Barcelona has a celebrated food scene fuelled by a combination of world-class chefs, imaginative recipes and magnificent ingredients fresh from farms and the sea. Catalan culinary masterminds like brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià, and Carles Abellán have become international icons, reinventing the world of haute cuisine, while classic old-world Catalan recipes continue to earn accolades in dining rooms and tapas bars across the city.
New Catalan Cuisine
Avant-garde chefs have made Catalonia famous throughout the world for their food laboratories, their commitment to food as art and their crazy riffs on the themes of traditional local cooking.
Here the notion of gourmet cuisine is deconstructed as chefs transform liquids and solid foods into foams, create ‘ice cream’ of classic ingredients by means of liquid nitrogen, freeze-dry foods to make concentrated powders and employ spherification to create unusual and artful morsels. This alchemical cookery is known as molecular gastronomy, and invention is the keystone of this technique.
Diners may encounter olive oil ‘caviar’, ‘snow’ made of gazpacho with anchovies, jellified Parmesan turned into spaghetti, and countless other concoctions.
The dining rooms themselves also offer a reconfiguration of the five-star dining experience. Restaurateurs generally aim to create warm and buzzing spaces, with artful design flourishes, and without the stuffiness and formality typically associated with high-end dining.
Albert Adrià, brother of Ferran of the late, world-class El Bulli, has brought culinary fame to Barcelona with his growing empire of restaurants. Tickets is a delectable showcase of whimsy and imagination, with deconstructed tapas dishes like liquid olives, 'air baguettes' (made with Iberian ham) and fairy-floss-covered trees with edible dark chocolate 'soil'.
Other great chefs continue to redefine contemporary cuisine. The Michelin-starred chef Carles Abellan, creator of Suculent, Tapas 24 and other restaurants, playfully reinterprets traditional tapas with dishes like the melón con jamón, a millefeuille of layered caramelised Iberian ham and thinly sliced melon.
Another star of the Catalan cooking scene is Jordi Vilà, who continues to wow diners at Alkímia with reinvented Catalan classics. Other major players on the Catalan dining scene are Jordi Artal at Cinc Sentits, Xavier Pellicer at Barraca, and the trio of Mateu Casañas, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch at Disfrutar.
Tapas, those bite-sized morsels of joy, are not a typical Catalan concept, but tapas bars are nonetheless found all across the city. Most open earlier than restaurants – typically around 7pm – making them a good pre-dinner (or instead-of-dinner) option. Some open from lunch and stay open without a break through late-evening closing time.
As per the 'bar' designation, these places are less formal than restaurants, and drinking is an essential component of the experience.
Ordering tapas generally works like this: you take your seat at the bar or one of the cafe-style tables usually on hand, order drinks – try the slightly fizzy white wine (txacolí), a glass of cava, a house-made vermut (vermouth) or a refreshing caña (draft beer) – and ask for a plate.
Many of the tapas are montaditos (a sort of canapé), which can range from a creamy Roquefort cheese and walnut combination to a chunk of spicy sausage. They all come with toothpicks. These facilitate their consumption, but serve another important purpose too: when you’re ready to leave, the toothpicks are counted up and the bill presented.
While a tapa is a tiny serving, if you particularly like something you can have a ración (rations; large tapas servings) or media ración (half-rations; smaller tapas servings). Remember, that two or three raciónes can easily constitute a full meal; the media ración is a good choice if you want to experience a broader range of tastes.
In addition to plates displayed on the bar, some tapas venues will also offer hot dishes fresh from the kitchen. The bar staff will typically go around the bar and see if anyone is interested. If you see something you like, take it!
Other places only bring out hot plates when ordered. Have a look at the menu, which might be a blackboard listing the day's specials. If you can't choose, ask for la especialidad de la casa (the house speciality) and it's hard to go wrong.
Classic Catalan Cuisine
Traditional Catalan recipes showcase the great produce of the Mediterranean: fish, prawns, cuttlefish, clams, pork, rabbit, game, first-rate olive oil, peppers and loads of garlic. Classic dishes also feature unusual pairings (seafood with meat, fruit with fowl) such as cuttlefish with chickpeas, cured ham with caviar, rabbit with prawns, or goose with pears.
Great Catalan restaurants can be found in nearly every neighbourhood around town. The settings can be a huge part of the appeal, with candlelit medieval chambers in the Ciutat Vella and Modernista design in L'Eixample setting the stage for a memorable feast. Although there are plenty of high-end places in this city, foodie-minded barcelonins aren't averse to eating at humbler, less elegant places – which sometimes cook up the best meals.
- Calçots amb romesco Sweet and juicy spring onions cooked up on a barbecue.
- Escalivada Red pepper, aubergine and onion, grilled, cooled, peeled, sliced and served with an olive oil, salt and garlic dressing.
- Esqueixada Salad of bacallà/bacalao (shredded salted cod) with tomatoes, red peppers, onions, white beans, olives, olive oil and vinegar.
- Arròs a la cassola Catalan paella, cooked without saffron
- Arròs negre Rice cooked in black cuttlefish ink
- Bacallà a la llauna Salted cod baked in tomato, garlic, parsley, paprika and wine
- Botifarra amb mongetes Pork sausage with fried white beans
- Cargols/Caracoles Snails, often stewed with conill/conejo (rabbit) and chilli
- Fideuà Similar to paella but with vermicelli noodles as the base. Often accompanied by allioli (pounded garlic with olive oil), which you can mix in as you wish
- Fricandó Pork and vegetable stew
- Sarsuela/zarzuela Mixed seafood cooked in sofregit (fried onion, tomato and garlic sauce) with seasonings
- Suquet de peix Fish and potato hotpot
- Crema catalana A cream custard with a crisp burnt-sugar coating
- Mel i mató Honey and fresh cream cheese
There are a wealth of restaurants specialising in seafood. Not surprisingly Barceloneta, which lies near the sea, is packed with eateries of all shapes and sizes doling out decadent paellas, cauldrons of bubbling molluscs, grilled catches of the day and other delights. Nearest the sea, you'll find pricier open-air places with Mediterranean views; plunge into the narrow lanes to find the real gems, including bustling family-run places that serve first-rate plates at great prices.
Barcelona has some fantastic food markets. Foodies will enjoy the sounds, smells and most importantly tastes of the Mercat de la Boqueria. This is probably Spain's biggest and most famous market, and it's conveniently located right off La Rambla. That location comes at a price: these days it's usually very overcrowded. You can still find temptations of all sorts, though – plump fruits and veggies, freshly squeezed juices, artisanal cheeses, smoked meats, seafood and pastries. The best feature: an array of tapas bars and food stalls where you can sample amazingly fresh ingredients cooked to perfection. Some other great market options:
How to Eat Like a Local
Esmorzar/desayuno (breakfast) is generally a no-nonsense affair eaten at a bar on the way to work. A cafè amb llet/café con leche (coffee with milk) with a pasta (pastry), such as a cream-filled canya (broad, tubelike pastry) or croissant, is the typical breakfast. If you can, try an ensaïmada, a Mallorcan import. This whirl-shaped pastry has the consistency of a croissant and is dusted with icing sugar. It can a be a trifle messy to eat, but it’s worth it. If you prefer a savoury start, you could go for the oddly named bikini, nothing more than a classic toasted ham and cheese sandwich. A torrada/tostada is simply buttered toast.
Dinar/comida (or almuerzo; lunchtime), between 2pm and 4pm, is generally the main meal of the day, although modern work and living habits are changing this for some people. Many workers opt for the cheap and cheerful set-price menú del día at lunch, while some restaurants offer more elaborate versions both at lunch and dinner time. A simpler version is the plat combinat/plato combinado (combined dish) – basically a meat-and-three-veg dish that will hardly excite taste buds, but which will have little impact on your budget, meaning that you can eat solidly and economically at lunch and then splash out at dinner.
Barcelonins generally don’t even start thinking about sopar/cena (dinner) much before 9pm. A full meal can comprise an entrant/entrante (starter), plat/plato principal (main course) and postre (dessert). In some places the first two are referred to as the primer plat/primer plato (first course) and segon plat/segundo plato (second course). You might be asked what you would like de primer (for your first course) and then de segon (for your second course). Many people skip the starter.
Instead of heading for a sit-down meal, some locals prefer to tapear or ir de tapeo (go on a tapas crawl; also known as picar or pica-pica). This is the delightful business of standing around in bars and choosing from a range of tasty little titbits. You can stay in one place or move from one to another, and you basically keep munching and drinking until you’ve had enough.
Eating can be an art in Barcelona, and here are a few local tips: always ask for the local speciality; never be shy about looking around to see what others have ordered before choosing; and always ask the waiters for their recommendations.
One of the best ways to eat like a local is to dine in a barcelonin's home. Sites like EatWith (www.eatwith.com) list hundreds of prospective hosts who throw dinner parties. A full meal with wine starts at €30.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarians, and especially vegans, can have a hard time in Spain, but in Barcelona a growing battery of vegetarian restaurants offers welcome relief. Be careful when ordering salads (such as the amanida catalana), which may contain the likes of ham or tuna.
Menú del Día
The menú del día, a full set meal with water or wine (and usually with several dish options), is a great way to cap prices at lunchtime. They start from around €11 and can go as high as €25 for more elaborate offerings.
Slightly different etiquette applies to a menú del día, and you will probably keep the same knife and fork throughout the meal. Once your order is taken and the first course (which could range from a simple amanida/ensalada rusa – Russian salad thick with potatoes and mayonnaise – to an elaborate seafood item) is in place, you may find the level of service increases disconcertingly. This especially becomes the case as you reach the end of any given course. Hovering waiters swoop like eagles to swipe your unfinished dish or lift your glass of wine, still tinged with that last sip you wanted to savour. Simply utter ‘Encara no he terminat’/’Todavía no he terminado’ (I haven’t finished yet) – you’ll be flashed a cheerful smile and your waiter will leave you to finish in peace.
Need to Know
Most restaurants open from 1pm to 4pm and from 8.30pm to midnight.
At midrange restaurants and simpler taverns you can usually turn up without booking ahead. At high-end restaurants, especially for dinner, it is safer to make a booking. Thursday to Saturday nights are especially busy.
A service charge is rarely included in the bill. Catalans and other Spaniards are not overwhelming tippers. If you are particularly happy, 5% on top is generally fine.
Menú de Degustación
At high-end restaurants you can occasionally opt for a menú de degustación, a tasting menu involving samples of different dishes. This can be a great way to get a broader view of what the restaurant does and has the advantage of coming at a fixed price.