On a recent trip to this Catalonian city, I tracked down where to eat tapas in Barcelona. Although we usually seek out some upscale restaurants in a given city, this time we opted for more casual dinners of tapas. Of course, we often added a bottle of cava or a carafe of sangria or a glass of Priorat or Rioja. Life was good in Barcelona!
Choosing a dining hour can be tricky. Even in October, the city still teemed with tourists, especially from the United States. That meant that many wanted to eat at 7 pm, while locals continued to eat at their preferred 10 pm. Since tapas restaurants rarely take reservations, tables could be full from 7 pm to 9 pm and then again from 10 pm to midnight. You’d think then that 9 pm would be ideal — except that people waiting for an earlier time would be ahead of you in line. We found that arriving at a popular tapas restaurant at 7:45-8:00 pm usually resulted in a table by 8:30 pm.
What to Order
Before I detail my favorite tapas restaurants in Barcelona, I want to offer a primer on what to order. Obviously, you should order what you like; however, some iconic dishes are must-tries. The following dishes can be found in just about every tapas restaurant.
Most, if not all, restaurants offer pa amp tomàquet, or tomato bread. (In Spanish, it’s pan con tomate.) This bread is nothing more than a tomato rubbed against the open face of rustic bread, then drizzled with olive oil. Most of the time, restaurants serve it already prepared, although I’ve also encountered a basket of bread with a halved tomato on the side. You aren’t supposed to get a lot of tomato or juice on the bread — just enough to color it.
Iconic patatas bravas are crispy, fried potatoes accompanied with a slightly spicy, slightly smoky red sauce and aioli. These potatoes can be wedges, cubes, or whole new potatoes. The best patatas bravas are crisp outside and creamy inside.
If you like shrimp, try the gambas al ajillo or garlic shrimp.
I love white anchovies — anchovies in vinegar — but more than once I thought I had ordered them, only to have a different kind arrive. In any case, anchovies abound in Barcelona. We ordered them at almost every meal. Honestly, I didn’t care how they were fixed. They all tasted delicious.
For dessert, try churros dipped in warm chocolate or Catalan cream, similar to crème brûlée.
Ten years ago, we happened upon Ciutat Comtal, also known as Ciudad Comtal, entirely by accident. A European acquaintance told me afterward that it was the best tapas restaurant in the city. Since then, my husband and I have been back several times. Of course, Ciutat Comtal remains popular, and getting a table usually requires a wait, especially during peak hours. They have both an outdoor seating area and a larger indoor restaurant, with separate waitlists.
We found Ciutat Comtal’s patatas bravas and garlic shrimp to be the best we tried. Both white anchovies and fried anchovies were excellent. Despite how much I like white anchovies, I surprisingly preferred the fried ones. The mushrooms and asparagus that our server recommended paired well with the rest. Because we ate there twice, we were able to sample a lot. The only thing I’d skip in the future? The sliced chorizo.
La Taperia at El Nacional
El Nacional houses several different restaurants, each with its own specialty. If you want fish, you go to the La Llotja restaurant section, or if you want meat, you choose La Braseria. Inside, you’ll find five different restaurants and four bars, plus a gelateria. For tapas, we choose La Taperia, which doesn’t accept reservations. You stand in a line against the low dividing wall. At 8 pm on a Saturday, the line moved quickly. If we had wanted to eat almost immediately, the hostess would have seated us at the bar.
Eating at La Taperia is a competitive sport. When a server first approaches your table, you order cold tapas and drinks. After that, all bets are off. Waiters emerge from the kitchen, shouting the name of the dish they carry, and you raise your hand if you want it. Sometimes, popular dishes disappear before the server can get to your table. It helps to memorize the Catalan names for the dishes you want. For dessert, the waiter again comes to your table.
We started with a polka-dot carafe of house sangria, a dozen oysters, and a board of Iberian ham. Although we never could get the in-demand paella, we loved the tuna (atun), the blistered padrón peppers, and the chorizo. My husband couldn’t resist the Barcelona cream for dessert.
A block from Ciutat Comtal, you’ll find La Tramoia, also with both indoor and outdoor seating. We ate a late lunch there (often tapas restaurants are open all day.) Usually, we liked to eat outdoors, if possible, but in this case, we preferred the atmosphere of the inner restaurant.
Our waiter didn’t speak English well enough to describe what “Cantabrian anchovies” meant, but we ordered them anyway. The anchovies came in oil, more like we’d find in the U.S., with tiny breadsticks. We also ordered a delicious crab salad and shrimp on baguette toast. Garlic shrimp, Iberian ham-and-chicken croquettes, and roasted cannelloni rounded out our meal. The Festa Major cannelloni, with its tomato jam on top, tasted different than anything else we’d had. Our favorite dish, though, was the crab-and-shrimp toast — simple but well-prepared.
A Barcelona colleague of my husband recommended that we try Tapa Tapa. Since it was located next door to our hotel, the H10 Metropolitan, we went for it. Tapa Tapa has a lower end atmosphere than the above restaurants. Especially since a local recommended it, however, we figured it must be authentic. We ate inside because the popular outdoor area was already full by the time we arrived.
We started with a pitcher of orange sangria and set about reading the placemat menu. Although the menu was in Catalan, the pictures helped. We ordered baked brie and toast, mussels, French fries with aioli, mandonguilles casolanes (meatballs), anchovies (yes, fixed yet another way), and calamari. The only dish I wasn’t wild about was the mussels. They were too big and chewy for my taste.
Not surprisingly, this city on the Mediterranean excels at seafood. Cured meats and limited vegetables also appear on menus. Although Ciutat Comtal remains my favorite tapas restaurant, we found several good alternatives. Plus, you can always pick up tapas at La Boqueria market to enjoy later.
If you want to check out what to do when you aren’t eating, see my article on the best things to do in Barcelona.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann