Best Tapas Restaurants in the U.S.
“In Spain, frequently you’re standing with a glass of sherry in one hand and a plate of simple, rustic bites in the other as you chat with whoever is crammed into the bar beside you,” says Zach Harjo, owner of Seattle’s Ocho.
Harjo is one of many chefs translating that dining experience to America and spurring the popularity of tapas. The small-plates movement really got going here thanks to chef José Andrés, who trained at the world’s most famous Spanish restaurant, elBulli. In 1993, he introduced Americans to the pleasures of jamón ibérico at flagship restaurant Jaleo in Washington, D.C. Katie Button, a fellow elBulli trainee, recently followed in his footsteps, bringing authentic tapas to Asheville, NC, at her restaurant Cúrate.
“Spaniards begin with wonderful products and then do very little to them, retaining the purity and simplicity of food,” says Button. Typical tapas include patatas bravas (fried potatoes), gambas al ajillo (shrimp sautéed in garlic and chiles), latas (preserved ingredients served in small tin cans), pintxos (skewers), and tortilla Española—a potato and egg omelette, unlike the Mexican version.
“Each region has its own food culture,” explains Seamus Mullen, chef/owner of NYC’s Tertulia, “and all the culinary influences Spain has absorbed, from Moorish to Sephardic to the integration of new ingredients from the new world, influence the dishes.”
Influenced by the cider houses of Spain’s northern Asturias region, Tertulia fills its paella with fiddlehead ferns, snails, and jamón ibérico. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, La Vara restaurant explores the legacy of Jews and Moors with tapas like ajo blanco (chilled almond soup) from Granada and Andalusian remojón (citrus salt cod salad with pistachios).
To sample such innovative small plates, book your next meal at one of America’s best tapas restaurants.
Cúrate, Asheville, NC
James Beard–nominated chef Katie Button, who trained at elBulli, has put that knowledge to work back in Asheville, where she opened Cúrate in 2011. It draws crowds hungry for a taste of authentic tapas like gambas al ajillo and berenjenas la taberna (fried eggplant with local honey and rosemary). More than 40 Spanish wines are offered by the glass, alongside a handful of Spanish beers and eight sherries. Of course, that doesn’t stop diners from plowing through nearly 200 pitchers of sangria each week (it’s made tableside with a full bottle of wine). For a prime view of cooks in the open kitchen, grab a seat at the 31-foot Carrara marble bar. curatetapasbar.com
Estadio, Washington, D.C.
Estadio’s brussels sprouts are so perfectly crispy—accented with caramelized onions, pine nuts, and currants—that they outsell the hangar steak. The restaurant goes through more than 3,200 pounds of sprouts (the weight of a Toyota Camry) during the five months the dish is on the menu. And it’s just one of the delectable surprises dished out by chef Haidar Karoum. Consider the tortilla Española with sweet hot peppers, open-faced foie gras sandwiches, and garlicky shrimp with herbs and chiles. Estadio doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early or plan to cozy up at the bar for at least an hour on weekend nights. A Spanish sherry or gin with house-made orange-thyme tonic can console you while you wait.
La Vara, Brooklyn, NY
Alex Raij’s latest Spanish restaurant (El Quinto Pino and Txikito came first) opened between two brownstones in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill in 2012. “It’s an improvisational celebration of the legacy of Jews and Moors in Spanish cuisine and how their traditions change as they intersect with Christianity,” explains Raij. As a result, the wide-ranging menu features ajo blanco (chilled almond soup) from Granada and Andalusian remojón (citrus salt cod salad with pistachios), but also references the Middle East with berenjena con miel, a Syrian-inspired dish of crispy eggplants with honey and melty Galician cheese. lavarany.com
The Bazaar by José Andrés, Los Angeles
Celebrity chef José Andrés’s destination-worthy Hollywood restaurant puts on a nightly show between its lively communal bar, two fantastical dining rooms designed by Philippe Starck (Rojo y Blanca), a whimsical patisserie, and the dinner-as-theater Saam (a tasting room serving a 22-course menu). “My intention was really to take you on a culinary journey of Spain with dishes made my own way,” says Andrés, whose menu spans nearly 100 dishes. Start with bar snacks like the “bagel and lox” (a delicate cone filled with cream cheese and topped with salmon roe) or jicama-wrapped guacamole; move on to platters of jamón ibérico and escalivada (Catalan-style roasted red pepper, onion, and eggplant).
The Iberian Pig, Atlanta
Federico Castellucci was just 24 when he opened The Iberian Pig in 2009 with chef Chad Crete. And it has an appropriately playful vibe: an enormous chalkboard lists daily specials alongside house rules (“Festive and Merry Is Welcome, Loud and Obnoxious Is Not”), and the largely Spanish wine list is categorized by “pretty darn good,” “quite good,” and “damn good.” Food that falls into the latter category includes braised pork shoulder flatbread with charred fennel and lavender honey, and pork cheek tacos with tangy corn salsa (more than 50,000 have been sold in 2013). theiberianpigatl.com
Rincón 38, Minneapolis
This newcomer from Mexican native Hector Ruiz has already taken Minneapolis by storm. Old-world décor (forged iron, metallic colors, faded painting) recalls traditional restaurants you’d find in Madrid, as do many of the small plates. Classic queso frito (fried Manchego cheese) gets a Minnesota twist thanks to locally sourced apple-fennel slaw and microgreens. Ruiz sautés patatas bravas with asparagus, chorizo, and roasted artichokes, serving them alongside a pimentón and citrus aioli. And even the Spain-heavy wine list takes a small-portions approach with half-glasses that encourage experimentation. rincon38.com
Barlata, Austin, TX
Luckily for Austinites, Barcelona-born Daniel Olivella chose the Texas capital for his second location of Barlata, a popular Bay Area tapas bar with communal wood tables. The menu counts 65 small plates, with standouts including boquerones (pickled anchovy fillets); extra-crispy patatas bravas; seafood ceviche; and 10 paella varieties. In true Spanish form, Olivella regularly brings the porron (a communal drinking vessel typically filled with wine) out for guests to enjoy. Be sure to indulge! barlataaustin.com
Toro Bravo, Portland, OR
USA Today once described John Gorham’s cooking as “the best meal in the world.” To sample it for yourself, head to this Pacific Northwest–influenced tapas bar. The open kitchen turns out seasonal small plates like fried anchovies and fennel, duck liver mousse terrine with morels, and marinated sheep’s cheese with rose-petal harissa and mint. Wash it all down with flights of sherry or sangria. “We throw a party every night,” says Gorham, who cranks up the music. Don’t be surprised if you bump into the cast of TV show Portlandia at the bar (they’re regulars).
Ocho measures only 730 square feet, but it’s not short on personality. “It’s lively, loud, friendly, unpretentious, cheap, yet exquisite, surprising, ambitious, innovative, dependable, neighborhood oriented, worldly, local, imported, and, hopefully, interesting,” declares owner Zach Harjo. A chalkboard displays the night’s dishes, perhaps deviled eggs topped with fried capers, pickled onions, and salmon roe or anchovy skewers with roasted red peppers and fried artichoke hearts. Cocktails are equally ambitious: the Donkey Tongue blends chile-infused tequila with lemon and cucumber juice. Come by for a weekend lunch to take advantage of $2 happy-hour tapas. ochoballard.com
Valerie Safran, a former Spanish teacher, and Marcie Turney revitalized Philadelphia’s 13th Street, in large part with the 2010 opening of this sultry tapas spot. A walnut-wood jamonera—formerly owned by the first woman to win Spain’s national ham-slicing competition—anchors the cozy dining room. The restaurant has earned a reputation for its sherry selection and for its papas fritas, selling more than 150 pounds of the fried potatoes with smoked garlic aioli every week. Sample them during the late-night happy hour, when favorites are just $2, or join a Sunday tapas tasting: for $40 per person, you’ll get the chef’s pick of 10 courses. jamonerarestaurant.com
Amada, Atlantic City, NJ
Iron Chef Jose Garces’s original Amada tapas bar—named for his grandmother—is a Philadelphia favorite. But his recent offshoot at Atlantic City’s swanky Revel Resort has the added bonus of sweeping ocean views through the soaring glass façade. Expect ingredient-driven traditional tapas, like spicy patatas bravas, plancha-crisped jamón ibérico, and crabmeat-stuffed piquillo peppers with almonds and smoked paprika aioli. Choose from the 75-label-strong Spanish wine list, and don’t be startled if a swarm of flamenco dancers shows up—they put on a colorful show several times weekly. atlanticcity.amadarestaurant.com
Bravas Bar de Tapas, Healdsburg, CA
Trips to Barcelona, Madrid, and San Sebastián inspired Mark and Terri Starks to re-create the vibe of a typical tapería in this restored 1920s bungalow with Spanish mosaics. The vibrant outdoor bar swarms with folks sipping gin tonics around the large open fire, where aromatic escalivada cooks in the coals. The quail a la plancha with smoked honey and the tender octopus with fingerling potatoes reflect traditional techniques, yet the Buckets of BFC (Basque fried chicken) are at least as popular. Cap off your meal with an organic soft-serve topped with goat’s milk caramel, vanilla bean fleur de sel, or chocolate Pedro Jiménez fudge sauce. starkrestaurants.com/bravas.html
San Chez, Grand Rapids, MI
San Chez celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013, and the two-story bistro continues its proven recipe of making plates of salteado de calamaritos (sautéed squid and serrano ham and pork belly), smoked cheddar croquettes, and medjool rellenas picantes (dates stuffed with lamb, chorizo, bacon, and beef swimming in a spicy harissa sauce). All the better when paired with the signature sangria of brandy, citrus, and triple sec. sanchezbistro.com
Tertulia, New York City
Chef/owner Seamus Mullen’s rustic tapas joint brings to mind the sidrerías (cider houses) popular in northern Spain’s Asturias region. Housed in a Prohibition-era speakeasy with brick archways, Tertulia has a long, narrow bar that opens up to a dining space centered around a custom-made wood-fired grill. It turns out versions of paella and arroz a la plancha that are chock-full of unexpected ingredients like fiddlehead ferns, snails, and jamón ibérico. Coal-roasted vegetables showcase the bounty of New York.
Barsa, Charleston, SC
Barsa, which bills itself as a Spanish-influenced restaurant with a southern drawl, has been a local favorite on trendy Upper King Street for years. Chalk it up to the paella with ingredients sourced from local farms and the convivial atmosphere. Basque-inspired plates of octopus with smoked paprika, roasted chicken and kale croquettes, and Manchego-stuffed dates are passed merrily around each table in the warehouse-style restaurant. barsacharleston.com
Duende, Oakland, CA
Chef Paul Canales, beloved for his long-standing Italian restaurant Oliveto, takes on Spanish food, with some inspiration from his Basque grandfather, at Duende. Located in an Art Deco building in Oakland’s Uptown district, the industrial space fits a bodega and wine bar and a lounge and dining room. There are more than a dozen pintxos and tapas (lamb and currant–stuffed piquillo peppers and shredded cabbage studded with olives) to catch your eye, but you won’t want to miss the paella laced with whole cipollini onions, tender hunks of rabbit, and spicy merguez sausage. Linger over a glass of Spanish wine or sherry while the live music plays. duendeoakland.com
At this Barcelona-style tapas bar, a high-top communal table gives guests a peek at the open kitchen, where James Beard–nominated chef Jamie Bissonnette dishes out inventive tapas like rabbit and snail paella with asparagus and green garlic salsa. Don’t miss the uni (sea urchin) bocadillo and asado de huesos (roasted bone marrow with radish citrus salad and beef cheek marmalade). No reservations are taken, so expect to wait with a cava-filled porron at the bar.
Mateo Tapas, Raleigh/Durham, NC
New-to-the-scene Mateo serves up the best of both Spanish cantinas and chef-owner Matthew Kelly’s finds at North Carolina farmers’ markets. As a result, diners can enjoy satisfying hybrids like Huevo Diablo (deviled eggs wrapped in chorizo) and almejas pequeñas (Manila clams and boiled peanuts bathed in a sherry-laden broth). Another standout: roasted cauliflower salad with a runny duck egg, local leeks, and romesco. It goes nicely with the many sidras on the menu; we say go for Isastegi Sagardo, a Basque cider with a crisp finish. mateotapas.com
Mercat a la Planxa, Chicago
Jose Garces branches out from his typical Latin American cuisine at this Catalan tapas spot, with some help from Peter Karpinski of Sage Restaurant Group. Hexagonal motifs and colorful mosaic tiles typical of Spanish markets surround two handcrafted communal tables. Saffron-accented tortilla, flash-fried padrón peppers in a Catalan salsa, and bacon-wrapped, almond-stuffed dates are among the time-honored tapas. Heartier dishes include rabbit agnolotti with roasted chestnut purée, brandied cherries, and rosemary brown butter.
Zarzuela, San Francisco
Reminiscent of Madrid’s high-energy tapas bars, Zarzuela has delighted San Francisco residents since 1994 with what The Chronicle’s Michael Bauer calls “some of the best paella in the city,” made to order with seafood and chicken. Owned by Madrid native Lucas Gasco and his partner Andy Debbane, the jovial neighborhood bistro on Russian Hill also turns out notable patatas bravas, grilled squid, and baked goat cheese bathed in a tangy tomato sauce. 2000 Hyde St.