March 2003 Barcelona's Secret Restaurants
One of Barcelona's great attractions is her approximately 10,000 good, varied, and inexpensive restaurants. While our budget keeps us from dining out more than once a week or so, we've had a chance to visit a number of them, mainly in Barceloneta, the 18th-century district near our marina. At noontime, $6 to $10 will buy a three-course meal: a first course of soup, salad, mariscos (e.g. a huge bowl of steamed mussels); a main course of fish, chicken, lamb, pork, beef, or even paella; and dessert. The meal always comes with wine, but the amount you get depends on the restaurant -- some places dole out a single glass, some serve a half-bottle apiece, others simply leave a carafe on the table so you can help yourself.

As we've wandered about the narrow streets, occasionally a door will open and we'll see a crowded room with restaurant tables and meals being served. There's no sign above the entrance, and when the door closes, the noise from within is barely audible. We've never felt comfortable simply pushing through one of those doors to find out what's inside, but one Saturday morning Rob got to find out what goes on in one of these "secret" restaurants.

It was the Saturday right after Andi had undergone arthroscopic surgery on her knee. The surgery had gone well, but Andi hadn't yet checked out of her hospital room. Rob was scheduled to go sailing at 11:00, so at about 8:30 he went out in search of breakfast. On the dock of the marina he encountered Miguel, host of our local "sailor's bar", and inquired about where to get a good breakfast.

Miguel asked, "Sweet or salt?"

After a moment's thought, Rob replied "Salt."

Miguel directed him to the street by the Barcelonetta marketplace. "Go down the street until you find a brown door," he said, "and just go in."

Upon entering, Rob found a room with about 7 tables (3 of which had been pushed together to form a long table, at which a large group of men and women were seated), a bar, and kitchen, with a counter where orders were passed through into the dining room. There were no tables free, but Rob asked if he could sit at a table with two men and they said "Of course." Looking around, Rob saw that people were eating various tapas dishes, with side dishes of potatoes and vegetables. Everyone was drinking wine or beer -- when Rob ordered a cup of coffee, the waiter said, "You're going to eat, aren't you?" And of course, there were the ubiquitous clouds of cigarette smoke.

Rob ordered bacon and eggs. Specifying how the eggs should be cooked was well beyond Rob's Castilian (and possibly beyond the waiter's Castilian as well), but the waiter did warn him that the bacon was really thick. Rob said he'd take it, anyway.

The eggs were sunny-side up and the "bacon" was what we'd call fat-back -- no meat, just thick slabs of heavily-salted fat. The eggs were floating in the renderings of the "bacon." Rob decided he could eat the eggs, but the bacon was unquestionably inedible. Looking for something to accompany the eggs, Rob ordered a couple of grilled sardines (which are much bigger than what we get in cans -- about 6 inches long). The waiter apologized, saying the minimum order of grilled sardines was 4; but they could serve 2 pickled sardines. So Rob had his eggs with pickled sardines, a new experience for him!

We've since talked with a number of people about Rob's experience, and discovered that the no-name restaurant behind the brown door is well known as one of the best in Barceloneta. The dinner-like meal everybody was eating, according to Miguel, was "almuerza". This word is not in our dictionary, but it obviously means "Dinner with wine or beer taken at breakfast-time."

We've since heard that the best seafood restaurant in Barcelona is one of these "secret" places. According to our sources, you go through a dark-red door next to the bank on Plaça Palau (Palace Square), down a tiled corridor and through another door. If there's room, sit down. The waiter will soon bring a seafood tapas and will take your wine order. With the wine, he will bring another dish, and when that's done, another, and so on. Sooner or later (after you've stuffed yourself with "starter" dishes), he'll ask if you're ready for the main course, which is usually a large grilled or baked stuffed fish. This is accompanied by as much wine as you like and followed by dessert and brandy or sherry. At no time will you see a menu; the dishes depend on what's been caught fresh that day, and even vary from table to table. The restaurant has been known to close for the evening because there was not an appropriate catch that day. It is said to be always packed, especially on weekends. Every dish is said to be a culinary delight, and the tab is about 75 euros ($80) per person including a bottle of wine per person. This is not out of line with fine dining elsewhere in Barcelona, and less than such a dinner in the US, we think! Unfortunately, it's well above our budget, so we'll have to wait for a return of the bull market before we try it.

Meanwhile, we'll stick to the little local places, and maybe one evening we'll push through another of the unmarked doors.