Perhaps the thing that can make or break your dining experience in Barcelona is not so much being uncertain of what to eat, but where to eat. There are so many cafes, restaurants and tapas bars around the city, so how do you choose? Ash and I decided that we wanted to help you out by posting an excerpt from our Eat Local in Barcelona: A Guide to Catalan Cuisine guidebook out NOW!
These 5 simple tips on how to pick the best Barcelona restaurants will enhance your trip and allow you to enjoy all the great food that this city has to offer!
How to Pick the Best Barcelona Restaurants
There are a few key tips we employ every time we eat out at a Barcelona restaurant. And we think they will help you eat local not just in Barcelona, but all over the world!
#1 – Look at the Menu
While this may seem obvious, just looking at the menu will help you discern whether you should stop there. If the menu is written in more than just two or three languages, we would walk away—even more so if someone started pestering us while we were looking at the menu.
It is very common for menus in Barcelona restaurants to be written in several languages. This is partly because many are written in both Castilian (what we know as “Spanish” here in the U.S.) and Catalan. We usually will sit down at a place if the menu is just in these two languages. Since you will know most of the main traditional Catalan dishes (once you read our book…) you should be able to figure out what most of the menu is comprised of. Plus sometimes it is just fun to point to an item and see what you get!
The other language that is most predominant on menus in Barcelona is English, which for all of us English speakers is great. In fact, a fair number of restaurants will include these three languages, and that is understandable. However, we would steer away from Barcelona restaurants whose menus look like a book. If there are more than four, five, six or even seven languages that is a sign! This is often a tip-off that they are less concerned about the quality of the food and more interested in pandering to tourists, who generally do not know better. Many places with multiple-language menus can be found along Las Ramblas, the main thoroughfare in Barcelona, as well as in the Gothic Quarter.
Our only advice is to STAY AWAY. Yes, they may make it easy for you to understand the menu, but ultimately, you will be repaid with a subpar meal, and an expensive one to boot.
#2 – Check out the Environment
One of the most important tips to keep in mind when picking a great Barcelona restaurant is location, location, location. This is a cliché for a reason–because it really is all about location. We generally recommend staying away from eating along major squares and thoroughfares in Barcelona, including the infamous Las Ramblas, the main road to the beach; Passeig de Joan de Borbó, in Plaça Reial; Plaça Catalunya; and Passeig de Gràcia. These are the main areas where you will find restaurants trying to lure tourists in for bad meals. You will also see this quite often in the Gothic Quarter as well, but as this is one of the oldest areas in the city you will also find some gems, too. So you can’t rely only on scouting out the location.
The other factor to pay attention to is the customers in a particular restaurant and the primary languages they are speaking. Is it filled mainly with tourists speaking a cacophony of languages? Or is it locals speaking Spanish and Catalan? If you are not an expert in languages, no worries. You can also pay attention to their attitudes, body language and dress.
For instance, are they carrying backpacks, guidebooks, money belts? Well then, they are probably tourists. Are they relaxed and unhurried? Then they are probably Spanish or Catalan. Pay attention to little clues as you scope out a restaurant, because the clientele can tell you almost all you need to know to pick out an amazing place to eat. This one, however, is not a hard and fast rule, because one of our favorite places is a tourist destination but also a favorite with locals. So if a place looks great and passes all the other tests then maybe take a chance on it! These are guidelines, after all, and not hard-and-fast rules.
Another way to identify a local Barcelona restaurant, particularly a tapas bar, is if there are napkins on the ground. What?
That may seem like an odd thing to pay attention to, but some of the best places are the ones with the messiest floors. It seems throwing your napkin on the floor after you dine is a sign that you were happy with the meal, kind of akin to breaking plates at a Greek wedding. The floors of the best tapas bars we visited in the city, including El Xampanyet, Can Paixano and Quimet & Quimet, were littered with napkins. We were actually chastised at Quimet & Quimet for not throwing our napkins on the floor. And while we are not sure when this tradition began, it is a sure sign of a local dive where you know you can get a fantastic meal.
#3 – If You Are Looking for Lunch, Do They Offer a Menú del Día?
Most Catalans only really eat at Barcelona restaurants that offer a menu during the lunch hour, so if you are looking for a local place, this will be your one big clue. Plus, they are the best deal in town at around 15 euros or less, so take advantage of it and get ready to eat with the locals! You also will be full for the day as most menú del día offer a starter, the main dish, dessert, wine (and sometimes they just bring you the whole bottle), and coffee. Not bad for a meal under 15 euros! One of our favorite menús is at Bar Joan in Mercat Santa Caterina, be sure to check it out!
#4 – If They Offer Tapas….
If you are searching out a Barcelona restaurant for tapas there are a few things to pay attention to so you don’t get stuck eating stale, unappetizing tapas. Trust us, this can happen.
The first thing is to make sure the tapas look fresh. You don’t want to get stuck eating less-than-fresh tapas that have been sitting out since the lunch hour, as it will be a disservice to great tapas and your tongue. One way to make sure you’re eating in a place where the tapas are fresh is by choosing a place that is crowded. Crowds mean the plates are consistently being replenished and made fresh. And while you may not be able to try everything you want because these delicious small plates sell out quickly, the ones you do get to sample will be the best quality available.
In fact, if you take one thing away from eating tapas, it is to make sure you visit a crowded establishment. Not only will you be able to experience the bustling atmosphere of a tapas bar, where it is usually crowded and noisy while everyone eats and drinks, but it will also guarantee that you will be eating fresh, delicious food. There are so many dining options in Barcelona, and the locals are not going to eat bad food. So there is no reason for you to either!
#5 – Are They Open During Proper Hours?
This is a big one. Many Barcelona restaurants are not open continuously. Choosing a place that is open during the “proper hours,” (more details in our book out March 6th!) is going to go a long way to helping you pick a phenomenal Barcelona restaurant. Our bad meals in the city only came when we ate at the wrong times, seriously. Perhaps the most dangerous time to eat is the 4 p.m. hunt for lunch—the no man’s land between Catalan lunch and dinner–when reputable, or real, Barcelona restaurants should be closed. We know it can mean adjusting your own body clock, but if you do your best to eat when the Catalans do you will be miles ahead in finding a great meal.
Ultimately, if you follow these rules you should be able to find a great Barcelona restaurant. As mentioned, these are not hard-and-fast rules but should serve as guidelines to help you find the most authentic meals in Barcelona. After all, eating well is so ingrained in their culture that you know you will eat well if you just eat when and where the locals do.
Hopefully these tips help you pick the best Barcelona restaurants for eating local. If you want to find out more about what you should be eating in Barcelona and what the traditional dishes check out our book, Eat Local in Barcelona: A Guide to Catalan Cuisine.
Heading to Barcelona soon? Don’t forget to buy travel insurance! Sure you may not use it but its always good to have. We recommend World Nomads which we have been using for years and have always made us feel secure as we travel around the world!
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