It was in Barcelona that I realized why they call it a tapas bar. You know what it's like in a crowded pub, the crush of humanity trying to get the bartender's attention over the happy buzz of the drinking crowd? The shoulder-to-shoulder throng pressed together in tiny El Xampanyet, near the Picasso Museum in Barcelona's Barrì Gotic, had the same vibe on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I could not fathom how a barmaid, er, waitress, could possibly get plates of croquetas and pintxos, not to mention glasses of cava, to those who ordered them.
Somehow Barcelona denizens, happily regaling each other in Spanish and Càtalan, navigate these treacherous scenes with aplomb. It terrified me, but I took a deep breath and forged inside. I had read about Xampanyet. Reviews tout a distinguished collection of cava, Champagne and other sparkling wines. I was eager to enjoy some of them with tasty morsels. I had imagined a comfortable little neighborhood eatery, not a crowd scene.
My wife and I pressed ourselves against a wall and scanned the tables. None showed any sign of becoming available. My rudimentary Spanish was not up to the task. We gave up and left.
We Americans are wusses, I guess, at least compared to residents of Barcelona, who seem unfazed. Another place I had been urged to try, Quimet y Quimet, renowned for its open-faced sandwiches called montaditos, is up a very quiet side street between the Avinguda Paral-lel and Montjuïc. From half a block away we could see the crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk. The entire restaurant was smaller than my living room. We found an English-speaking customer standing on the sidewalk holding a gorgeous-looking open-faced smoked salmon sandwich in one hand and a flute of cava in the other. "Is there another room inside with tables?" we asked. He shook his head. "What you see is what you get," he laughed. Footsore from too much walking that day, we reluctantly opted out.
Fortunately, we had tapas in other places that were more comfortable. Tapas 24, just off the famous Passag de Gracia (the street lined with masterpieces of Modernisme architecture by Gaudì and his contemporaries), served fabulous boquerones (fried large anchovies, butterflied open and flavored with lemon zest), croquetas of Iberico jamón de bellota and "smashed" eggs with caviar. We perched on barstools at a counter and watched a cook fashion serving after serving of pa amb tomaquet (tomato bread), one of the simplest and most magical things one can make from bread, tomatoes, salt and olive oil. The surroundings were no fancier than those at the stand-up tapas bars, but at least I could sit.
A similar experience at Paco Meralgo, a popular place in Eixample recommended with relish by our friends Bill and Elaine, yielded such joys as a giant meatball of cuttlefish and the brilliant addition of marinated anchovy fillets to pa amb tomaquets. Fresh raw bacalao (cod) with tomatoes and olive oil, a house specialty, and an artichoke tortilla were sublime.
At such places, my drink of choice was cava. Other wines were always available but at €2 to €4 a glass ($2.65 to $5.30), I was never disappointed.
That kind of experience is what I thought I would find at Xampanyet, but somehow none of the descriptions I had read led me to expect a mosh pit. It isn't the bar's fault. It is what it is, which is a neighborhood elbow-to-elbow experience, apparently typical in Barcelona.
We Americans are accustomed to a very different style of organization in our casual restaurants, where someone under a sign reading "ORDER HERE" would get your order and hand you a little stand with a number on it so the server could find you when it was ready. In Barcelona somehow those around me needed none of that apparatus. They managed to squeeze into a corner, get their bites of food, and were having a grand time.
But a familiar American style seems to have popped up at Enrique Tomas, a new "jamoneria" down the street from our hotel. Its website says Tomas is the largest buyer and distributor of true Iberico ham in Spain. The new store includes a casual restaurant where you walk up to a counter and order a plate of hand-sliced ham, a paper cone filled with slices, or a freshly made sandwich. The ham and bread were excellent, well worth the price of €5.90 ($7.70), and you could get a decent glass of red, white or cava with it. Much more civilized than Burger King or McDonalds. I sure wish we had one of those down the street from us at home.
Carrer Pelai, 18, 08001 Barcelona
Carrer Muntaner, 171, 08036 Barcelona
Telephone: 34 934 309 027
Quimet y Quimet
Carrer Poeta Cabanyes, 25, 08004 Barcelona
Telephone: 34 934 42 31 42
Carrer de la Diputació, 269, 08007 Barcelona
Telephone: 34 934 88 09 77
Carrer Montcada, 22, 08003 Barcelona
Telephone: 34 933 19 70 03