In Barcelona, it doesn’t seem as if eating – like life itself – ever stops. From the moment of arrival to the time of departure, food is not so much a talking point as merely something to do with your mouth when you’re not rabbiting on about Gaudi-this or Dali-that.
Everywhere in Spain’s avant-garde capital hinges on eating, munching, lunching, brunching, snacking, sipping and nibbling. Whether you’re in the new part of the city or in the old quarter, there are just far too many restaurants, cafés and bars to choose from.
The simple fact is if you’re in Barcelona, you’ll always be brunching, and you’ll always be brunching because – like everyone else who visits the city – you’ll stay up late and sleep in late.
If you’re wise you’ll refuse to pay over the odds for non-inclusive breakfast in your hotel; this means stretching the bones around noon and eventually taking to the streets.
At the time of our visit, the sun was gearing up to split open the concrete pavements, which means that the streets were full of al fresco diners – some of whom were still in the process of waking up – taking shaded refuge under immense umbrellas.
The first thing that you notice about the search for brunch here is that no matter what your budget is you can find something to match it.
Take, for example, Café Zurich. Located at the top end of Las Ramblas, amid the shopping malls and open spaces of the rather large Plaça Catalyuna, this long-established eatery has the twin benefits of being in one of the prime spots of Barcelona.
It mightn’t look very appealing from the outside – indeed, it might even look too touristy for you – but once you sit down you’re looked after by a team of waiters eager to make sure you won’t go hungry. It’s a perfect place for that most glorious of visitor pastime – people watching.
So as you’re wondering exactly why that attractive couple is arguing or whether this mature Spanish gentleman looking at his watch is waiting for his wife, lover or daughter, you can browse over a menu that is as long as a very long arm.
And should you have too much to eat for brunch and think it a crime, a sin and a waste to leave what’s left on your plate, all you have to do is catch a waiter’s eye and he will bring over a strip of tin foil so that you can wrap the leftovers and use them in an hour or two when the hunger pangs start again.
Another option close to Plaça Catalyuna, at Carrer de Bergara 2, is La Esquina. This stylish restaurant could be viewed as your classic brunch haunt, delivering as it does Eggs Benedict, avocado and poached egg on toothsome toast, and possibly the best Bloody Mary we’ve ever sipped.
But the classic Spanish twists are here, too: in-house smoked salmon served with coffee from the city’s primary roasting houses, including the acclaimed Bright Side and Nomad.
If through a small window, you’d rather watch various worlds go by along a narrow street in the old town, then a visit to the 4Gats restaurant, calle Montsio 3, is a risk-free option. This place is so good we broke the unwritten rule of a first-time visit to a new destination (never, ever eat in the same restaurant twice).
Totally unassuming from the outside, the entrance room leads into another, rather nicer room which in turn leads into the restaurant’s crowning glory – a space commandeered by a narrow gallery area that is accessed by an equally narrow staircase. If the view over the fin de siècle room, with its sated audience and its fêted piano player, is instructive (some people are incredibly fastidious over how much of a tip they intend to leave) then the food is simply amazing.
If you’re particularly hungry (as you might be after falling out of a bar at four in the morning – not that we’d encourage that sort of carry-on) but also weight conscious, then we’d strongly advise sampling the desserts at this restaurant. We have it on good authority that said delicacies are “a woman’s dream”, and are so light that you feel as if you’re eating nothing. Sounds delusional to me, but we have been informed otherwise.
And yet we didn’t come to Barcelona to feel as if we were eating nothing (seriously – what’s the point in that?), which is why over the next couple of days we make a beeline to some tapas bars. Here’s a tip, though: don’t go near tapas bars actually on Las Ramblas. These, in our opinion, are distinctly second-rate and too touristy to bother with.
Try instead either the off-Ramblas routes or beyond Plaça Catalyuna to Passeig de Gràcia. In the latter, make a visit to Tapa Tapa, whose specials include black squid, octopus, snails and (yum) fried pig snout.
One of the best off-Ramblas places we discovered was Irati; this bar had a large selection of pintxos (Basque tapas) as well as Estrella-sourced fried txistorra, homemade tangurro ravioli, pil-pil codfish, and wild sea bass with a tangy Vizcaya sauce. We washed our meal down with locally brewed cider and – purely for research purposes, you understand – Lemon Damm, the kind of beer you don’t need to adorn with a slice of lime.
Another cool option is La Pepita, Carrer de Corsega 343. It’s a compact restaurant that delivers a geographically diverse tapas menu (from Europe to Japan and back again) as well as having highly competent staff that know how to match food with wine (not every tapas place can manage this).
With a long bar that acts as a social magnet, and an approach to food that that is inventive and (occasionally) experimental, this is your go-to place for brunch with a difference.
The best place for an atmospheric brunch? Well, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Mercat de la Boqueria, the city’s biggest, busiest and best open food market.
To be honest, there are so many la Boqueria tapas bars, it’s impossible to choose even three, but let’s throw caution to the wind and suggest two: at the end of the market’s central alley, past the unmistakable fish section, is Bar Central, the counter of which virtually groans under the weight of vegetables, meats, fish, and a selection of the best Spanish omelettes you will ever see.
If you love seafood, try La Gardunya, which is a real local favourite. It’s located really close to Bar Central and nudges towards the outside of the market. These are merely two of the many tapas places under the roof of this incredible place.
From fish trying to escape to fruit boxed up ready to eat, la Boqueria is a mixture of people, noise, odours, and colours. Your tapas joint won’t always have seats, and you might even have to stand, but as a reflection of Barcelona itself, the Mercat de la Boqueria is as much Gaudi as Dali, and just as enriching.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.