Barcelona Tapas Bars & Dishes
We lift the lid on the tradition of eating tapas…
By Duncan Rhodes
The best bars and restaurants for dining on tapas in Barcelona, the dishes you can’t leave the city without trying, and some selected tours for the informed foodie.
There’s nothing more synonymous with Spanish cuisine than tapas, the tradition of eating small dishes as an appetiser, snack or in combination to form a main meal of the day. The latter has become a growing trend worldwide in recent decades, and that should come as no surprise to food-lovers: after all what could be better than mixing and matching all the glorious taste sensations of Spain for supper?
The word ‘tapa’ in Spanish means ‘lid’, and the ‘s’ simply denominates its plural form. There are many cited origins for the tradition of eating tapas, and how they got their name, with the most romantic featuring King Alfonso X in a starring role. The King, also known as Alfonso the Wise, was gallivanting around his kingdom many moons ago, when he decided to visit an inn and duly ordered a beer. The innkeeper served this refreshing pint of ale with a small complimentary dish of food on top of the glass. The King thought it was such a good idea that he ordered all inns throughout Spain to serve food with any alcoholic drink by decree of law. A great legend, although perhaps a more probable origin is that these ‘lids’ were a custom used by Andalusian folk, in the sweltering south, to keep the flies off their sweet sherry.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the custom is wide spread across the country and its inevitable that you’ll encounter them on your visit. To help you make sense of this intriguing gastronomic phenomenon we’ve compiled a list of typical dishes from Spain and Catalonia below, followed by a guide to some of the best tapas bars and restaurants in Barcelona – plus some suggested food tours for those that want to go further.
Typical Tapas Dishes
Tapas is such an integral part of Spanish culture, than almost every rudimentary bar will have some basic offerings on the counter, whilst many restaurants have a tapa menu or specialise solely in the saucer-sized snacks. Here are some of the favourites up and down Spain.
Olives! The Spaniards, including the Catalans, are mad about olives, and if there’s only one tapa available it’s sure to be aceitunas as they can be casually noshed with a copa de vino or a small beer. Some delicious Spanish varieties include manzanillas, arbequinas and empeltres.
Meatballs! Not the most elegant dish on this list, although depending on the restaurant they can be raised to out of the ordinary by some clever uses of spices and sauces.
Cod is a mainstay of Catalan cuisine and so naturally enough available in tapas form. Well-salted and usually served on bread with tomatoes.
A fat ball of mashed potato stuffed with meat, cheese or veg and covered in bread crumbs, La Bomba is the classic dish of the Barceloneta district, so be sure to pop into a bar and try one when you’re on your way back from the beach. Usually spicy.
Boquerones en vinagre
Done well these are simply divine. Fresh filleted anchovies in vinegar. Some joints clearly just pull them out of a tin however…
To the uncultured eater, calamares resemble onion rings, but are in fact circles of squid in batter. Chewy but delicious, and best with a squeeze of lemon. If you don’t like batter, look out for calamares a la plancha, ie. grilled (even better IMHOs).
Chorizo al vino
An editorial fave, and no wonder if you consider that a) Spanish cured sausage is the best in the world b) what could be better than adding a slosh of red wine?! In some parts of Spain you can also try chorizo al sidra, or sausage cooked in cider!
Another clasico, croquetas – as you might have guessed – are stuffed potato croquettes, similar to the aforementioned bombas. You normally buy them by the unit, and they go great with a beer.
‘Russian salad’ is a firm favourite in Spain, and typically one of the only tapas with a high vegetable count – so good for balancing all those meat dishes. Potatoes, eggs and mayonnaise are the main ingredients with beans, carrots and chopped gherkins common additions.
Mussels… they might be “al vapor” that is to say steamed, or “a la marinera” in the sailor’s style (with onion, garlic and tomato), or “rellenos” ie. stuffed. And probably a million other variations we don’t even know about!
This dark, suspicious looking meat dish divides opinion… it’s the Spanish version of blood pudding. Sometimes its served on its own, other times with patatas bravas, eggs or in stuffed peppers. Our verdict – it’s freaking delicious!
Pa amb tomaquet
A remarkably simple dish that occupies a place in all true Catalans’ hearts, pa amb tomaquet is simply rustic bread rubbed with tomato flesh and sprinkled with salt, olive oil and perhaps garlic. It can be served as an accompaniment to a meal or often with cod or ham as a tapa.
Chunks of potato chips served with spicy mayonnaise, this decidedly unhealthy snack is an essential side plate for any meal in Spain.
Pimientos del Padron
Pimientos are peppers, whilst Padron is the region in Galicia where these particular thumb-sized fruits come from. Fried in oil and salted, you should be careful – one in five are said to be very hot!
A typically Basque dish (known as ‘pintxo’ in its region of origin), the pincho, or ‘spike’, is snack skewered on a toothpick and served on a slice of bread. Almost anything can be used to make a pincho, and a bit like tapas themselves they are a form of eating rather than a recipe. The best place to eat them in Barcelona is definitely along Carrer Blai in the hip district of Poble Sec where dozens of pintxo bars have set up shop… these days it’s quite fashionable to do a pincho crawl on any given day of the week!
Another dish hailing from Spain’s seafood capital, Galicia, pulpo gallego is boiled octopus seasoned with olive oil, salt and paprika.
Not to be confused with Mexican tortilla, Spanish tortilla is not a thin flatbread but a fat omelette made with egg, potato and onion. It’s the type of dish that can vary from ordinary to heavenly – usually the latter if homemade by your Spanish friend’s mum.
There are plenty more delicious varieties of tapas served up in bars around Spain, and we’ll add even more munch-worthy morsels next time we update this page. (If you can’t wait check out Wikipedia’s entry for more common dishes).
We’ve mostly focused on the classics that you might find in any neighbourhood joint, but an increasing number of modern, hip and fancy places are adding their own creations to menus across the city… so our advice is just be adventurous! We’ve ordered some of the best dishes of our lives without having the foggiest clue what they were before they arrived on the table!
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Barcelona Tapas Restaurants & Bars
Despite being a typically Spanish cuisine, this famous culinary tradition is still rife here in Catalonia (where other Spanish traditions such as bull-fighting and flamenco are not considered part of the local culture). Whereas many venues specifically choose to dub themselves ‘tapas restaurants’ you can find great snacks in many places that don’t. So here is our undiscriminating (in the good sense) guide to where to eat tapas in Barcelona…
A near legendary venue in El Born, presided over by none other than the eponymous Pep. The succulent fresh seafood tapas is said to be the best in town, although you will have to queue – and pay – for the privilege.
Placa de les Olles 8
The humble tapa is elevated into an art form at this Adria-run establishment that builds on the world-renowned culinary creativeness of El Bulli. You will need to book online exactly three months in advance to grab a table – good luck!
Avinguda Paral lel 164
A student favourite, it can be hard to get a table at this venue that finds itself just off Las Ramblas, but it’s worth trying your luck as the price to quality ratio is surely one of the best in the city. Patatas are served with spicy bolognese-style sauce, whilst the morcilla (blood sausage) with caramelised onions is as rich as you’d hope it to be. Wash it all down with a well-priced jarra of beer and you’re ready for a nice siesta.
Don’t expect friendly customers service. Do expect platter loads of delectable Spanish classics, from baby octopi to specially-prepared mushrooms. Once popular with boisterous groups of cheapskate friends, it has sadly raised its prices considerably and caters more for tourists now – although the spit and sawdust vibe remains.
Another Barcelona legend, Quimet i Quimet is a family owned affair in the vibrant yet untouristy Poble Sec district. There’s a touch of class to everything from the mussels to the montaditos.
C/Poeta Cabanyes 25
A xampanyeria (champagne bar) and charcuterie in one, Can Paixano is one of the most popular eateries in Barcelona and packed – really and truly and uncomfortably packed – every night with locals who come for cheap cava and fantastic mini-sandwichs and other dishes.
C/Reina Cristina 7
Elsa y Fred
No prizes for guessing the names of the proprietors of this stylish establishment near the Arc de Triomf which takes some classic Spanish ingredients and rearranges them to make fun mini dishes like squid sandwiches, red tuna burgers and steak tartar tacos.
This is where all of Barcelona’s best ingredients are delivered so it makes sense to try some tapas right at the source… there are a good dozen or so tiny restaurants in and around the market, and lunch at La Boqueria is something you won’t forget in a hurry.
La Rambla 89
…of those eateries in BCN’s most famous food market, El Quim is the most famous! A fraction pricey, but once you taste his xipirons amb mongetes de Santa Pau (that’s Catalan for “baby squid and beans”!) you won’t care for counting coins.
Specialising in small plates to share between friends, Firebug throws a modern and international slant on the Spanish trend with dishes like crispy duck pancakes, popcorn chicken and baba ghanoush popping up on their menu. New in town, unlike some of the other recommendations on this page, the tourists haven’t packed it just yet!
Barcelona Tapas Tours
Need a bit of help exploring this culinary realm? Enlist some professionals to guide and inform you!
This young company was established in 2015 to help travellers “taste the real Barcelona”, offering a series of local small group food and drink experiences for those who’d prefer to get off the tourist treadmill. Arguably the best is their weekly tapas tour, a mouthwatering walk through the vivid Gracia district where you’ll stop off at three to four authentic bars and restaurants to try a mix of classic and modern Spanish snacks. Your guide will help you decipher the menus and select the specialties of the house, as well as pair some wines, vermouths and beers. Fun and informal, it’s also a great way to meet some people whilst rubbing shoulders with the locals outside the tourist zones.
What’s better than one great Spanish tradition? Two of course! During this rich introduction to Spanish culture you’ll first be regaled by some of the country’s leading flamenco artists in a top tablao in Barcelona’s most scenic square. Then you’ll retire to a nearby restaurant for a tasting session of up to 15 of Spain’s most famous tapas. Organised by one of our partners, click on the link above for more info or simply email us email@example.com with your group size and preferred dates. Runs every night of the week and costs 32 euros per person.
Meanwhile if you’re interested in finding out more about Catalonia’s and Spain’s food culture then we strongly suggest you head over to our article on gastro-tourism and explore the possibilities of cooking classes, tapas and wine tours. We’ve listed all the best experiences in town!
About the Author
Duncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.