Two friends, my wife, and I have just launched our Retirement 2.0 with a trip through eastern and northern Spain, including Barcelona, Bilbao, and San Sebastián. While we are used to good food in the San Francisco area and knew food was excellent in Spain as well, we were not sure about the prices. What we have found is superb value in all restaurants we have tried. Here are our five favorites; they are places truly worth returning to.
It’s easy to find great food in Barcelona. But finding restaurants with great food at reasonable prices is the challenge. We found three such restaurants: Santa Gula, Assunta Madre, and Teoric Taverna Gastronomica. All have been favorably reviewed elsewhere and all live up to the accolades of those reviews. What they have in common is locally sourced fresh ingredients, seafood galore, extensive use of seasonal produce, and creative preparation.
1. Santa Gula
Tapas are the traditional small plated appetizers of Spain. Have several tapas and you have a meal. Tapas bars are on virtually every corner in Barcelona. Our favorite tapas bar, Santa Gula, is just off Avenue Diagonal several blocks off of Passeig Gracia (Plaça de Narcís Oller 3 08006). It is a small, light-filled, and intimate restaurant with six or seven tables at most plus two more in an adjacent outdoor plaza. We arrived for lunch at 1 p.m., just after opening.
The menu is modest, but the ingredients are first-rate. The service is low-key and friendly. We enjoyed lemon-infused olives for the table then shared an order of tomato bread, patatas bravas, grilled octopus, gently seared tuna tataki wrapped in nori, and grilled squid — five small dishes split four ways, plus a chilled Estrella Damm each. The total bill for four was about €80, or just under $80 given the exchange rate at the time. We left satisfied and ready to attack the rest of the day.
2. Assunta Madre
Assunta Madre is a romantic neighborhood Italian restaurant focused on fresh seafood and no pretentiousness. The staff was warm and welcoming. Despite the fact that we spoke little Spanish, Italian, or Catalon and they spoke little English, we had a wonderful evening, communicating as best we could with hands, pointing, and jumbled phrases.
We shared a couple of insalata mistas and a tuna tartare appetizer. Our main courses were pici pasta with sea bass in lemon sauce, chickpeas and seafood soup, and seafood tagliolini. Each dish was a “keeper.” No room for dessert! We also enjoyed two bottles of Spanish chardonnay. Total cost: exactly €100 for four.
3. Teoric Taverna Gastromonica
Teoric is an amazing restaurant and our “splurge” night out. It serves a 10-course tasting menu only, at a cost of €40 per person. Reservations are necessary. When making a reservation a €40 deposit is required. Wine at dinner is extra. There are two seatings each night, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Dress as you wish — the staff certainly does.
If you prefer lunch, there are also two seatings in the afternoon. We had an 8 p.m. reservation. At exactly that time the dark, locked, full metal gate opened and we were welcomed in. There are perhaps 10 tables, most for two guests each. The room is rustic but comfortable. The building seems to have had an industrial past and that added to the charm.
I didn’t count, but it seemed there were 6-8 servers for the room. And they were friendly, helpful, joking, and supremely efficient. Dish after dish after dish appeared and then whisked away when done. No hurrying us. They were just providing competent, professional care and always with a smile. The 10 dishes were all local and organic and do change with the seasons. Starters included:
- Tomato, cured cheese, and basil
- Seasonal toast, yellow trumpets, and “persol” sausage
- Croqueta of cuttlefish, sausage, and parsley
- Horse mackerel tartare and pickled carrot
These bite-sized starters are followed by two to three bite servings of:
- Butternut squash, black olives, and goat’s cheese
- Ray fish and black trumpets
- Boletus rice, codfish, and black sausage
- Lamb and trinxat (Trinxat is a Catalon dish of chopped potatoes, cabbage, and meat, usually pork.)
We finished with not one but two desserts:
- Chestnuts, sweet potato, and ratafia — a sweet liqueur
- Coulant of almond, cinnamon, and lemon
Every bite of every dish was fantastic. Each of us left wanting more and we would all would gladly return for an encore visit. The total bill for the four of us amounted to approximately $158.00 (€160) excluding wine. But we did have wine by the glass, both red and white. All were organic and locally produced, according to our server. Three rounds each, so 12 drinks. That came to $71.
We did not look for any particular breakfast restaurants but did find a great little patisserie on the corner of Rambla de Catalunya and Carrer de la Diputacio that served fresh baked savory and sweet pastries and small meat sandwiches for €2-4 each. There was a line outside every morning we came by.
Additionally, we found a wonderful rooftop bar that was never crowded, had good drinks, and had spectacular panoramic views of Barcelona. (Some steps may be involved depending on seating choice.) This bar is in the NH Hotel Collection Barcelona Gran Calderon.
This city is in Basque Country on the Nervion River several miles inland from the Bay of Biscay. It is home to the truly magnificent Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. We ate at several fun restaurants including one that had outstanding fried calamari, which was fresh, hot, and crispy with no greasy feel or oily aftertaste.
It also had the hardest-working server I have ever seen, at El Txoko Berria in the Old Town area. She worked alone in the restaurant and covered at least 10 tables with 2-6 patrons each. She didn’t miss a beat. She was gracious and determined as well. She was a machine! But I digress.
4. Restaurante Abando
Our favorite spot in Bilbao was Restaurante Abando located at Colón de Larreátegui Kalea. It is a lively pintxos bar, the Basque rendition of tapas. You may sit at the bar and just point to each pintxo desired and the bartender will give it to you. Or you may sit at a table and work with a server, which is what we did.
With his advice, we sampled a number of pintxos including those with Iberian ham, white anchovies, cured anchovies, and octopus on a crab salad along with two bottles of Muga white wine. Although we dined relatively early, the atmosphere in the bar was energetic and fun — can’t wait to visit again. The bill came to exactly $98.71 for four.
Walking back to the hotel across the river we ran across Amorino, a multinational gelato shop, adjacent to the 43-foot-tall flower-covered sculpture, Puppy, outside the Guggenheim Museum. Great find. Both Puppy and gelato!
San Sebastián (Donostia)
This city is also in Basque Country, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. San Sebastián is a well-known beach and resort community as well as a destination for food lovers. It is said to have more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the world with the exception of Tokyo.
5. La Cuchara San Telmo
La Cuchara San Telmo, located in Old Town, is an extremely popular pintxos bar with indoor and outdoor seating. (Outdoor seating is more accessible. Uneven stone walkways may cause problems if your balance is unstable.) All dishes are made at the time of ordering so there is no “pointing and eating.”
We arrived at opening time, 7 p.m., and all five outdoor tables were already taken. Luckily, one table cleared quickly and we were off on a culinary adventure. We ordered risotto with squid ink, grilled pigs ears, roasted octopus (again, and it was the best yet), baby suckling pig, a bottle of Albariño, a white Galacian wine, and a couple of glasses of chardonnay.
We might have ordered more but others were standing around looking anxious to take our table! Our total bill including wine was $98.43. This restaurant does not yet have a website, but there are several third-party sites that show the menu and some photos.
We were all impressed by the quality of the food and wine we had in the five restaurants noted above, especially given the prices. There are certainly more expensive, more elaborate restaurants in the three cities we visited, all with fabulous food too, I’m sure. But given the satisfaction we had in the places we visited, we see little reason to seek further, at least this time.