Barcelona Tapas Bars & Dishes
We lift the lid on the tradition of eating tapas…
By Duncan Rhodes
History of Tapas: A Kingly Tradition
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.
In fact the influence of this tradition can be seen in restaurants all around the world, as small plates and tasting dishes have become global food trend.
As a style of eating it certainly has its advantages… after all, what could be better than mixing and matching all the glorious taste sensations of the diverse regions of Spain for supper?
…what could be better than mixing and matching all the glorious taste sensations of the diverse regions 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 widespread across the country and it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter tapas menus 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.
19 Tapas Dishes (incl. Must-trys!)
Tapas is such an integral part of Spanish culture that almost every rudimentary bar will have some basic offerings on the counter, whilst many restaurants have a tapas menu or specialise solely in the saucer-sized snacks. There are far too many to list in one article, but here are some of the classic dishes you can expect to find in any traditional-style bar in Barcelona… naturally we’ve included many of our faves. Unfortunately for more ethical eaters, virtually all feature meat or seafood, so vegans may have to look away now!
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. Sometimes you might see it Aragonese or Navarran style in an ajoarriero stew (pictured).
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
Prepared 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 IMHO).
Baby squid battered and fried, these little critters make look disgusting but they might just be Barcelona Life’s favourite traditional tapa. Best drizzled with a squeeze of lemon and digested at a chiringuito (beach bar) somewhere on the Costa Brava.
Chorizo al vino (must-try!)
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. Some modern tapas bars serve them with innovative fillings like calamari or seasonal mushrooms.
‘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. (Not a personal fave if I’m being honest!).
Jamon Iberico (must-try!)
Spain’s legendary ham, made from acorn-fed pigs, hardly needs introducing. Delicious dry and salty slivers that melt in the mouth. Never cheap, but always worth it.
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!
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 (must-try!)
A remarkably simple dish that occupies a place in all true Catalans’ hearts, pa amb tomaquet (or pan con tomate in Spanish) 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.
Patatas bravas (must-try!)
Chunks of potato chips served with spicy mayonnaise, this decidedly unhealthy snack is an essential side plate for any meal in Spain. Virtually every tapas restaurant in Barcelona serves their own take on them. The quality typically varies between ‘good’ and ‘unbelievably tasty!’
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, the urban myth goes that one in five is incredibly spicy. We’ve eaten at least 5,000 though and yet to find one that produced more than mild tongue tingling heat.
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.
Pulpo Gallego (must-try!)
Another dish hailing from Spain’s seafood capital, Galicia, pulpo gallego is boiled octopus seasoned with olive oil, salt and paprika. Usually one of the more expensive tapas on any given menu, few regret the extra few euros.
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.
Keep reading to find out our favourite tapas restaurants in the city…
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23 Best Barcelona Tapas Restaurants
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…
1. Cal Pep
A near legendary venue in El Born, presided over by the eponymous Pep. The succulent fresh seafood tapas is widely considered to be the best in town, although you will have to queue – and pay – for the privilege.
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2. Tickets Bar
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!), but if you do manage to do so, you will be rewarded with a panoply of delicious and surprising taste sensations. If you don’t manage you could always try at one of the Adria brothers’ other celebrated locations.
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This stylish and intimate joint can be found just a stone’s throw from the gorgeous Plaça Reial, specialises in twists on Spanish tapas, with plenty of Mediterranean influences throw in the mix. Try their choricitos in chilindron sauce with aniseed, or slow-cooked Iberian pork cheeks.
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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.
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.
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Once the favoured place of bullfighting aficionados, this romantic locale has been reimagined as a hip modern tapas bar serving creative plates like tea-smoked duck breast with fermented cabbage. Choose between a place on the terrace, with views of the old Monumental Bullfighting Arena, or head inside to eat amongst flea market furnishings and tasteful antiques.
If you you’re bored of bravas already, this romantic restaurant provides a fresh twist with Arabic flavours such as bacon-wrapped dates and grilled halloumi taking a front seat. Limited space, so worth reserving in advance.
With 40 classic tapas dishes to choose from, Tosca is a perfect place to get an introduction to Spanish gastronomy. The prices are reasonable, service brisk (at least by Spanish standards) and the location is central. Particularly good if you seeing a performance at the Palau de la Musica.
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9. Sol Soler
10. El Xampanyet
This famous Xampanyeria (champagne bar) near the Picasso Museum is a staple of guidebooks and ‘best of’ lists, so expect it to be crowded. With its art nouveau decor it’s a gorgeous locale, and the food and drinks are top class too.
11. El 58
Fun, inventive tapas are chalked up on the board and held up by wait staff at this modern tapas on Rambla del Poblenou, and there’s even a nice terrace out back to enjoy your meal. An instant hit with savvy tourists, they are popular enough not to take reservations and you may have to wait a fair bit for a table.
Rambla del Poblenou 58
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. A relative newcomer, unlike some of the other recommendations on this page, the tourists haven’t packed it just yet!
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13. Can Paixano
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.
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14. Sensi Bistro
Spanish and French cuisine combine as this cosy bistro-style restaurant by the acclaimed Sensi group. Fillet of beef with red wine reduction and mashed potatoes and prawn risotto flambéed with Cointreau are served in tapas form for guests to share. Plates start at just a few euros, making this a great value-for-money option in the Gothic Quarter.
15. 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.
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…of those eateries in the city’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.
18. Jai Ca
Jai Ca and Jai Ca 2 are a pair of classic tapas bars located in the old fishing district of Barceloneta, and are great places to sample affordable dishes in an earthy and no-nonsense traditional atmosphere. You’ll have to fight for the waiter’s attention, but that’s all part of the experience.
A fantastic reputation amongst locals, has led to this joint gaining a similarly exalted reputation amongst visitors, so expect to queue for a table if you knock on these doors. Linguists reading this have already surmised from the bar’s name that you can also grab a decent beer here, beyond the usual mass market fare.
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A portmanteau of the words Born, the district the bar is located in, and vermouth, one of the house’s signature drinks, it didn’t take this place long to attract the crowds. A mix of classic and modern tapas, with good service (given how crowded it gets), fair prices, and a homely vibe means its popularity is merited. Thieves do operate here though, so don’t leave mobiles on tables, or your bags under the seats where you can’t see them.
21. El Tropezon
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.
22. Bar Velodromo
A great looking bar with Art Deco design and racing green finishes, Bar Velodromo carries the elegance of a bygone era into the present day. If you’re up in the Zona Alta be sure to pop by and sample off their extensive menu of well-priced tapas and snacks. Run by the Moritz brewery, who – despite being minted – don’t seem to have bothered providing a website for it sadly.
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23. Can Eusebio
The gastronomic offer is functional rather than elevated, but for cheap bravas and beers in fun-loving young company Can Eusebio is your place. When I was a penniless travel writer living in Poble Sec I used to frequent this place pretty often!
Our 5 Favourite Tapas Tours
Need a bit of help exploring Barcelona’s culinary realm? Enlist some professionals to guide and inform you… food is that much tastier when you understand its origins, and role in society.
1. Tapas & Wine Tour
On this gourmet tour you’ll explore two of Barcelona’s most iconic districts, the Gothic Quarter and El Borne, calling by on a total of four local restaurants for a delicious array of Spanish tapas, washed down with wine poured straight from the barrel. The group size is limited to just 12 people, so you won’t feel like a tourist, and you can choose between a midday or evening tour. A great activity to do instead of lunch / dinner. You can book the tour via Get Your Guide.
2. Beer Lover’s Tapas Tour
What’s better than tapas? Tapas paired with craft beer, that’s what! On Tapas & Beer’s ground-breaking tour you’ll journey to the hip Sant Antoni and Poble Sec districts (the same area where Ferran Adria now plies his trade!), and go on a whirlwind tasting journey that combines delicious bar snacks with Catalonia’s finest artisan ales. You’ll enjoy both creative and classic tapas, and a range of IPA, ales and stouts, as well as tour the premises of a local brewery. Runs every Thurs and Saturday and costs €79.
3. Evolution of Catalan Gastronomy Tour
Take a journey through the evolution of Barcelona’s cuisine on this superb tour, that starts at the abbey gardens which once fed the city, before plunging you into the sensory explosion of Sant Antoni Food Market (for some delicious Spanish cheeses and hams!), and then onto two of the district’s best eateries for both classic, and Adria-inspired, tapas. The tour finishes with a delicious sweet snack and glass of orxata in a charismatic cafe. A great activity that tells the story of the city’s culinary scene.
Want a bespoke tapas tour for you and your partner, friends or family? Then one of Tapas & Beers local gastronomes will take you on a tour of some hard-to-find tapas bars and bodegas in one of Barcelona’s more authentic districts, like Poble Sec, Sant Antoni or Gracia. Their guides will help you select the specialties of the house in each place, as well as give you a cultural overview of the district and city in general.
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 some of Spain’s most famous tapas. Organised by one of our partners, click on the link above for more info or simply email us firstname.lastname@example.org with your group size and preferred dates. Runs every night of the week and is incredible value at €39 euros per person.
More Gastronomic Experiences
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.