The seaside town of Dénia sits on a piece of Spain’s Costa Blanca jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea just over 100 km south of Valencia. It may be a charming beach resort, but perhaps the best reason to visit Dénia is for the food. The tagline on Dénia’s tourism website is City of Gastronomy for good reason. In 2015 Dénia was chosen as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. I bet you didn’t know that was even a thing; we sure didn’t.
This UNESCO designation focuses on a city’s culinary heritage and it’s commitment to creative plans to sustainably preserve that heritage for the future. In Dénia, that culinary heritage is rooted in the traditional local fishing industry and the surrounding rice fields. Dénia is known for its rice dishes and its great seafood—especially red prawns and dried octopus.
When we first came to Spain, we stopped in Dénia for a day on our way to Valencia. We met a local who lived in Valencia but said he spent his weekends in Dénia because the food was so good. With so little time we didn’t get a chance to try many restaurants, so we vowed to return. Unfortunately, that vow was shuffled to the bottom of a pile of things to do while we settled into Valencia. Now, two years later we finally remembered that promise to ourselves when a friend mentioned the bus to Dénia. We immediately scheduled a trip for that weekend.
A direct Alsa bus got us there in 1 hour 30 minutes from an Alsa bus stop next to Valencia’s Joaquín Sorolla train station. In Dénia, the Estación Autobus Dénia is a fifteen minute walk to the center of the old town, twenty minutes to the waterfront.
Dénia Historical City Center
Although Dénia has built itself into a tourist destination with the accompanying homogenous condominium complexes, there still exists a beautifully preserved Old Town with buildings and architecture mostly built in the 19th and early 20th century. This historic old town is full of tapas bars and restaurants. The pedestrian street Carrer de Loreto, in particular, is a great place to start with lots of options for traditional Spanish tapas. We wanted to mix things up by looking for restaurants with more creative cuisine. We also looked for places with a bar where we could have a tapa and a drink, then continue our crawl.
Carrer de Loreto is where we found our absolutely favorite restaurant in Denia. Restaurante L’escoleta charmed us in every way. The food, atmosphere, service—we loved it all and returned a couple of times. We may have intended to stay for just a quick tapa, but once we started we didn’t want to stop. The menu was phenomenal.
The Ceviche de Vieiras (scallop ceviche) stunned us with wafer thin slices of sweet raw scallops dressed with a variety of sweet, sour and briny flavors and textures. I loved how the crunch of the passion fruit seeds contrasted the smooth spheres of mango gel.
Both the owner and the chef visited us multiple times to see how we were doing, or better yet, to shave some fresh summer truffle on our Wagyu carpaccio. Truffles permeated the menu, also flavoring the Macarrones rellenos de trufa and setas. In this luxurious dish, big macaroni tubes were stuffed with mushroom and truffle. A softly cooked egg added silkiness to the sauce when broken with a fork.
They also tempted us with a carpaccio de boletus to celebrate these beautiful mushrooms from León that are in season, and a plate of tender pigeon, cooked rare with sweet potatos. If we were to start all over again, we would have had the Menú degustación which included many of the dishes we liked for just €33.50. I should also mention that they are open every day, non-stop, from 12 pm to 2 am. Thank you L’escoleta!
A little further down on Carrer de Loreto, we found another interesting restaurant called La Mar de Chula. The international menu caught our attention and we liked the layout of the restaurant with a variety of dining areas: a sidewalk terrace, a casual bar with open kitchen in front, and a wine bodega room with a nice selection of wines and tall tables in the back. Some of the dishes came in two sizes, either as a tapa or a plate. We ordered tapa portions of the chef’s seabass ceviche, which was boldy seasoned with soy and crunchy corn; and the ox tataki with mango chutney that was like a beef carpaccio seared on the edges in the Japanese tataki style. Both paired nicely with a chilled glass of rosado wine.
Of course, there were also many traditional Spanish restaurants on this street. Our favorite was Restaurante Miguel Juan. Open since 1929, this place is about as traditional as a tapas bar can get. We just love the social aspect of this kind of tapas bar and the opportunity to talk to local people. A very outgoing twelve-year-old struck up a conversation with us and introduced us to her parents, leading to a long friendly chat about Dénia. You could never have these kinds of interactions sitting at a table.
We started with the house made vermouth poured from a cask behind the long bar and asked about their specialties. The bartender recommended the prawns and the sepionets. Both were fresh, simple and delicious.
Baix la Mar Neighborhood (Fisherman’s Quarter)
Tucked between the castle and the El Portet Marina is the old Fisherman’s Quarter. Dating to the 16th century, it’s one of the oldest quarters of the town. There are quaint plazas and cute restaurants. One block off of the water in the Plaza de Mariana Pineda, we found what we think is the best pizza that we’ve had in Spain.
Restaurante Al Forn’s pizzas are made in a restored Moorish wood-fired bread oven. This is not just a pizzeria. They also roast tapas, rice dishes, and meats in the oven. The atmosphere is inviting and comfortable, with rustic modern decor inside and a lovely terrace in the plaza. And they are open all day from 9 am until midnight. Perfect, since a pizza craving can hit at any time!
Marina El Portet de Denia
The marina area is quite modern and is divided into two sections with an opening to the sea in the middle, making it difficult to move between the two areas. The north end is called Marina El Portet de Denia and is the most easily accessible from the historic section of Denia. There are rental shops for watersports and a nightclub called Sounders that lights weekend nights with music and dancing.
The restaurants are open and contemporary with views looking back over the marina, the city and the castle. Looking off to the left of the city are the stark cliffs of the Montgó mountain. These are beautiful views day or night.
We arrived at the marina hungry and ready to eat. The first restaurant we came to along the Marina El Portet was Mr. Fisher. We had done some advance research and knew that Mr. Fisher had a large, diverse menu with lots of seafood and meat dishes. The kitchen is open all day, although with a reduced menu from 4 – 7 pm. We could definitely find something for immediate gratification.
A salad of Burrata with a tomato tartare was a perfect start, with a big ball of creamy burrata cheese sitting on a mix of tomatoes, pinenuts, and crunchy toast bits. It was topped with pesto and arugula. We also tried their salmon tartare, which was a large portion of raw salmon stacked over avocado chunks with lots of briny fish eggs on top.
We wandered along the marina browsing menus in front of the handful of restaurants, looking for something unique. Fried octopus? That sounded interesting.
At Mediterranean Fish “Pekado Mortal” the menu is focused on seafood and the selection looked amazing. There were four very different preparations of octopus. We just wanted something to snack on with a glass of wine and the fried octopus ending up being just the thing. These tender slices of tentacles from rock octopus were lightly fried and packed into a cone, just like an order of french fries might be. A sprinkle of sea salt and squirt of lemon was really all of the seasoning needed.
Further down at the end of the marina, we found Pa Picar Algo on the corner of the Balearia ferry terminal. This is a new location of the group Peix & Brases, which also has several seafood restaurants in Denia and Valencia. Pa Picar Algo had only been open for about 2 weeks and the enthusiastic server explained that everything was made in house with local products.
We were intrigued by the Escabeche section of the menu. We’ve had plenty of canned seafood in escabeche (which means pickled in acid) but have never had a freshly made escabeche dish. We enjoyed the bonito that was marinated in citrus, with ginger and red peppers. The chunks of fish were meaty, some pieces as deep red as beef, and intensely flavored with citrus and pickled vegetables.
Castell de Dénia
No matter where you are in Denia, you can’t ignore the 11th century castle in the center of town. With all of this eating, a walk to the top of the castle is a great way to burn some calories and build up an appetite for a new day.
A €3 entrance fee gets you into the castle grounds . There is a cafe near the top of the fortress where you can get food and drink, and a nice picnic area if you want to bring your own. Even on a cloudy day with a light rain, we couldn’t resist getting a cold draft beer and taking in the spectacular views over the city and the Mediterranean Sea.
I could go on and mention other great places that we found, like the lively Casa Benjamin tapas bar, or the amazing pastries at a little cafe outside of town (it’s called Cafetería La Luz II), but I think I’ve made my point. Good food is easy to find in Denia. We didn’t even have to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant, of which there are currently four in Dénia including Quique Dacosta’s 3-Michelin-starred restaurant. We enjoyed every meal that we had in Dénia. It makes me wonder why we waited so long to hop on that bus.