There’s a way to do Barcelona right, and there are a dozen ways to do it wrong. You don’t camp at a high top or table for hours but move in and out quickly — fingers sticky with balsamic vinegar, head buzzing with sherry. It’s not a place to plan the night around, but the place you go when all other plans go awry.
To do it right, follow me in on a Friday night when there are other places I need to be. Like me, wander in starving. Smell the olive oil and char in the air. There’s so much wood here, and all of it looks brand-new. No attempt made to age it. No Disneyland version of some twee and ancient Spanish bar, picked up whole and transplanted to East Passyunk.
I order a cheap Spanish Estrella Damm and let it fizz down my throat, the bottle sweating in my hand, while I wait for salty serrano ham and cheese like the garrotxa and Drunken Goat — sweet and sour and funky in exactly the right way.
Then (and here’s the trick) I just leave. Move on to other things, other places. A quick beer, a bit of ham, some cheese, and then gone. Barcelona is, after all, a Spanish theme restaurant (part of a chain, actually, based in Connecticut, with locations along the East Coast), and this is the way the Spanish eat in our fantasies. It’s the way Barcelona works best — not too much seriousness, not too much thought. To enjoy it properly, you have to suspend your disbelief and throw yourself into the movie it’s trying to be.
So go on a Thursday with a bunch of friends. Order the boquerones (beautifully salty) with parsley and enough garlic to frighten vampires, patatas bravas that come as deep-fried chunks of potato doused in aioli and stuck with toothpicks, and three plates of croquetas filled with manchego and Spanish ham. Don’t think about how the croquetas aren’t quite as good as you want them to be (it’s a chain), or how they’re so weirdly, perfectly symmetrical (it’s a chain). They’re not great, but they’re good, really. And cheap, which is also nice.
Go on a Saturday night with no reservations. Just walk in, take the last available table, and eat Iberico lardo from Andalusia, some olives out of a bowl, and gambas al ajillo, which are basically Spanish shrimp scampi with no pasta.
And then leave. Leaving — that’s always the secret. You have to accept Barcelona on its own terms and play its game. On my last visit, I was walking in as a large group was walking out. And one of the men, staggering a little, not exactly plumb to the sidewalk, said, “That was better than I expected. Of course, I’d never heard of the place before.”
He was a man who’d done Barcelona right.
Two Stars: Come if you’re in the neighborhood
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country