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May 25, 2010 07:24 AM

Barcelona basics needed

Ok, so now I'm completely overwhelmed. I've been reading posts about Barcelona for a couple of months and it's even worse than before I started. I'll be in Barcelona for 4 days in July at the tail end of a trip to Portugal. I know that Barcelona is a gastronomic epicentre, and I'm anxious to check it out but, for the life of me, I get more confused everytime I read another post. I am a very experienced independent traveller but the food scene in Barcelona seems almost unmanageable. I know I don't have time for much in the short visit, but I'd like to get a taste without feeling intimidated by the choices, I'll list my questions below - any answers will be very greatly appreciated.

- What are pintxos, how do they differ from tapas? How are they served differently from tapas? How do you order them (and tapas)? I have some Spanish but of course no Catalan. Oh and also how the heck to you pronounce pintxos???

- I will be travelling with a friend who is a loosely-kosher-eater. She will eat vegetarian and fish, but not shellfish, meat or, of course pork. I'll eat anything. How difficult will it be to accommodate both of us? I realize this means I don't have to share my jamon or camarones, but will she have something to choose from on a typical tapas menu?

- Ok - the basics of tapas. You stand there, sidle up to a stool and wait until the person leaves? And then is there a server who takes your order or do you just flag someone down and tell them what you want? Where are the tapas listed? On a chalkboard or is it just verbal?

- Probably not too interested in anything molecular, but more traditional types of Catalan and Spanish cooking for a sit-down dinner. We'll be staying in the Born area - anything notable in that area? Mid-range, not high end prices.

I think that's pretty much it. If I think of anything else, I'll ask more. But for now it would be incredibly helpful to get these questions answered. Thanks everyone.

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  1. Pintxos: these are Basque inspired, akin to tapas, but much simpler. They are small bites of food, some are set on a small piece of bread with a toothpick or just small skewers. Most are served room temperature and set out in large platters on the bar counter, but some places will be sent platters of hot items, ie croquetas, fried bacala, breaded mussels, chorizo. No casserole or overly complicated things. Just take one or two and eat, then go back for more. Most places will have a long counter with a few small bar tables and stool. Expect some standing. Just ask the bar staff for a plate, order your drink. You help yourself to what looks good. There is no ordering except for drinks. Drink txakoli or mineral water is exceptable. Save all skewers, shells( as in fried mussel), etc as they are use to calculate your dining bill. One pay how many pieces one eat and there is a single price per item, around 1.25euro. Pay when you are finish by showing the bar staff the number of skewers/shells, etc on your plate. There are some big barn like pintxos places that one actually order but avoid them as they are mostly for visitors and big groups. My bad English, probably the closest is: pintxos=pin chos
    Tapas: this has become a catch all for any place serving small portions of food. They can be simple things on toast, pieces of cheese, ham, a few mussels, tomato bread, etc. Quimet y Quimet falls in this catagory of stand up no stool, no nothing. Then the other extreme is Comerc24, where it is a sit down full tapas tasting (with designer printed menu, cloth napkins, heavy silverware) of much more complicated things such as suquet, a small portion of Catalan fish stew, a salad of millions of ingredients, or foie gras with quince compote. In tapas places, one do order. Some will have a printed menu, others will have a blackboard, while others, just ask and point. For most informal places, order one or two at a time, eat and then more if you are still hungry. Don't order everything at one as it is not in the spirit of tapas eating. In many older places, not knowimg a little Spanish/Catalan will be a bit of a hindrance but all in all, people are generous and welcoming so don't feel intimidated. Just go for it.
    As for your dining mate, there will be some limits but there is many things without pork or shellfish. Lots of vegetables, fish and egg things.One has to be somewhat careful as the Spanish love to mix pork with other things, such as seafood.
    To make things easy, I would put the Barcelona dining scene into:
    1. molecular (don't be put off as it is such an important and unique aspect of Barcelona dining and some of the food is not as far out and one imagine) try Cinc Sentits, Sauc, Hisop or Embat. They will certainly tailor a menu for your friend)
    2. nice traditional sit down: Fonda Gaig (really nice for a splurge); or much more moderate Senyor Parallada
    3. everyday Catalan cooking: Sant Joan, Foxos, Goliard, Can Mano, etc, all down home, rustic, inexpensive but don't expect fireworks. Some will have a weekday lunch menu del dia for around 10-12euro
    4. tapas and pintxos: there are many and some are already mentioned way too many times on this board. Write those down and put them in neighborhood so that it is convenient. do check out this board for restaurant.
    For variety: I would pick one or two from each catagory to get a good tasting of the Barcelona food scene. Born is full of life and lots of tapas/pintxos places, a great places to stay. It is compact full of shops and places to eat. I would search this board again as many places in Born have been mentioned earlier. Then just wonder around and check out what looks appealing.
    Of course there are all sort of eclectic places all over Barcelona, salads, Asian fusion, etc. but that would only complicate things.
    Hope the above helps.

    9 Replies
    1. re: PBSF

      Just to add to the above. One way not be overwhelm with all the information is to either: for the main meal of the day may it be dinner and pick one destination place where one will spend a couple of hours eating. In this case, the neighborhood doesn't really matter as one can stroll to or meto there. Paco Meralgo might be a little out of the way but for couple hours eating, worth the trip. It has very good tapas with a large menu including some good desserts, comfortable seating, good for a whole evening of eating. Or a nice full service seat down restaurant like Sauc, Cinc Sentits, Fonda Gaig, Embat, etc. But I would not trek up to a stand up/bar stool place such Taktika Berri from Born just to have a couple of pintxos (though excellent). I might consider a tapas/pintxos crawl with that and couple other places around the Pg de Gracia, ie Tapac24, Cerveseria Catalana, La Bodegueta; or in Born/Ribera at Sagardi, Euskal Etxea, El Bitxo, La Vinya and whatever you might stumble upon; or just cross via Laeitana to the Barri Gotic where there are still many good places: Bar de Pi, El Portalon, Onofre, Bar del Pla are just a few. Or to up to Sarria, a vibrant charming neighbood with good informal tapas/pintxos that gets very few visitors. This way, one can eat and explore an interesting neighborhood at the same time.
      If you are doing a lot of sight seeing during the day; for convenient, have a few eating places written down where you'll be and go to those. I would google map these eating places. Otherwise, just stop by somewhere and have a few tapas or pintxos. Except the Parc Guell and Monjuic (i would pack a picnic lunch), there are always cheap informal places to eat nearby.
      Couple more things about tapas place: the larger places will have waiters which is like a restaurant. Even large places like Paco Meralgo with full waiter service, one can order couple of things, eat and order some more. Smaller places will have only staff behind the bar; in this case, just go up to the staff and just tell them what you want; there is no problem ordering one or two at a time and they will keep tab on what you order or in some cases, they will ask you what you've consumed when you are ready to pay which is the end of your meal. Most tapas/pintxo bars have a long bar and maybe a little space with small bar tables and stools. Lots of people eat standing up therefore, a stool is irreverent. You can wander about but once you leave the seat, beware as someone else will snatch it quickly. It might seem confusing now but when you get there, things will fall in place, just follow what other people are doing.
      In some ways, the interesting visitors part of Barcelona is very compact: the old city consists of El Ravel, Barri Gotic and Born/Ribera all running into each other and easily walkable. The newer Eixample is more vast and things are more spread apart. And for there, good places are mostly on the side streets from the Pg de Gracia. Just avoid the places on the first couple blocks of Pg de Gracia, for convenience and the very hungry only.
      I hope the above couple of posts help clear a few things up and not just gibbish to confuse things even more.

      1. re: PBSF

        Oh my - this is very very helpful. Thank you so much PBSF. It detintely helps to demystify the scene. Funny - there have been few places I`ve travelled where the food culture has intimidated me. This is one of them - the other was Japan. I`m sure it will be great - I think I`m just overthinking it.

        1. re: Nyleve

          Japan does the same thing to me with all the formality, protocol and everything seems to be behind layers of curtains, etc. . Spain is the opposite and easy, just like the other Mediterranean countries. Think Italy and even more rustic and informal.

          1. re: PBSF

            Reminds me of the time a French lawyer friend dipped his fingers in my winter watermelon broth in Guangzhou, thinking it was a finger bowl.

            1. re: Parigi

              That's funny. Spain is like one big Pedro Almodovar movie, I love it.

              1. re: PBSF

                Fabulous. It all sounds great. Really, thanks for the help. Much less confused now.

      2. re: PBSF

        We will be staying at the Hostel Goya near Placa Catalunya this fall. Any recommendations on tapas bars and Catalan restaurants close by. Always prefer the local hangouts with traditional food over the expensive tourist places.

        1. re: scbeachnuts

          You are not far from the old cathedral. Bilbao Berria (C/ Sagristans, 5) is an excellent tapas bar right in front of the Cathedral.

          1. re: scbeachnuts

            I have stayed at Goya on Pau Claris, simple with a nice staff. The location very convenient, between the two main tourist areas of Barcelona: the old city and the Eixample. Since you are staying in tourist central, there is no getting around that most eating places around where you're at will have it's fair share of tourists; that doesn't mean that the food is not good as many of us tourists enjoy great food and these places will have its share of locals. I would search this board for the tons of earlier posts on eating in Barcelona, from tapas/pintxos places(cover to ad nauseam, as someone state on another board) to down home Catalan cooking. And locals do eat out at high-end traditional as well as modern Catalan places. Many of my favorite places are on a previous thread to this post.
            To get away from the tourists, you will have to get out of centro to: Poblet Sec, neighborhoods beyond the Diagonal such as Sarria, St. Gervais, Gracia, away from the beach in Barcelonetta. If you have some specific places or areas that interest you, I am sure you will get some good replies.

        2. Having just returned from a four day stay in Barcelona (and three days in Madrid) I offer a few thoughts:

          1) Whatever you do, follow PBSF's advice. He knows and cares, and offers advice on varying cuisine choices.

          2) Barcelona is a big city. Difficult for a newbie to "do it all" in four days. Prioritize! If you are going to concentrate much of your dining/drinking in one area, think Born (particularly if your hotel is in Barri Gotic or the harbor area(s).

          3) Know your budget and your appetite! We are older and eat less than some. Thus, some finer restaurants proved less expensive than we had expected.

          4) Cabs are reasonable and the metro is easily fathomable.