After a decade of adventuring at new-wave restaurants, I recently landed in Spain with a yearning to immerse myself in the country’s most traditional social rituals, to connect more deeply with its compulsively sociable culture. And so, to plumb this unique Iberian alma, I joined the tapeo—the tapas-bar crawl that has Spaniards walking, talking, drinking, and nibbling every weekend, if not every day. A visitor can get off the plane, go straight to a tapas bar in any Spanish city, inhale some jamón and migas, and feel like an insider within 30 minutes. The eats—¡estupendo!—are only a part of what makes the tapeo so vital to Spaniards and irresistible to Americans. Pressed together at crowded counters, teenagers trade confidences with octogenarians and locals break bread with foreigners. On a tapeo, old ties are refreshed, new relationships are sparked, and an evening often turns into a come-one, come-all street fiesta. This is a way that the Spaniards keep bland globalization at bay, maintaining such a deep-rooted sense of community that the whole disparate country often has the feel of a big village. Even Spain’s status as a mecca of progressive cuisine owes much to the locals’ readiness to engage with new tastes. Spaniards will try anything once—as long as it’s small. Aren’t the tidbits dished up by avant-garde guru Ferran Adrià at El Bulli essentially a form of tapas?
To telescope rapidly, the tapa was born in the 19th century in the south of Spain, in Andalusia, as a free nibble to accompany sherry or wine. The word translates as "lid"—a small plate of jamón or olives or almonds that covered one’s glass, presumably to protect it from flies and dust. Though, strictly speaking, tapa still denotes a small morsel to accompany drinks (larger, sharing portions eaten at counters are raciones), the Andalusian minisnack has come a long way. Classic montaditos (canapés), croquetas, and banderillas (skewers) are still going strong at atmospheric tabernas with sawdust-covered floors and hams hung from the rafters. But nowadays, your tapitas could just as easily be a degustation of exotic morsels at a white-on-white boîte run by an ambitious young whisk.
In plotting our epic tapathon, my partner, Barry, and I zeroed in on four cities: San Sebastián, Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid—all famous for their vibrant and distinctive counter cultures. To help us in our quest, we brought a list of old standbys and new recommendations from local food critics and chefs. Here, 36 of our all-time favorites.
In front of me sits a napoleon of caramelized foie gras, mackerel, and roasted pepper—an intricate sweet-savory morsel the size of a silver dollar. Connecting it to the miniature mound of grilled apple and nuts on the other side of the plate is a translucent bridge of dried leek decorated with pansies and glistening trout eggs. Did a salivating Fabergé jeweler or a three-starred chef dream this up?Nah. At Aloña Berri, this is bar grub. The price tag?A mere four bucks. Here you can compose an entire meal of such Lilliputian wonders.
Tapas—pintxos to locals—reach exalted heights in the food-crazy Basque seaside resort of Donostia–San Sebastián. The tapeo here is known as a poteo—from pote, the stubby glass into which Txakoli, a slightly sparkling local white, is dramatically poured from nearly a foot above, to aerate it. In a small city so bright with Michelin stars, a cross-pollination of haute cuisine and vernacular snacks was all but inevitable. So, in the late 1980’s, Aloña Berri pioneered the concept of alta cocina en miniatura in the residential central barrio of Gros. Before long, other bar owners began gussying up their bites of canned tuna or tortilla—frosting their canapés with frilly mayonnaise squiggles or scattering marinated seafood with colorful pepper confetti. Today, the outrageous variety and volume of tidbits arrayed on bar counters has turned San Sebastián into an epicurean fever dream, this planet’s capital of browsing-as-dining. Hitting five to six bars a night is the norm—and that’s before dinner.
At Bar Bergara, also in Gros, the lavish five-dozen-plus-item pintxos menu requires hours of complicated assembly on the part of owner Patxi Bergara. "A pintxo should be eye-catching, original, and petite enough to eat in two bites," declares Bergara, whose masterpieces run to the likes of "anchovy lasagne," a canapé of pisto and anchoas finished with aged balsamic vinegar. Bergara, who fancies himself the Balenciaga of little bites, shows me pintxos from his newest "collection"—here’s a unique design of smoked bacalao, Spanish Raf tomatoes, dates, and thyme on baguette rounds, accessorized with sweet-bitter wisps of fried onion. "Hands off!" I mentally hiss at a rival diner who’s ravaging Bergara’s creations.