Pepe Hillo – Sevilla, Spain

If you find yourself wandering around the Arenal district of Sevilla, near the legendary Plaza de Toros, and are in need of refreshment, there’s only one place to go:  Pepe Hillo.  This traditional tapas tavern has a mid-twentieth century inspired-décor with tons of old bric-a-brac, newspapers, and – yep – mounted noggins of famous fighting bulls that make you feel like Joselito himself is going to tap you on the shoulder any minute.  This is the kind of establishment that Spain’s meteoric rise in the period immediately after joining the Eurozone, and its population’s rush to embrace a future whose glaringly bright promise never quite arrived, placed on the endangered list.  Old men are serving you and old men are sitting nearby nursing their late afternoon or lunch drinks, though quick with that wit topped with feigned arrogance that the Spaniards of Andalucia are so famous for.

If your Spanish is up to the task, you can get a decent amount of banter out of the comically cranky barkeeps.  If not, you’ll still manage to lay your hands on fine examples of Andalucian tapas.  Pulpo (exquisite octopus, grilled or fried), anchoas (anchovies like nothing you’ve tasted), various tortillas (a type of omelet, primarily of egg and potato), gazpacho, cola de toro (succulent stewed bull’s tail), and all manner of lovely jamóns

Salmorejo Pepe
Salmorejooo Cordobeeeees!!

famously cured in the nearby mountains.  But the real star of the show, their virtuoso performance that you can scarcely find anywhere else, and, for my money, one of the most refreshing Summer treats around, is the amazing Salmorejo Cordobés.

Just what is this salmorejo, you might ask?  A shorthand might be gazpacho’s rich cousin.  Whereas a gazpacho might be made primarily of tomatoes and present almost like a refreshing vegetable drink, a salmorejo should be a rich, creamy, emulsified cold soup only capable of being taken via a bowl and spoon.  Boiled egg, Serrano or Ibérico jamón, and only the finest olive oil forms the holy trinity of delicious garnishes on the top.  I’ve had it with olive oil preserved tuna in place of the jamón, but only once.  I will go so far as to suggest that you not only order this rare and delicious beauty, but that you have it before ordering anything else just in case your taste buds drive you to order a second helping before moving to other portions of the menu.

As with many places in Spain, if you’re squeamish about bullfighting or a strict vegetarian, this may not be the place for you.  As with many of my most favorite spots, a friendly local told me about this place and I’m damn glad I engaged the chap.  You don’t have to be a fan of  tauromaquia to enjoy a stop in Pepe Hillo, but a sense of joie de vivre and an adventurous appetite will serve you well.

Pepe Hillo, Calle Adriano 24, 41001 Sevilla, Spain

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Brasserie Georges – Lyon, France

If you’ve ever imagined yourself sitting in a sprawling French café next to the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, and Edith Piaf in a scene torn from the pages of A Moveable Feast, this is your spot.  Originally opened in 1836 by Alsatian transplant Georges Holfherr, this Georges Dininggrande dame sits alongside Lyon’s old train station Perrache and features exquisite décor from the last two centuries.  I found it because it’s a mere five minute stroll from the law faculty of the Catholic University of Lyon, where I teach as a guest professor in an executive course once a year.  It’s a gorgeous space with substantial history, not all of which is readily discussed in polite company.

Unfortunately, I’ve only ever visited for one of the expansive lunches that the French are so well known for.  The daily menu is exquisite and changes regularly.  As to be expected, service is achieved with the crisp efficiency of a thoroughly professional staff who whisk away plates and crumbs, sliding into place the next course with the Georges Stewelegance of a well conducted orchestra.  The food – all courses – are tip-top brasserie fare, with less reliance on the typical local delicacies of organ meat and offal that one encounters in the city’s legendary bouchons.  That is, typically French, but not specifically Lyonnaise.  Regardless, you can’t go wrong by following the chef’s daily suggestions in this bustling open space – perhaps the largest restaurant of its kind in Europe.

Now to the bit of history that Georges doesn’t advertise, with the caveat that this is all still under investigation.  I was first told about this by a local who may or may not have been correct in pointing it out.  With that disclaimer, one cannot help but notice the flooring tiles featuring one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable symbols:  the swastika.  As it was related to me, during the World War II the Germans first took the southern portion of Lyon, with the northern portion continuing to fight on for some time before falling.  During that time, Georges Floorthe German army favored Georges, using it as a beer house and social center.  As with some parts of Europe, some evidence of the occupation survived the death of the “Butcher of Lyon.”  Hence, what you might notice today if you have the misfortune, as I did, of dropping your salad fork.

Consider this a lovely, reliable spot to haul a group for a delicious and lively meal with an exuberant atmosphere – Lyon’s true specialty.

Brasserie Georges, 30 Cours de Verdun Perrache, 69002 Lyon, France

 

 

Casa Guedes, Porto, Portugal

With apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends, I did not make this rule:  the name of the game in Porto is Pork-o.  Like, for real.  While true for most of the Iberian peninsula, this little rule seems to be magnified in Portugal’s second city . . . much to the disappointment of my travel companion who was excited to break his Yom Kippur fast Casa Guedes outdoorsoon after landing.  Our gracious AirBNB host gave us more great recommendations than we were ever able to hit, but his stories so frequently included roast pork and the local favorite francesinha sandwich (think Portuguese Hot Brown with ham, sausage, roast beef, coated in a cheese and tomato sauce) that we had to do a bit of our own searching.  Casa Guedes, however, had enough options on offer that we made it work.

This little family run spot sits at the corner of the pleasant park Jardim de São Lázaro.  As with most of Porto, the locals that have been going there for years seem fascinated by the trickle of foreigners that seem to be coming in ever growing waves.  (Yes, that’s a mixed metaphor.)  Still, it’s a mostly locals spot and the counter service staff gets a kick out of foreigners who can actually manage to order in proper Portuguese.  While the bolinhos de bacalhau (classic Portuguese codfish balls) and fresh country

Casa Guedes Sande de Pernil
The Star of the Show – pernil sande!

cheese are worthy companions to the Super Bock on tap, the real star of the show here is the pernil sande – slow roasted pork sandwich.  I chose the version with fresh cheese and it was to die for.  I say this, mind you, with many years of consuming Cuban lechón straight off the Caja China and 12-hour Kentucky-smoked pork under my belt.  But beware:  you will most likely end up getting two or more and having your friends roll you out of here in a wheelbarrow.  If you’re lucky enough to visit on a warm day, have an espresso or two on the terrace to recover.  Bom apetito!

 

 

Casa Guedes, Praça dos Poveiros 130, 4000-098, Porto, Portugal

 

 

Quinta dos Corvos, Porto, Portugal

We lucked into this place entirely.  Wine tours in Porto’s Gaia wine house district don’t tend to start until 11ish, but we don’t often let silly formalities like operating hours slow us down.  With all the big, famous name Port wineries still shuttered we stumbled into this place by chance – and an open door.

Corvos Entrance            Admittedly, the early arrival got us invited to, oddly, “relax” in the restroom while folks pulled themselves together.  An older German couple straight out of central casting joined us (i.e. rude, cranky, weird older man in ill-fitting and awkward neo-90’s techno tank top and shorts accompanied by very kind, cordial wife with spiky red hair).  Our tour guide, Isabel Santos, took just a few minutes to shake off last night’s partying cob-webs before launching into a well-rehearsed (but not tired) introduction to the history of the family wine house.  A beneficiary of one of the world’s oldest zoning charters – 1756 by Portugal’s beloved Marques de Pombal – the property in Sabrosa along the Pinhão river produces an average of 40,000 bottles a year.  The Quinta was acquired by the Queiroz Cardoso family in 1989 and has since remained in the family (with a few small enlargements) and is planted in an 80/20 red to white ratio, with the exact makeup of the varietals – like with the wines – something of a secret.

Isabel never missed a chance to needle some of the nearby “multi-national” wine houses for not being Portuguese enough, or abandoning old world artisanal methods for mechanized and sterile (perhaps too) modern methods.  A particularly excellent feature of the tour was her willingness to dive down as deeply as their secret recipes would allow into winemaking and grape-growing minutiae, on request.  I tried to not make the tour laborious for my companions, but did take the chance to ask a few advanced questions – questions which Isabel was able to answer concisely.

Corvos Stack            The tasting room at this wine house is stellar.  One could make an afternoon of it by ordering food and other goodies.  Some light snacks and a generous introductory tasting were included with the tour.  Again, Isabel knocked this out of the park, appropriately generous and thorough with both pourings and knowledge.  Unlike many other wine houses, Corvos offers up tastings of anything they make, if for a very reasonable price on several of the older, more advanced offerings.  My comment on the likely malvasia content of the white ports (airy salinity that balances out the usual cloying sweetness of white port) won a knowing squint from Isabel, before simply commenting that she couldn’t really comment.  I opted to go deep into some of the Vintages, as well as the 20 year old white port.  Ultimately, I walked with a bottle of 1996 Vintage (the year I first visited Lisbon), a bottle of the 20 year white, and a bottle of their cosecha.  If you only have time for one wine house tour while in Porto, make this the one . . . and don’t miss it if you’re piling up visits.  Oh, and in case it isn’t already obvious, ask for Isabel.

Quinta dos Corvos, Rua Guilherme Gomes Fernandes nº 63, 4400-175, Vila Nova de Gaia (Porto), Portugal

 

Tapas Bar 52, Lisbon, Portugal

If you’re in need of a late-night bite to stand you well for the fun ahead, this is your jam.  They call it tapas, but they mostly mean delicious Portuguese small plates, with a few Spanish standbys blended in.  We ordered everything.  As in, everything, to the point that the hilarious waiter was afraid to actually order it from the kitchen for fear that we were joking.  No single dish or beverage blew our minds here, but all were well-executed and on-point.  You won’t have a mind-altering culinary experience here, but you will get good food at a reasonable price in a nice atmosphere.

Tapas Bar 52, Rua Dom Pedro V 52, 1250-083 Lisboa, Portugal

Pub Lisboeta, Lisbon, Portugal

We would never have found this place, if not for being summoned here by some locals.  This one-room spot in Principe Real has just the perfect balance of hip ambiance and the truly local flare that you were looking for.  A great jumping off point for a foray into the Bairro Alto.  You will see debauchery near, but can enjoy cocktails or wine with adults in this little oasis.  We were only here for a couple of drinks, but gained a great appreciation for its chill atmosphere shortly – after getting a taste of the just-a-little-much behavior in the nearby street parties.  And they won’t force you into the street.  Not really.  Sit outside by the door, greet your friends en route to the parties, and chill.  Small bites and great cocktails.  But if you leave, you best be strapped in for the wild and wooly student-fueled party atmosphere surrounding it.

Pub Lisboeta, Rua Dom Pedro V 63, 1250-096 Lisboa, Portugal

The Marlton Hotel Bar, New York, NY

I was first hauled to this spot by a crazy older man that went by the handle James-Jim-Jimmy.  But that’s a story for another time.  The bar off to the left of the entrance is a great little escape from the cold.  With a huge fireplace and welcoming sofas and chairs, you really can’t beat it on a cold New York winter night.  The bar itself, just a few steps beyond the fireplace, attracts an interesting crowd to its stools and booths.  We’ve meet some characters in just a few visits – enough to keep us coming back for more.  The barkeeps are affable and professional and we had a good time chatting with them on at least one occasion.  If you should find yourself hanging around Washington Square Park, in need of a warm up and possibly a new friend, drop into the Marlton for more than a slim chance at success.

The Marlton Hotel, 5 West 8th St., New York, NY  10011    

Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, Washington, DC

I generally avoid reviewing places in cities that I live in.  There are a few reasons.  First, I’m a jerk and don’t want my favorite spots to get so overwhelmingly popular that I can no longer get a seat.  Second, honestly, I still consider the mean quality level of offerings in DC to be so far behind other cities that there’s just no point.  There are exceptions, and consider this the first instalment of my reformation.

This is my new jam.  The owners Aude and François-Yann Buisine hail from northern France.  At this point, I have never seen anyone working the counter but the two of them.  Aude always greets me with a warm, smiley “bonjour” and does not reserve the warmth only for me.  The space lends itself well to the reading of books and the writing of things that do not require internet connectivity.  That translates to a blessed lack of laptop-clogged tables with clickety-clacking self-important millennial types doing their startup gigs.  Instead, you hear conversations, enjoy soft, elegant seating, and Illy brand espresso drinks made with care and a glaring lack of hollered, mispronounced names.

Jailed Croissants.JPG
Croissants so good they have to put them in jail

But what of the baked goods?  They make a range of exquisite-looking pasties and deserts, but I can only vouch for the non-sweets.  Listen:  the plain butter croissants are the best I have had since the DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market made the monumentally stupid decision to chase Baltimore’s Bonaparte bakery out of their market (I have never gone back since this move – anything else I ever bought there was simply by virtue of its proximity to Bonaparte’s luscious wares).  These croissants compare favorably to anything you will find in Paris, Lyon, Nice, or beyond.  The brioche has the dense but airy consistency that I want from a brioche.  In a word, both the croissants and the brioche are a perfect “A” note.

Epilogue:  after my summer away, there now is more counter help, WiFi, and a bustling trade.  At least I know they won’t be closing soon.  Thus far, the quality has not dropped off one bit!

Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, 1361 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC  20036

El Club del Vino, Malaga, Spain

Sometimes you just get lucky.  I happened upon this place with only an hour or so to go in my visit to Malaga, having given up on having any singular food or drink experience to speak of.  (Yes, I tried to go to El Pimpi, Oleo, and several other places that were either closed or just meh.)  I noticed the promising signage and decided to take a swing.

The owner, Bernardo, is quick with conversation and background knowledge on his stock.  As with Nuno and his crew at Castelo in Lisbon, Bernardo communicates a deep-seated passion for the wines he offers, making a point to note that he sells nothing that he doesn’t first enjoy personally.  There’s no script here; Bernardo can riff on any of the wines, giving fascinating background on the vineyards, wine makers, and character of each bottle.  Like most Argentinians I know, Bernardo and his spot have a certain style and aesthetic that I struggle to describe as sleek traditional:  wood, leather, and metal come together in a no-nonsense design with clean lines and, like the menu, reminiscent of a time when simple was good.

If you want a good bottle, a copa of sweet respite from the Andalusian heat, or to fill up on down-home Argentinian bites (and bife!), this is the place to visit.

El Club del Vino, Calle Pedro de Toledo 2 Local B, Malaga, Spain

Winebar do Castelo, Lisbon, Portugal

OK, I’ve kept this place semi-secret long enough.  Put simply, this is my favorite wine bar on the planet at the moment.  Why, you say?  Though the location, ambience, and stock selection are definitely critical pieces of the puzzle, it is the style and quality of the service you will get here that truly sets this place on a pedestal.

castelo-1
Nuno carries more than a few delicious choriço

Nuno Santos, the driving force behind it, takes enormous pride and care in ensuring that patrons have an unparalleled experience on their visit.  Whether Nuno takes care of you personally or one of the several other highly trained and passionate servers here is your guide, you can expect to be led toward the perfect selection with passion, knowledge, and an attention to detail that’s rare these days.  Unlike so many wine bars where you are greeted by a service professional who has memorized the most recent tasting notes from Robert Parker or James Molesworth, the staff’s love and intimate knowledge of the stock here is evident.

Reminiscent of how a guitar player feels about his different axes and each of their own quirks, imperfections, and sublime notes, no matter who takes care of you, you are going to get the straight dope on all of the wines you care to ask about.  On at least one occasion, when asked about a bottle in his stock, Nuno didn’t hold back his true opinion, and in the process educated the hell out of us.  The team is so dedicated to honesty in selection that, in fact, they steadfastly refuse what would be a very lucrative revenue stream in guiding winery tours.  Why?  It might create a conflict of interest; they don’t want to find themselves sending clients toward the highest bidder.

I could blather on here.  But just do yourself a favor and go visit Nuno’s team.  You will find yourself joining their legion of fans, and becoming so much smarter in the meantime.

Winebar do Castelo, No. 13 Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmão 11, 1100-000, Lisbon, Portugal