oysters, traditional white anchovies, or grilled squid caught that morning. There are countless tapas bars, pintxos bar, wine bars; list is endless. However if you’re after something cheap and cheerful, this is the best place for a quick afternoon snack. The market is famous for it’s colourful displays of fresh fruit, with each fruit stall selling fruit juices, and cups or plates of freshly cut fruit. You can simply buy half a dragonfruit with a spoon in it for 2 euro – perfect on a hot day.
If you’re after something more substantial, seek out the cheap street food stalls that sell empanadas (stewed meat or vegetables encased in puff pastry – similar in appearance to a pasty) or simply delicious charcuterie sandwiches. Everyone must try Jamon Iberico in a crusty baguette at least once while in Spain.
Dinner: Casa Lolea
On many online lists for best sangria in Barcelona, Casa Lolea also has exceptional tapas and, not to mention, the best patatas bravas I had in my month in Spain. This little restaurant is much more modern than most reasonably priced tapas places you’ll find, and I’m talking about both the interior and the food. You’ll see white tiles and exposed bricks, however there are still whole legs of jamon hanging behind the counter, and the place will be full of locals.
The food is creative and beautiful, and there are is a separate menu just for sangria – I recommend trying one of each of their varieties of this stunning wine cocktail. Their food menu is divided into tapas (to share) and montaditos (for one), with a selection of Iberico meats, cheeses and salads as well.
The patatas bravas were not your average deep fried potato wedges with ketchup and chill like they are at pretty much every cheaper restaurant in Spain, here they were crispy roasted whole baby potatoes – skin on, with house made thick spicy tomato sauce and roasted garlic aioli. To die for.
You can also indulge on meat and cheese boards; a platter of cecina (Spanish cured beef, similar to Bresaola) and 9-month aged Manchego cheese for roughly $10. But don’t forget your greens! The dish of the night was the green salad with cured duck, raspberries, blueberries and almond cream dressing. For me this dish practically redefined the expression, “explosion of flavour.”
Casa Lolea is the place to go if you’re after something different to the regular tapas dishes, or if you want the best possible versions of those traditional dishes. Remember, go after 9pm!