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.