Barcelona is known for it’s abundance of tapas bars. It’s hard to walk a block without passing a few restaurants or bars filled with people standing at a bar, especially in the touristy areas. During our trips to Barcelona, we have discovered that it has a very different tapas culture compared to our home city of Valencia. We love that the tapas bars in Barcelona tend to have an actual bar or counter where they will serve you (not the case in Valencia). The atmosphere is more conducive to pulling up for a drink and tapa without needing to sit down for a full meal.
Like it or not, we’ve also found that English is spoken throughout the city center. Everywhere we went, in the shops and bars, people all around us were speaking English. It was hard to believe we were still in Spain, but it made it much easier to order tapas.
If you are looking for traditional Spanish tapas, you won’t have a hard time finding a place to eat. Since we are able to get all the traditional tapas we could want everyday, we decided to make our tapas crawling more challenging by searching for bars that serve more creative and interesting versions.
For this adventure, we focused on the Gothic Quarter and El Born neighborhoods. Touristy areas for sure, but also with a high density of tapas bars and the fun of navigating the labyrinth of medieval streets. The Gothic Quarter is at the center of the old city of Barcelona. Here you can see remains of the old Roman walls (1st century BC to 4th century AD) and many medieval landmarks. The cathedral itself is exquisite, however it is interesting to note that, although the cathedral was constructed mainly in the 14th century, the intricate Gothic facade wasn’t added until 1882 to 1913. In fact, many of the Gothic structures in this area were added leading up to the 1929 International Exhibition.
We avoid the area north west of the cathedral, where the crowds turn us away. The side streets away from the main attractions are much quieter. We find that the section of the Gothic Quarter closer to the port is less crowded and more authentic.
From there, you can cross over the Via Laietana into El Born, the lower section of the La Ribera district. This little neighborhood is named for the 19th century Mercat del Born, which was the local food market until 1971 and now serves as a Cultural and Memorial Center where you can view ruins of the medieval city.
El Born is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Barcelona, with art galleries, boutiques, and some of the best bars and restaurants. It is not as crowded as the Gothic Quarter, however the Museo Picasso does bring a lot of tourist traffic into El Born.
We focused our tapas bar search in these two areas: the lower section of the Gothic Quarter and El Born. We managed to find some very interesting food experiences among the sea of tourist traps.
In The Gothic Quarter
La Alcoba Azul
Tucked away in a small plaza just a few blocks from the cathedral, this tiny place has a lot of old world charm. There is a small bar at the entrance, bar height tables along the stone walls, and a dark dining area filled with dripping candles, dark woods and antiques. They also had tables set up outside in the plaza if you’re not in the mood for medieval atmosphere.
We started with Vermut Falset, a fruity ruby red vermouth made in Falset, the capital of Priorat. The only beer on tap is San Miguel (not one of our favorites) but there were better beers by the bottle and eleven wines by the glass.
The menu has a good selection of interesting tapas, sausages and cheeses. It could be debated whether or not the “Patatas Acorddeon” count as patatas bravas, but they were delicious nonetheless. The potatoes were hasselback – the trendy way of slicing the top of the potato – and baked slowly at low temperature to achieve a soft creamy consistency. One was topped with spicy brava sauce and the other with garlic alioli.
One of the specialties of the bar are Tostas: slices of bread toasted with various toppings of meats, vegetables and cheeses. We tried the Tosta Verde topped with spinach, creamy goat’s cheese, and mushrooms. The tostas are substantial enough for a quick meal or good to share as a tapa.
La Alcoba Azul
Carrer de Sant Domènec del Call, 14
Open daily from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am
(They do not have a website. I’ve seen other websites suggesting that Las Alcoba Azul opens at noon, but that was not our experience)
Gourmet Tapas by Sensi
Gourmet Tapas by Sensi is one of four restaurants in the Sensi restaurant family. All are located in the Gothic Quarter within a few blocks of each other and each has its own feel and own chef. The bright modern space has a comfortable atmosphere combining a bar and tables, whichever you prefer.
These were the best, most creative tapas that we had in Barcelona. Instead of just dropping the food in front of us, each dish was delivered with a detailed description, showing the care that the chef and kitchen put into each creation. It was impossible to stop at just one tapa here, so armed with a few glasses of vino blanco we settled in for a while.
Feeling vegetable deprived after a few days of intense tapa crawling, we started with a mesclun salad. Greens were topped with shaved fennel and parmesan cheese and dressed with a lemon oil and coriander sauce. It was much more than we were expecting out of a mere mesclun salad.
Next we tried the Squid cooked at low temperature, which was a revelation of just how tender squid could be. The dish arrived covered with a black cracker layer, which turned out to be crispy squid ink. With the help of our server we broke through the thin inky topping to reveal sous vide cooked squid that was soft and buttery. Drops of honey alioli added a touch of sweetness.
The next dish was just over the top. Sea bass with broccoli mousse and a spinach and Iberian ham emulsion. Oh yes. Crispy skin over tender flaky fish that was gorgeous alongside the bright colors and bold flavors of the broccoli mousse and spinach emulsions. This goes onto our list of favorite dishes in Spain.
We should have stopped there, but…we just couldn’t. Oxtail mini burgers with grilled manchego cheese and truffle mayo called to us. These small but dangerously rich patties of shredded oxtail put the nail in the coffin of our appetites, but they were worth the pain.
Gourmet Tapas by Sensi
Calle de Milans, 4
Open Monday to Sunday 6:30 pm until midnight
As one of the most iconic restaurants in Barcelona, there is a lot written about Agut. We gave it a try because it was recommended to us by Barcelona locals as a great place to try traditional Catalan cuisine. It is not a tapas bar, but a beautiful old traditional restaurant founded in 1924. However, there is a small bar just inside the front door with five seats, so if you’re lucky…
We arrived just after they opened to snag seats at the bar. There were a limited number of wines by glass, one of which was a barrel fermented Xarel-lo, a white grape varietal usually used to make cava.
We shared one of the dishes of the day: sauteed chanterelles with calamares. The squid was nicely done with very subtle seasoning, all that’s needed for the earthy flavor of the mushrooms to come through. It was a beautifully rich dish that was still light in body.
As we’re suckers for suckling pig, we also shared the grilled cochinillo. The skin was not crispy as we usually like it, but the meat was very tender. It was served with a slightly sweet deep brown sauce and Catalan sausage blended with coarsely smashed potatoes. We tried one of each of the two red wines available by the glass, both from D.O. Catalunya and both fabulous.
Carrer d’en Gignàs, 16
Open Tuesday through Saturday 1:15 pm – 4:00 pm, 8:00 pm – 11:00 pm
Sunday 1:15 pm – 4:00 pm
In El Born
El Chigre 1769
This tavern is self-described as “Catarian” concept, a mix of Catalan and Asturian gastronomy. A combination vermouth and cider bar, best reflected in my opinion, in the cider-based Asturian vermouth called Roxmut served with an apple slice. There are seven vermouths and two ciders, as well as a handful of wines by the glass. Seltzer bottles on each table and scattered around the bar let you give your vermouth a spritz to lighten it up.
One side of the food menu focuses on typical Vermouth bar items made with Catalan products, like olives, anchovies, and Mediterranean seafood. The other side has Asturian classics like Fabada Asturiana and seafood from the Catabrian sea.
As this was our first stop on day one of our tapas tour, we decided to have only one dish. The rice with black pudding, pine nuts and cod belly was nice to share between the two of us, served in a very hot pan and strewn with pieces of intensely flavored fatty cod belly. Okay—not a light dish. It was really rich and perhaps not the best to start a tapas crawl, but my husband is a sucker for anything with morcilla (blood pudding).
El Chigre 1769
Carrer dels sombreres 7,
Open every day from 12:00 pm to 12:00 am
Bar del Pla
Tucked into a corner down the street from the Museo Picasso. It looks like your typical tapas bar, but the tapas list is full of surprises with creative versions of traditional Spanish foods. The long marble counter is perfect to pull up and order a few tapas. They are open all day from noon on, so you can pop in anytime.
There is no shortage of reviews and blog posts about Bar del Pla. It seems to be universally loved. We’ll add our two cents by going with the tapas no one else is talking about. The suckling pigs tacos were delicious, with juicy pieces of fatty pork topped with cilantro and tomatoes. The seasonings were complex – did I taste some cardamom in there? Crispy bits of deep fried pork lips added some crunch.
Pig trotters? We always fall for them. Maybe it was a lack of pigs feet when we were children that makes us so interested. These were super rich, gelatinous and velvety, decadent, definitely tasty but very filling. They were covered in red chili “mojo rojo” sauce and pine nuts. Wow. I would like to revisit this dish on an empty stomach.
There are four sommeliers on the restaurant team, so of course the wine list is impressive with about 100 wines by the bottle. However we decided that our rich dishes would wash down best with a beer. On draft was Cerdos Voladores, an IPA from the craft brewer Barcelona Beer Company. The hoppy beer was a perfect complement to these tapas.
Bar del Pla
Carrer de Montcada, 2
Open Monday to Thursday 12:00 – 11:00 pm
Fridays and Saturdays until 12:00 am
Closed on Sundays
Tapeo has two locations in Born, which can be a bit confusing. We visited Tapa del Born, a small classic tapas bar with a long counter and bar height tables lining the narrow space. Our focus was drawn to the activity in the open kitchen at the back of the bar. This is a very popular spot for tapas in Barcelona and can be very crowded and lively during peak hours.
The menu combines traditional tapas with more creative dishes. We gravitated immediately to the organ meats, more specifically—mollejas. These beef sweetbreads were heavenly. Sautéed rather than fried, they were tender and velvety. Served with a sauce of wild mushrooms, bone marrow and fig. Paired with a glass of verdejo from their list of about nine wines by the glass.
Tapeo del Born
Carrer de Montcada, 29
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 12 noon to 4 pm, 7 pm to midnight.