El Nacional BCN, Barcelona, Spain

Welcome to the amusement park of Catalan gastronomy!  One of the coolest places in all of Barcelona.  For such a large space, it’s not the easiest place in the world to find.  Built inside of a restored factory, it has all the gorgeous iron work and design details one imagines in the Barcelona of your memories and dreams.  Inside there are four distinct restaurants and four distinct specialty bars, all under the same roof:  Beer Bar; Wine Bar; Oyster Bar; Cocktail Bar; La Braseria (specializing in steak); La Llotja (fresh fish cooked your way); La Taperia (tapas); La Paradeta (deli and baked goods).  All of the bars serve exquisite renditions of traditional Catalan cold tapas.  Think the most gorgeous, upscale, high design food court that your brain can conceive of, crank it up two notches, and then you’re close.

The first couple of times that I went was with a Barcelona native who had been hearing the rumors and was dying to try it.  It was like getting a grand tour of Catalonian gastronomy – from the Costa Brava to Girona, Priorat down to Valencia, all under one roof.  Our first stop was at the beer and tapes (that’s “tapas” in Catalan, friend) counter, the first little island in the middle of the place.  My companion took the excellent and chatty bartender, Colombian by birth (friendly Colombians:  there’s a theme here), on a tour of his own wares, netting us fresh tins of anchovies L’Escala; a version of your grandpa’s favorite delicacy unparalleled by any other coast.  So much yum!

Honestly, I could swoon here for paragraphs.  But I’ll spare you.  Just do yourself a favor and go, and go hungry.  Everything is on point:  from the wine selections to the fish preparations, the balanced cocktails to the perfectly shucked oysters – just do it.

El Nacional BCN, Passéig de Gracia 24 bis (down an alley between Carrer de la Diputació and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes), Barcelona, Spain

Casa Marí y Rufo, Barcelona, Spain

Down a small side street along Mercado Santa Caterina in Upper Borne (yes, I made that up), I found this place only because I was taken there by locals who literally had to step into the street, wave and holler at me, to find it the first time. It doesn’t get any more local than this. Don Rufo stands behind the bar, cooking and pouring cañas with a healthy dose of old bartender spice. The first time I went we sat at a table next to the bar and carried on with him all night – our first query about the freshness of the langostinos resulted in Rufo waving at a bar patron and saying “hell, I don’t know, ask that lady – she just brought them in off the boat!” Seared whole on his flattop grill and dressed with salt, olive oil from the cooking, and lemon – limón y sal indeed – just fantastic. The grilled octopus here usually starts with a fight at the table, then ends with a second or third order. Closing out the tab is an iterative process with Rufo asking what we had – and estimating so low we had to adjust our tab up quite a bit. That first visit ended with dueling magic shows from, on one hand, a gentleman from LA who just happens to be the famed cinematographer of the upcoming Batman vs. Superman flic, and my friend Luis on the other. Luis won by all counts with his “Portuguese Magic” bit.

My second visit, though a little less eventful than the three-bottles-of-wine-and-magic-tricks dinner, was so excellent we forgot all about our budding hangovers. We covered much of the same ground – fresh shrimp and octopus two ways – as my earlier visit. It was all just as excellent at lunch, as dinner. The back room service from Rufo’s son was as hilarious as the front room, with plates and curses flying on occasion and food and drink coming fast and delicious. I can’t get enough of this place and hope Don Rufo stays in business for years to come, but never changes.

Address: Casa Marí y Rufo, Carrer de Freixures 11, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

Bar del Pla, Barcelona, Spain

Be not afraid. Although in the ever-so-trendy neighborhood of El Borne, Bar del Pla will reward your efforts. This is probably the best tapes I’ve had in Barcelona. The chorizo y asado and squid ink croquettes were simply amazing. As in, crispy outside, smooth inside, flavor bombs. Their octopus bombas were great, though eclipsed by the grilled octopus. And of course they have the fantastically fresh l’Escala anchovies – is that even a question? You can get on tap local favorites like Estrella Damm, but they also carry one of Barcelona’s on-trend craft beers in rotation. Although I’m a craft beer fan for the most part, when in Spain I want the traditional offerings – some of the best clear beers on the planet. A real revelation here was the xampis wasabi: a salad of paper-thin mushrooms with strawberries and a well-balanced wasabi dressing. Sounds crazy, looks crazy, tastes awesome. This place is a must – it was hard to resist eating there every day. Most recent visit July 2015.

Address: Bar del Pla, Carrer Montcada 2, 08003 Barcelona, Spain