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.
The density of bars in the Parte Vieja, the city’s atmospheric Old Quarter, has tourists prowling the narrow streets in a ravenous daze, storming counters for briny skewers, batter-fried fish, and foie gras–filled mushroom caps. Locals are picky, maintaining an almost mystical devotion to each bar’s star specialty. Any traffic cop here knows that Goiz-Argi is famous for bacony shrimp brochettes; that tiny Txepetxa is the Valhalla of fresh-anchovy dishes; that the vaunted chef Juan Mari Arzak orders braised lamb’s feet blanketed with a glossy tomato sauce at La Viña; that at the elegant Bar Martínez one must select crab mousse molded between bright zucchini shavings into a clever "charlotte."
Me?After earnestly setting off to explore all of the above, I fall into the warm embrace of Ganbara and don’t leave until way past midnight. Everything is magnificent here: the garlicky sauté of mini-mushrooms called perretxikos; the spicy, slender chistorra sausage in puff pastry; and the baby croissants that bulge with purplish curls of jamón, reason alone to move to San Sebastián—though the same can be said about the richly gratinéed spider crab tartlets. The cramped space leaves your face pressed so closely against all the counter temptations, you’ll have to fight the urge to just bite and bite. What is it about San Sebastián that turns respectable folk into shameless gluttons?
I ponder this question further while squeezed against the sandblasted brick wall at A Fuego Negro, the Parte Vieja’s popular newcomer. The dramatic stark-black design is a refreshing departure from the woody cubbyhole look of traditional pintxo bars (in the back there’s a little red-and-white restaurant). Why the R&B and hip-hop beats?The trio of twentysomething owners, veterans of some of the best kitchens in town, are heavily into global hip-hop culture; "Black Fire" is the bar’s name translated. Our baby-faced waiter recommends a new-wave Rioja, then returns with a little plate of seared tuna belly ringed by spicy green dots of guindilla (pepper) mayonnaise. Once we’ve figured out the mysterious froth on top—it’s soy "air"—we move on to snails with tart-apple dice suspended in a bubbly Txakoli gelée. Then Lumagorri, a prized breed of Basque-country chicken, shows up—deboned, cooked sous vide, crisped into a crunchy-soft slab, and set next to a pile of bitter microgreens. Anywhere else such plates would cause an instant sensation. In San Sebastián, they are just your average bar snacks.
The tourist-poster Spain of gazpacho and Gypsies, toreros and tapas?That’s one region: Andalusia. Beyond such sultry southern clichés, the country is a patchwork of regional traditions and tastes as different as a Cantabrian crab is from a Castilian roast, as Galician bagpipe tunes are from the plaintive wails of flamenco. And so it is with bars. Tapas, for instance, aren’t native to Catalonia. Small dishes were popularized in Barcelona by Andalusian immigrants; then, more recently, by young chefs imitating Ferran Adrià’s tasting menus. "Promiscuous bar-hopping—not very Catalan," says my TV-producer friend Tana, nibbling on a diminutive breaded goat chop at La Taverna del Clínic. "Call us bourgeois, but we like to settle in and stay for the meal," she continues over a salad of baby potatoes, tuna, and spicy shiso leaves. Taverna—which resembles a dozen other barrio bars, with Ronaldinho kicking the ball on the tele suspended above the long marble counter—has a treasure in its 25-year-old chef, Toni Simoes, an alumnus of the three-starred Racó de Can Fabes. Griddled squid here gets a citrusy jolt of yuzu; rice richly perfumed with wild mushrooms arrives in a teeny black skillet. Were you really thinking of shuffling over to the next bar?
The style of grazing indigenous to Barcelona revolves around bares de producto, ingredient-laden counters inspired by the kioskos (dining stalls) of the buoyant Boqueria market. Right by its entrance, I pay homage to the chickpea-and-morcilla (blood sausage) stew at Pinotxo, presided over by the venerable Juanito Bayen, now in his seventies but dapper as ever in a satin vest and bow tie. He’s still a maestro of counter banter, spiking coffee with brandy for dour fishmongers ("to open the arteries"), plying Japanese tourists with pristine razor clams. I can’t help thinking that when he goes, the entire town will feel orphaned. I drown my melancholy in cava at Kiosko Universal. Around me, 20 kinds of Mediterranean sea creatures—from humble sardines to live langoustines—glisten on ice, awaiting a gentle bath in hot olive oil or a brief stint on the plancha. On busy days Universal does 500 covers, which doesn’t affect the precision of its preparations.
"We are the world’s smallest restaurant with the biggest pantry," the owner of nearby El Quim de la Boqueria quips. He has prepared a succulent nugget of bacalao under a cap of candied tomato sauce zapped with ginger purée. The dish is an epiphany—as is everything that emerges from this grand, dime-size kitchen. Deeper into the market, Ana Gambeta, of the tourist-friendly Bar Central, hawks her baked dorada (bream), her butifarra sausage with white beans, and her tripe casserole—in five languages. "Israelis and Palestinians eat at my counter, shoulder to shoulder," Gambeta boasts. "We even have fans from Kenya and New Caledonia."
Thanks to Barcelona’s mind-boggling popularity, the city’s centro has been gentrified beyond recognition. In Barceloneta, the gruff fishermen’s quarter, laundry still flaps in the wind over streets that at times smell of sewage—but apartments here go for a million dollars. Nostalgic barrio denizens hold back the clock with the rich, frothy, German-style ale at El Vaso de Oro, a dark, narrow bar where the city’s snappiest countermen, in white uniforms with gold epaulets, might break into spontaneous song along with the regulars. Foie gras escalopes are slapped onto griddles like burgers; the patatas bravas—served with both alioli (garlic mayo) and piquant tomato sauce— remain unsurpassed. A pair of pickled locals tip us off to Bomba Bar Cova Fumada, a few blocks away. We find the unmarked door and muscle our way to the worn marble bar through a crowd that seems to include actual fishermen. Twenty dollars buys us grilled sardines, terrific bacalao fritters, and bomba, a crisp meat-and-mashed-potato cannonball doused in an explosively fiery sauce. Cova is the trip’s best discovery.
Farther afield, in the working-class barrio of Poble Sec, Quimet & Quimet proves that canned is better than fresh, catering to the Spanish obsession with gourmet latas (tins). Quim Pérez, Spain’s greatest conserva collector—and curator—runs a bar that resembles an Aladdin’s cave of preserved edibles. Over vermouth and soda I watch him mount his delicacies onto round bread rusks. Out comes lacón, Galician ham, under a green, tangy relish of capers; anchoas over tomato jam; smoked salmon doused with truffled honey. In Spain, cans are even aged, like fine wines. Limited-edition tinned mussels from 2001, anyone?
Most Barcelona bars shut down on Sunday nights—which is why Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo is so indispensable. It’s not just the business hours that lure me to the swank blond-wood bar. A meal of scallion fritters with zesty, chunky romesco sauce, grilled asparagus, a beef tartare canapé, and any shellfish on offer singed a la plancha—this is my Platonic ideal of Sunday supper. Plus, Paco serves Barcelona’s greatest tomato bread: a flat, split, porous roll grilled to a perfect crunch and slathered with pink, frothy tomato pulp. Now, that’s catalán.
In Seville, where tapas really are tapas—small!—we decide to set ourselves a challenge: How many bars can a sane, healthy human hit in two days?How much flamenco-and-bullfighting ambience can be soaked up, how many montaditos, cazuelitas, and frituras devoured?There will be no meals, only morsels snagged en route to more morsels. To drink: frosty cañas—small cups of beer—to keep our brains clear enough.
We strike gold with the very first place, La Flor de Toranzo. A weathered 1940’s zinc bar with beautiful azulejos of orange groves on the walls. And to eat, freshly baked Antequera rolls stuffed with salt-cured pork loin and apples, or mounted with Cantabrian anchovies under squiggles of condensed milk. Service and ambience are so simpatico here, it’s painful to leave. But steps away, on Calle Gamazo, slices of first-rate chacina (charcuterie) plonked onto wax paper await at Casa Moreno. Here, concealed within an old grocery store, is an eating nook so festooned with comestibles one feels trapped inside a gaudy Andalusian Baroque altar. Only instead of angels’ wings there are tins, jars, and packages. Oh, and the endless posters of the Virgin of Macarena, patron saint of matadors, Gypsies, and, apparently, the local Real Betis soccer team. "La Macarena es bética," insists a man in all seriousness.
At night, over in the Arenal area, where tapas haunts are concentrated around the Maestranza bullring, aficionados’ cries are audible from inside Spain’s most perfect plaza de toros. Rushing to beat the jamón-hungry hordes to the bars, we swing three in quick time. Bodeguita A. Romero, despite its pink walls, is renowned for its he-man’s oxtail stew, grape-size caper berries, and pringa—cocido (boiled dinner meats) pressed into sinful sandwiches. By the time we’ve polished off the grilled gambas at the battered 1893 Bodega San José, crowds are spilling out of the ring, clutching their seat cushions, talking toros. In front of La Taquilla, a hard-core taurino hangout, grandmas guzzle Cruzcampo beer and complain how timid bulls have become. Inside, iron-lunged countermen deliver rapid-fire pregons (tapas recitations) amid the clinking of plates. The decibel level can shake plaster off the walls—then again, a great Andalusian bar routine is as frenzied as corrida moves are slow and controlled. We inhale yet more pork sandwiches, then collapse in our hotel room.
After breakfast—La Flor de Toranzo again—we’re back on Calle Gamazo for lunch. Two vacationing Catalan ladies are swooning over almond gazpacho and fabulous minted lamb meatballs at Enrique Becerra, whose owner researches old Moorish recipes. For northerners, Andalusia is the same exotic, Orientalist Spain it is to us, but these Catalanas are also thrilled by Seville’s new spiffy-clean image. We have other thrills in store, and move on. Then disaster strikes. Casablanca—source of the legendary whiskey-spiked tortilla—has vanished! After two hours, we finally locate its new digs, near the Cathedral. To our relief, the tortilla, the seafood noodles, and the dreamy crushed-potato salad drenched in olive oil are better than ever. Since the owner’s son took over and moved the bar here, the place has snapped into focus. Like Seville itself, resplendent in its coat of fresh paint, the classic bar fare in the city has taken on a new luster.
For the sine qua non of a Spanish tapeo—jamón ibérico—it’s Jaylu. Deep in Triana, the Gypsy quarter across the Guadalquivir River, the place is actually a pricey seafood restaurant where one can—and should—eat at the bar. Behind the counter, owner Enrique Caballero Baños wields his rapier-thin knife like a high-speed lapidary sculptor. Not content to carve his prized cured legs of black Ibérico swine from Jabugo into the usual lonchas (long slivers), Baños has invented jamón en texturas: julienned, diced, triangled—each with its own distinct nuance of musky-sweet porcine brilliance. The succulence isn’t over yet. Out comes a velvet-smooth salmorejo (thick gazpacho) of white tomatoes, then an awe-inspiring lobster-scaled carabinero prawn grilled over sea salt. Eating more now would be sheer insanity, but who can resist the siren call of the ethereal lacy fritura of baby squid at La Albariza?Or the messy, spicy, tomatoey snail casserole at Sol y Sombra, which is wallpapered with faded bullfighting posters?(We’re still in Triana.)
It isn’t gluttony, but sheer sentiment, that draws us back for a nightcap to La Flor de Toranzo. A great tapas bar is like your soccer team or your favorite matador. If you truly love it, you’ll come and show your devotion.
The great clearinghouse of countercultures from all over Spain, Madrid has Galician shellfish joints, Asturian cider bars, and modern-Basque pintxo spots. It is also rich in macho taverns that haven’t changed since the mid 1800’s, when Andalusian entertainers began to flock to the capital via the newly built railway. The southerners set up smoky dark haunts where aristocrats came to rub shoulders with gypsies over glasses of Manzanilla and small plates of batter-fried bacalao and sizzling garlic shrimp. The city has been hooked on tapas ever since. The time-burnished ambience of Old Madrid’s tiled tabernas still can’t be beat, yet finding that perfect bite in each place can be a challenge.
Come the hora de aperitivo—pre-lunch cocktail hour—I follow the blue-haired ladies who stream into Lhardy, an 1830’s bar-deli downstairs from the historic restaurant of the same name, to help themselves to dry sherry and cups of cocido broth from a silver samovar. Meatballs?I love the saucy albóndigas with a glass of vermú de grifo (vermouth on tap) slid across the antique onyx counter at Casa Alberto, in a building where Cervantes once wrote. Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) has been a specialty at the tiled Casa del Abuelo for some 100 years. Batter-fried bacalao is crispest at Casa Revuelta, a tatty dive frozen in time off the stern, arcaded Plaza Mayor, the heart of Hapsburg Madrid. Over on Calle Cava Baja—taberna central in this city for more than three centuries—Casa Lucas lures us with the latest emerging vintages (try wines from the Madrid region).
Among food-savvy Madrileños, it’s become fashionable to limit the tapeo to a couple of quality places per night. Normally these are bars attached to small chef-driven restaurants in upscale neighborhoods away from the historic center—for instance, the elegant leafy streets around the Retiro park. I never come to Madrid without snagging a decadent canapé of whipped blue cheese and cured-duck ham at La Castela, which still generously honors the ritual of serving a free nibble with each new drink order. Having to balance plate in hand at this jumping taberna patinated by time is small gripes compared with the luxury of the plush revuelta (egg scramble) of fava beans and wild asparagus, or milhojas de ventresca, a luscious, glossy layering of tomato confit, roasted peppers, and tuna belly in a green puddle of basil oil. Around the corner and run by the same Andalusian family, La Monteria offers a warm salad of partridge and bitter greens scattered with pomegranate seeds that I’d choose for my last meal on earth.
One night, my pal Juan Manuel Bellver, the editor of El Mundo newspaper’s culture and dining supplement, urges us on to Taberna Laredo, a block from the Retiro. One bite, and we’re blown away, by featherlight tempura of baby vegetables highlighted with a sweet-tart reduction of sherry vinegar. It seems incongruous, feasting on truffled beef tartare and porcini-and–foie gras risotto in a plain brown joint where only a pile of fresh morels on the counter betrays the kitchen’s ambition. The ingredient-obsessed David Laredo is at the stoves; his brother features pioneering producers on his 250-label carta de vinos. As Juanma holds forth on the deep straw color of a biodynamic Albariño called Sketch, a famous chef, with an equally illustrious food critic in tow, shows up for supper, post-bullfight. Clearly, Laredo is this season’s insider secret.
Madrileños are omnivorous in their tapas enthusiasms. Truffled foie gras bombón?¡Fenomenal! Yet they remain loyal to the roster of iconic counter fare: ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-y potato salad), jamón-studded croquetas, moonlike tortillas. And above all, callos, that great Madrid specialty of tripe braised forever with smoky charcuterie. When my friend José Carlos Capel, food critic for the newspaper El País, publishes his "best of" dish list, Puerta 57 usually wins in most of these categories. Neither folksy nor funky nor fashionable, this brightly bourgeois bar swathed in polished wood is attached to the restaurant inside the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, home to the Real Madrid soccer team. A perfect order here unfolds like this: after a few crisp, plump croquetas, move on to a plate of coquinas (dime-size clams), and pulpo gallego, slices of both octopus and supremely buttery yellow potatoes under a dusting of paprika. Follow that with the city’s definitive callos and/or a fabada, an Asturian white bean–and–smoked meat pot, here rendered as light as cuisine minceur. With an order of fried green Padrón peppers, please. Eat it all while watching Zidane’s greatest goals on the video screen. If only every sports bar served wondrous "white shrimp" from Huelva and seafood rice that smacks of the Mediterranean. Yes, yes, you must try those too.
Anya von Bremzen is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor and author of The New Spanish Table.
A Spanish tapeo, or tapas-bar hop, can cover as many or as few establishments as you wish. Try following the locals’ custom of sampling each bar’s signature tapa, then moving on to the next bar. Or settle in at a favorite counter and have a degustation. Each tapa costs around $2.50, and raciones, larger portions that can be shared, run $6–$8. The prices listed below are for a light meal for two.
A Fuego Negro 31 31 de Agosto; 34/65-013-5373; afuegonegro.com; $25.
Aloña Berri 24 Bermingham; 34/94-329-0818; alonaberri.com; $23.
Bar Bergara 8 General Artetxe; 34/94-327-5026; pinchosbergara.com; $19.
Bar Martínez 13 31 de Agosto; 34/94-342-4965; $22.
Ganbara 21 San Jerónimo; 34/94-342-2575; $18.
Goiz-Argi 4 Fermín Calbetón; 34/94-342-5204; $13.
La Viña 3 31 de Agosto; 34/94-342-7495; $12.
Txepetxa 5 Pescadería; 34/94-342-2227; $18.
Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo 171 Muntaner; 34/93-430-9027; pacomeralgo.com; $110.
Bar Central 91 La Rambla, in Mercat de la Boqueria, No. 494–496; 34/93-301-1098; $29.
Bomba Bar Cova Fumada 56 Baluard; 34/93-221-4061; $25.
El Quim de la Boqueria 91 La Rambla, in Mercat de la Boqueria, No. 584; 34/93-301-9810; $40.
El Vaso de Oro 6 Balboa; 34/93-319-3098; $30.
Kiosko Universal 91 La Rambla, in Mercat de la Boqueria, No. 691; 34/93-317-8286; $40.
La Taverna del Clínic 155 Roselló; 34/93-410-4221; $55.
Pinotxo 91 La Rambla, in Mercat de la Boqueria, No. 466; 34/93-317-1731; $35.
Quimet & Quimet 25 Poeta Cabanyes; 34/93-442-3142; $35.
Bar Taquilla 24 Adriano; 34/95-421-1126; $20.
Bodega San José 10 Adriano; 34/95-422-4105; $22.
Bodeguita A. Romero 19 Antonia Díaz; 34/95-422-3939; $26.
Bodeguita Casablanca 12 Adolfo Rodríguez Jurado; 34/95-422-4114; $34.
Casa Moreno 7 Gamazo; 34/95-422-8315; $20.
Enrique Becerra 2 Gamazo; 34/95-421-3049; enriquebecerra.com; $32.
Jaylu 19 López de Gomara; 34/95-434-1525; $60.
La Albariza 6 Betis; 34/95-433-8960; laalbariza.es; $55.
La Flor de Toranzo 1 Jimios, 9 Joaquín Guichot; 34/95-422-9315; $18.
Sol y Sombra 151 Castilla; 34/95-433-3935; $25.
Casa Alberto 18 Huertas; 34/91-429-9356; casaalberto.es; $22.
Casa Lucas 30 Cava Baja; 34/91-365-0804; $30.
Casa Revuelta 3 Latoneros; 34/91-366-3332; $10.
La Casa del Abuelo 12 Victoria; 34/91-521-2319; lacasadelabuelo.es; $30.
La Castela 22 Doctor Castelo; 34/91-573-5590; lacastela.com; $50.
La Monteria 35 Lope de Rueda; 34/91-574-1812; lamonteria.es; $69.
Lhardy 8 San Jerónimo; 34/91-521-3385; lhardy.com; $12.
Puerta 57 Santiago Bernabéu Stadium; Padre Damián; 34/91-457-3361; $130.
Taberna Laredo 14 Calle Menorca; 34/91-573-3061; tabernalaredo.com; $60.
A la plancha On the grill
Anchoas Canned anchovies
Boquerones Vinegar-cured anchovies
Cañas Small glasses of beer
Cava Sparkling wine
Chacina Charcuterie, in Andalusia
Chipirones Baby squid
Chorizo Paprika-spiked sausage
Coquinas Tiny Mediterranean clams
Croquetas Deep-fried minced meat
Jamón Ibérico Iberian ham
Lacón Galician ham
Patatas Bravas Fried potatoes with spicy sauce
Pintxos Tapas (Basque)
Poteo Tapas-bar crawl (Basque)
Raciones Sharing portions (bigger than tapas)
Revuelta Scrambled eggs
Salmorejo Thick gazpacho
Tapeo A tapas-bar hop
Tortilla Potato-and-onion omelette
Txepetxa Anchovies (Basque)