BARCELONA - It was 9 p.m. and my growling stomach was getting angry. It had been nearly eight hours since my last meal. “I warned you we Spaniards eat late,” a local friend named Luis informed me, but he finally gave into my whining and pleading and agreed to feed me.
“Okay, but I will not sleep properly tonight,” he scolded me. So what time do the people of this magnificent city eat their supper?
“Maybe 11 (p.m.) – sometimes midnight. The night, sénor, she is young.” That made one of us!
Luis suggested we stop at one of his favorite “tapas” bars, a place, he told me, where we would get “bite-sized” portions of food “that will fill you up fast.”
Next thing I know, we are standing in front of a tapas bar called Cerveceria Catalana on Carrer Mallorca St., which is just a few steps away from one of this city’s most famous landmarks, La Pedrera, another abstract building created by this country’s favorite son, Gaudi.
There were a half dozen or so people sitting at café tables outside the eatery but Luis just turned up his nose at those seats.
“Strictly for tourists,” he said.
“Do you think we’ll find a seat inside?” I asked.
“Of course - it’s only 9 o’clock!” snapped Luis.
As Luis predicted, the restaurant was almost empty. We had our choice of tables or stools at the two long bars that stretched down either side of the restaurant.
“Spaniards always sit at the bar,” said Luis.
Heaps of food was being brought out from the kitchen. Dozens of plates, stacked in two tiers, lined each side of the bar - the cold offerings on the right and the hot items on the left.
"This is your first time in a tapas bar, no?" Antonio, one of the servers, asked. Luis replied in Spanish and they both shared a laugh – at my expense, no doubt.
“What would you like?” asked Antonio.
There was so much to choose from - shrimp salad, slices of bread topped with tomatoes, red peppers, olives, anchovies, squid in olive oil, procuitto ham, crab meat, croque monsieur (the bar’s favorite item), morsels of cod and many local treats.
There had to be over 50 items staring at me – and that was just on the cold side of the restaurant.
“We don’t want to eat too much here,” said Luis. “We will stop at at least six more tapas restaurants tonight. That is the tradition of eating tapas food – just a little bit at every stop.”
The word “tapas” means portion and it’s especially popular in the country’s Basque region. There, tapas consists of bread topped with items like black olive paste, cheese and tomatoes – a form of peasant food handed down through the generations. In sophisticated Barcelona, the bread is served alongside the different items. The people of the big city like to patrol the streets late at night, stopping at many tapas bars along the way where they eat a little and drink a lot.
Many smaller tapas bars still display their items at the end of their bars and payment is done on the honor system. Bigger tapas establishments like Cerveceria Catalana keep the items behind glass, “because it’s more sanitary,” said Antonio, who wrote down everything we chose.
Above: Hot or cold, the tapas treats in Barcelona are simply heavenly.
I was so intent on trying to decide what to eat I didn’t notice the restaurant had filled up.
“Of course, it’s now almost 10 o’clock – a good time to eat,” said Luis.
The samplings were as good as they looked. The freshness of the food – changed every few minutes by an army of attendants – was amazing. And the cost, around $30 for two, which included a few beers to wash everything down with, was very reasonable considering the amount of food we ate.
My stomach was happy again but it would get much happier as the night progressed.
Our next stop was the chic Claris Hotel in the city’s museum and entertainment district. The refurbished palace is one of the best hotels in the city and offers its own version of a tapas bar where opera lovers like to gather after performances. The offerings at the Claris were much more substantial and quickly filled us up, much to Luis’s dismay.
“How will I be able to eat more tonight after eating this much food in just two stops?” said Luis.
We bravely charged ahead, though, and by the end of the night had visited five tapas bars, our last stop coming around 3 a.m. The bars were still packed and at some, lineups were beginning to form.
“How do you sleep after eating so much food at this time of the night – or is it morning?’ I asked.
“That is why we have our siesta (around 2 p.m.) each afternoon,” said Luis.
No matter what time of the day or night, you can never get your fill of Barcelona and its great tapas food, though.
Barcelona’s top tapas restaurants are: Taktika Berri, 169 Velencia; La Estrella de Plata, 9 Pla de Palau; Sagardi, 62 Argenteria; Jose Luis, 520 Av. Diagonal; Cerveceria Catalana, (our favourite) 236 Mallorca; Euskal Etxea, in the Plaza Montcada; Tapa Madre, 301 Mallorca; and La Vinya del Senor, in the Santa Maria del Mar district.