So, as visions of choricitos in cider and patatas bravas have been dancing in my head this month, I've also been mulling some of the best tapas bars in Barcelona. There's a wide variety, but, in my mind, virtually all fall into one of three categories: "trendy", "basic" or "different".
Let's start with trendy. These are the places that have a big name chef; a dressed up look (even when they claim to be an homage to old school, they're not long on the scruffy old school look); and, if they deliver on the food, a long lineup of tourists and locals undeterred by the usually jacked up prices.
I consider the contenders in this category to be the following:
Tapaç24 (C/ Diputacion 269, Eixample, www.comerc24.com) - This is the tapas baby of Carles Abellan of Comerç24 fame (click here for stories of my blissed out foray into Abellan's haute cuisine--also tapas style--at the mother ship). It provides traditional takes on classics like patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy sauce), stewed tripe and pescaito frito (tiny fried fish), alongside more inventive daily specials. For dessert, don't miss the bread with chocolate--possibly my favourite way to end a meal in Barcelona.
Inopia (pictured above, C/ Tamarit 104, Eixample, www.barinopia.com) - Bustling, bright and pared down (or as pared down as you can get with a doorman running the not-so-velvet rope at the front door), this is the brain child of Albert Adria, the brother of Ferran Adria, godfather of modern haute cuisine and chef at (have you heard? it's the best restaurant in the world) El Bulli. Don't expect foams and boxes of air here, though. In classic tapas bar style, the menu focuses on olives, anchovies and other high quality tinned goods as well as house specials such as patatas bravas and ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad).
Bar Mut (C/ Pau Claris 192, Eixample, tel. 93 217 4338) - This pijo spot appeals as much for its moody, dimly lit atmosphere (not a forte at most tapas bars) and varied wine list as for its eclectic tapas specials, particularly the market fresh seafood. Even though it's not particularly Catalan, don't miss the (richer than Bill Gates) brownie for dessert. Also keep in mind that, unlike at the other spots, which have a "strictly lineup" policy, it's virtually impossible to get a table at Bar Mut without a reservation, particularly on weekends: of the two sittings, the earlier (830pm) is for tourists, the later (1015pm) for locals.
Cuines de Santa Caterina (Mercado de Santa Caterina, Avda. Francesc Cambo 16, Born, www.grupotragaluz.com/santacaterina) - I don't know why, but I don't make it down to Cuines de Santa Caterina very often. Maybe it's the cavernous space and slightly indifferent service, which makes it feel just a tiny bit soulless despite the exposed beams and indoor trees. When I do go (it's a good option when wandering about the Old Town), I always eat well; the place is located in a market (El Mercado de Santa Caterina), after all. No reservations here, but it's usually possible to get a table without a wait. The bar at the front serves more traditional tapas fare and is open all day; the back is open for lunch and dinner only and has a more varied, market based menu with some Asian and Italian touches.
Bar Lobo (C/ Pintor Fortuny 3, Raval, www.grupotragaluz.com/barlobo) - Another slick product of the Grupo de Tragaluz, also responsible for Cuines de Santa Caterina, Bar Lobo suffers from the same lack of soul as its cousin and some of the worst service in Barcelona (which is saying a lot). This probably won't matter to you when you realize that it also possesses one of the best terraces in the Raval; shaded by an awning and with a pillowy bench at the back, it is virtually irresistible. It also has the advantage of being open until 2pm, outlasting most other tapas bars by about two hours. On summer evenings, when it is overrun by pretty foreigners, Bar Lobo has a fun, almost clubby vibe. The tapas menu consists mainly of classics that are competently executed, but in no way mind blowing, particularly at the tourist adjusted prices.
Now, if you were to ask me which spot I would choose as the best tapas bar in this category, I would have a tough time picking among the first three. If pressed, I'd probably admit that Tapaç24 just edges out Inopia and Bar Mut. It has less attitude than Inopia and a more interesting selection of tapas, though the basics (patatas bravas, croquetas, ensalada rusa) are available and well done in both locations. Both Tapaç24 and Inopia are also far cheaper than Bar Mut, which is the most elaborately priced of the three. The latter is a winner on lighting and atmosphere, though, and hands down the location of choice if you want a side of romance with your tapas.
More on basic and different tapas bars coming soon.