From cava to calçots: A guide to eating exceptionally well in the Catalan capital.
There’s a Catalan saying that dos vins fan quaranta (“two glasses of wine lead to forty”), and that couldn’t ring truer in Barcelona, a food-obsessed city defined by its sunlit plaça-side restaurants, creaky old taverns, and bustling food markets teeming with locals and vacationers. The city’s location at the intersection of mountain and sea has blessed its cuisine with the bounty of both, meaning one moment you could be slurping just-caught crustaceans from their shells, and the next, slicing into a fat botifarra sausage grilled over grapevine embers. But in a city overrun by 13 million tourists a year—with no shortage of mediocre English-menued restaurants to match—it helps to know where the locals go for quality Catalan cooking. Keep this ear-to-the-ground guide in your back pocket to make the most of Barcelona’s food scene.
Prosecco and other budget sparklers rely on industrial carbonization to make their wines bubble. But Catalan cava, like fine champagne, gets its effervescence and complexity from bottle fermentation. You can taste some of the region’s best bubblies at La Vinya del Senyor, a cozy, understated restaurant with several by-the-glass boutique cavas to choose from. If you’re lucky enough to snag a table on the plaça, you’ll be rewarded with views of Santa María del Mar’s 14th-century façade.
On sunny weekend afternoons, neighborhood bars fill up with locals out to fer el vermut, the Catalan ritual of catching up with friends over a few dainty glasses of the herbaceous, garnet-red aperitif, customarily garnished with an orange slice and an olive. Barcelona’s best vermouth bars, like Morro Fi, blend their own vermouths by infusing fortified wine with any range of botanicals and pour them on draft. But in a pinch, the bottled stuff is perfectly passable—just ask the bartender for a quality Catalan brand such as Vermut Yzaguirre.
Short of scoring an invite to a calçocada, a Catalan-style barbecue centering on grilled spring onions (calçots), you can get your allium fix at a number of Barcelona braserías such as Casa Pamplinas (wooden tables and dressed-down vibes) and Taverna El Glop (brick arches and mood lighting). From November to April, calçot season, these grill-centric restaurants cook the slender onions over an open flame until blackened on the outside and tender and sweet within.
INSIDER TIPTo eat them like a local, peel away the charred outer layer (remember, it’s finger food), dunk the what’s left in romescu (a brick-red sauce made from roasted peppers and nuts), tilt your head back, and lower the calçot directly down your gullet.
The mere thought of bombas—mashed potato fritters stuffed with succulent ground beef and drenched in alioli and spicy salsa brava—makes us salivate. Invented in the historically blue-collar barrio of La Barceloneta, bombas are now inescapable across the city. But not all bombas are created equal: Seek out a non-greasy, ultra-juicy rendition at La Cova Fumada, the bar that purportedly created the dish in 1955, or a more upmarket version, filled with hoisin-scented duck confit, at Arola.
Escalivada is the ultimate poster child of the Mediterranean diet: it’s a simple medley of roasted late-summer vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, and bell peppers) rounded out with nothing more than garlic and olive oil. It’s particularly delectable spooned on crusty bread at the no-frills bar En Diagonal; goat cheese lovers shouldn’t miss the nontraditional gratinéed version served at Cerveceria Catalana.
You won’t find bread and butter in Barcelona, and we’re not mad about it. Barcelona takes its alioli seriously—after all, the creamy, garlicky spread is said to have been invented in Catalonia. Try it over patatas bravas at Elsa y Fred, alongside black rice with squid ink at Paella Bar in La Boqueria market, or spread on toast at any number of neighborhood restaurants as a requisite first course.
Come Christmastime, Barcelona’s bakeries and pastry shops brim with one of southern Europe’s most addictive sweets, torró (“turrón” in Spanish and “torrone” in Italian), a crunchy confection of toasted nuts bound with egg whites and honey. Made much the same way for centuries, it’s a culinary vestige from Islamic Spain—even if the Moors wouldn’t recognize the newfangled versions available today with unconventional add-ins like chocolate, coffee, or caramel. Turrones Sirvent, founded in 1920, is a one-stop-shop for all your torró needs.
INSIDER TIPTorró travels well and keeps for months, making it an ideal souvenir for foodie friends whatever the season.
Though most jamón ibérico—the world-famous dry-cured ham made from indigenous black-footed pigs—hails from western and southern Spain, the delicacy is relished in restaurants across Barcelona. Sample the best of the best at Cinco Jotas Rambla, a ham lover’s paradise operated by the eponymous brand known for using only purebred ibérico hogs fattened on acorns. To sate your mind as well as your stomach, sign up for Devour Barcelona’s Gràcia tour: You’ll learn about the art of ham-cutting from a local xarcuter (cured meats purveyor) at a neighborhood market.
Flick on the news and Spain seems more fragmented than ever with Catalonia’s calls for independence, constant corruption scandals, and an alarming upsurge in neo-fascist politics—but if there’s one thing almost all Spaniards can get behind, it’s the country’s most popular dish, tortilla española. A hubcap-sized omelet filled with melty olive oil-poached potatoes and caramelized onions, it can be eaten hot or cold and at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Tuck into a made-to-order (never microwaved!) slice at Belmonte in the Gothic Quarter, or if you find yourself in the Sarrià neighborhood, sidle up to the bar at Les Truites to choose from 140 different tortilla types stuffed with everything from seafood to spinach to blood sausage.
INSIDER TIPAlways ask if the tortilla is casolà (homemade) before ordering it: Restaurants serve inferior, store-bought ones more often than you might think.
Pa amb tomàquet
Do try this at home: Toast a few baguette slices, rub them with garlic and a halved tomato until moistened, drizzle with olive oil, and bon profit! Anyone can make pa amb tomàquet (literally “bread with tomato”), but it’s elevated to an artform at La Bodegueta, whose thick-crusted payés bread gives the dish an extra crunch.
The best croquetes (“croquetas” in Spanish) have a shatteringly crisp exterior and a molten béchamel center flavored with whatever’s handy: chopped ham ends, flaked bacalao, leftover roast chicken—you name it. They’re one of those hedonistically delicious “a-ha” tapas that you’ll find yourself ordering at every opportunity. Find classic croquete nirvana at Bodega Sepúlveda, whose meticulous cooks change the breading type depending on the croquete add-in (the jet-black squid-and-ink ones are killer), or have your mind blown at Catacroquet, where cheffy fillings like monkfish and sherry-braised pork jowl reign supreme.
You can’t leave Spain’s Mediterranean coast without trying one of the region’s most iconic dishes: paella. Though Catalans love having armchair debates about what constitutes an “autèntica” paella, you can’t go wrong at rice-focused restaurants like Cafetí, a hidden gem in the Raval neighborhood famous for its seafood preparations, or Can Solé, a white-tablecloth Barceloneta institution that’s been packed since 1903.
Perhaps no dish embodies the spirit of Modernist Catalan cuisine more than the spherified olive, invented by the Adrià brothers at the now-defunct elBulli in 2003. At first glance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill green olive, but as soon as it hits your tongue, an olive-flavored liquid bursts out and coats your palate. For the uninitiated, this brand of sci-fi cooking can be quite the shock, but that’s part of the fun at Albert Adrià’s Tickets restaurant, where the spherified olive remains a signature item.
After a good rain, the scrubby hills surrounding Barcelona erupt with dozens of types of edible mushrooms, which need nothing more than a hot griddle, a squirt of olive oil, and a sprinkling of crunchy salt to reach their gustatory potential. At Sergi de Meià, one of Barcelona’s most true-to-tradition Catalan restaurants, the menu hinges on local varieties of mushrooms (e.g., llanega negra, cep, ou de reig) foraged by the chef himself.
If chorizo fatigue sets in (trust us, it happens), seek out its milder, less fatty cousin, the botifarra. Though there are a number of variations, made with everything from blood to egg to truffles, the classic is rather plain, which makes it suitable for stewing (Bar Casi lubricates theirs in a light onion-and-wine sauce) and grilling (Frankfurt Pedralbes’s $5 botifarra sandwiches put most New York hot dogs to shame).
Imagine a paella made with pasta (often elbow macaroni or vermicelli) instead of rice and you have fideuá, a Catalan specialty that’s typical Sunday lunch fare. It’s worth shelling out the euros for the impeccable, seafood-packed version at La Mar Salada, which gets its abuela-level comfort food deliciousness from homemade fish stock.
This cool custard with a burnt-sugar topping could be mistaken for crème brûlée were it not for the hints of cinnamon and lemon, signature Catalan aromatics. The one locals line up for at Granja Dulcinea, open since 1941, doesn’t skimp on the egg yolks, rendering it luxuriously thick.
Mel i mató
Mató is the Catalan equivalent of ricotta that gets its signature tang from goat’s milk. Always unsalted, it’s the protagonist of a no-fuss dessert called mel i mató consisting of fresh mató cheese topped with a drizzle of honey and (frequently) a handful of toasted walnuts. Find it in its purest, most dressed-down glory at Joanet, a casual cubby hole in El Born that empties out onto the quaint Plaça de Sant Agustí Vell.
Suquet de peix
Bouillabaisse lovers, listen up: Barcelona has a sigh-worthy seafood stew, too, even if it isn’t as famous as Marseille’s. Suquet de peix was originally a peasant dish, something fishermen could throw together with leftovers from the day’s catch. Today it’s a catch-all term for any range of fish stews thickened with a pounded-almond picada (paste) and flavored with saffron, smoked paprika, and fresh herbs. The monkfish suquet at seaside restaurant El Cangrejo Loco is panacean on a chilly evening.
Escudella i carn d’olla
Every region of Spain has its own interpretation of the boiled dinner (“cocido” in Spanish), an everything-but-the-sink stew of meats and legumes swimming in rich broth, and Catalonia is no exception. What sets escudella apart from its culinary brethren is the addition of softball-sized pilotes (“balls”) of ground meat mixed with breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, and pork fat. In Barcelona on a Wednesday? Make a beeline to Ca l’Estevet in El Raval, a family-run restaurant that ladles out a textbook-perfect escudella with old-world panache.