Ginja d’Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal


Ginja Rack
So many Portuguese liquors, so few shots and still be on your feet.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself stumbling around the Alfama between the right hours, and if you’re lucky enough to find the doors open to this teensy little establishment, you just might be lucky enough for the aged and wise Don Jorge to threaten you with the tiny blade of his wine opener, secretly pay your tab, then bound out onto the street while pumping his biceps at the world and announcing “amanha!” before you ever know what hit you.

Eder (whom I believe speaks English) and the rest of the staff are cordial and ready with a joke and a smile.  Though the menus offer food and all manner of tipple at rock bottom prices, I’ve only ever stopped in for a medronho (arbutus berry brandy), some fresh squeezed Algarve orange juice, and the occasional cafezinho.  You’ll notice the walls are adorned with all manner of Portuguese liquor, in addition to many different brands of the traditional ginja (cherry liquor) the place is named for.  Even if, like me, you stop only for a single fortifying shot of medronho before heading to the next Fado stop, you’ll grow an affection for this little place quickly.

Ginja d’Alfama, Rua São Pedro 12, 1100-172, Lisbon, Portugal

Mesa de Frades, Lisbon, Portugal

Don’t go here.  It’s a terrible place.  If you ignore my warnings and venture here anyway, expect to step into the alternate universe of real, living and breathing, Fado.

As you approach the big wooden door at the end of what looks to be a mixed use carpark or courtyard, prepare to be greeted one of two ways.  First, if the imposingly large, old, and somewhat foreboding door is shut, your approach will surely be halted by one of several different gruff locals who are charged with the task of not letting you get near the door until the time is right.  That means that, after the current song is completed he will “ring” the doorbell, which is actually a tiny light that flashes above the singer’s head, and the door will be opened from inside by the very person who is about to send you headlong into musical revelry.

If, by chance, your timing is just right and you walk up to an open door with clusters of Portuguese folks milling around, smoking cigarettes, and laughing loudly and slapping backs, then you are in.  These folks, in fact, are made up mostly of a community of Fado players – singers, guitar players, and their close supporters – that works much more like a family, than a scene.  As with family, there is much love and support, served with a healthy dose of rivalry and teasing.  If you show up more than once, you too start to become family and can expect nods of recognition and appreciation from performers and the staff alike.  Hopefully, you speak enough Portuguese to join in the conversations – a group of older white-mustachioed enthusiasts I came to call simply “os tios” are quick to include you in conversations ranging from finding the soul of Fado, to politics and love.

A word about the space:  there isn’t much of it.  Within a few hours of being in Lisbon you will have seen thousands of azulejo covered walls.  But Mesa de Frades is inside of an old chapel, the walls of which are covered by azulejo frescoes so stunningly beautiful that you’ll find yourself just beaming at them once the guitar player turns the lights back up.  As with all Fado, there is no amplification of the music, so shut your pie hole.  And you will be hushed as the musicians reach up and shut the lights out and you enter the dark, quiet, intensely romantic and hot heart of the fadistas who are not just performing for you, but pouring out their entire essence right there into your heart and soul.  It’s not uncommon to notice your fellow revelers wiping away tears or for you – your modern, Instagramming, Facebooking, emailing, busy persona – to just melt away into the forgotten corners of your heart, with only the strains of the Fado to guide you back out.  You’ve been warned.

Mesa de Frades, Rua dos Remédios 139, 1100-445 Lisboa, Portugal

Can Saló, Cadaqués, Spain

Tucked away in the corner of Plaça de Passeig you will discover this family owned gem.  The proprietor proudly claims that four generations of his family have been toiling away, making and selling all manner of ceramic and pottery goods to a mixed clientele of local consumers and foreign enthusiasts.

If you’re in Cadaqués and in the market for any sort of houseware, stop here.  And don’t forget your credit card.  This is not the home to touristy nonsense – here you will find gorgeous housewares, from plates to bowls, tea sets to figurines.  They have it all and it’s all top notch quality, often proudly signed by the, in some cases, famous artisans.  You’re welcome.  And so is your mom.

Can Saló, Plaça de Passeig, 12, 17488 Cadaqués, Girona, Spain

El Padrí, Cadaqués, Spain

So what do you do when you’re starving and it’s after 11pm in little ol’ Cadaqués?  You go see the Godfather, of course.  Jaume is the proprietor of this tiny little spot down a back alley, where he presides over a raucous crew of locals and seasonal residents.

Upon returning from the spectacular Vívid wine festival in Sant Martí d’Empúries (highly recommended in its own right) a couple of hours south of town, we discovered that the tapas served during the festival had already burned off and were craving anchovies intensely.  Although most of Spain is more than willing to feed a weary soul late into the night, Cadaqués is oriented more toward relaxation and outdoor activities and there wasn’t much to choose from.  Actually, there wasn’t anything.

On a wing and a prayer, we went for broke on a crowded and jovial alleyway, winding our way through wine-swilling revelers and the occasional dancer.  Without my trusty Catalan companion, I surely would have perished this time.  She was able to sweet talk Jaume into breaking out some of those famous excellent L’Escala anchovies (served over bread with piquillos, of course) and some pa amb tomaquet – the famous Catalan staple of crispy bread rubbed with garlic and tomatoes, then drizzled with olive oil.  It really hit the spot and I thanked my lucky stars, for surely, with both my trusty Catalan and my Godfather looking out for me, I couldn’t go wrong.

El Padrí, Carrer Miguel Rosset, 6, 17488 Cadaqués, Girona, Spain 

Compartir, Cadaqués, Spain

For over twenty years El Bulli in nearby Roses cast a shadow over Spanish, and really any, haute cuisine in a way that may not be seen again.  Though many chefs graduated from her kitchens, a few (Mateu Casañas, Oriol Castro, and Eduard Xatruch) chose not to stray far from home, landing in Cadaqués.

As the name suggests, plates are created with sharing in mind.  Toeing the line between El Bulli-style molecular gastronomy palate-bending taste experiments and traditional Catalan cuisine, this place hits all the perfect notes.

This intimate, upscale place is where you need to go to continue your Cadaqués theme of relaxation and rejuvenation.  I don’t often engage in a play-by-play breakdown of menus in this space and won’t be diverting from practice for Compartir.  But I will say, do yourself a solid and just book this one on faith.  And when you get back to Barcelona, check out their sister restaurant, Disfrutar.

Compartir, Riera de Sant Vicenç, 17488 Cadaqués, Girona, Spain   

Traumuntana Hotel, Cadaqués, Spain

Named for the Northern Wind that cools this seaside town, this tiny hotel is aptly named.  Sitting atop the tallest hill in town, and surrounded by picturesque winding streets, this place is an absolute gem where you will be lilted to sleep each night by the sound of its namesake breeze.


Carles and Rose are the locally born-and-bred couple that own and operate this lovely spot.  All the rooms are recently renovated and feature a modern Catalan esthetic of clean lines and slick design in a white-to-neutral palate.  We chose the pine room – the whistling of the wind racing through the pine needles created the sweetest lullaby, and kept us in bed a bit longer than expected each morning.

Suffice to say that we came for one night, stayed three, and nearly begged Rose to kick one of the French couples out and give us their room.  Even with my trusty “pesada” Catalan negotiator at my side, Rose stood by her reservation policy and refused to treat the Frenchies shabbily.  We were only half-joking, anyway.

To be honest, this is the kind of place that you’re afraid to write about:  you don’t IMG_2566want them to get too much exposure because you’re afraid to lose your place in line.  That said, everything was perfect.  The breakfast was spot-on each morning and Carles is happy to use his electric golf cart to haul you to the head of the hiking trails on the other side of town.  I know I’ll be back here soon.

Tramuntana Hotel, Carrer de la Torre, 9, 17488 Cadaqués, Girona, Spain      

Skybar, Barcelona, Spain

For a gorgeous introduction to nights and Barcelona, it doesn’t get much better than this.  If you come early enough, you can add a dip in the small pool to the night’s festivities.  Barring that, do like I did, bring some great friends, order from the gintonic menu, and forget that you’ve ever heard of the word “problem” – surely some form of rare rodent that lurks only in the caverns between the rooftops – only clear skies and bright hopes can you see!

Skybar at Grand Hotel Central, Via Laietana, 30, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

Mirablau, Barcelona, Spain

Tibidabo is the name of the small mountain looming over Barcelona like an ever-vigilant sentinel peering out to sea.  Part way up the side of it, through winding streets of former villages-turned-suburbs like Sarria and Vallcarca, you’ll find this small neighborhood bar and restaurant with the out-sized, sweeping views.  Really, this is a locals spot.

What you want to do here is order a gintonic from the extensive menu – I suggest Mare with pink peppercorn Schwepp’s – and sit talking about life, loves, dreams, and hopes for tomorrow and forever.  After all, as her name suggests, Tibidabo has the power to give them all to you.

Mirablau, Plaça del Doctor Andreu, 08035 Barcelona, Spain

Barraca, Barcelona, Spain

Rice.  You came for arroz.  At least, you want to have excellent paella while in Barcelona, and not from one of the tourist traps serving overcooked-to-mush shrimp rolling around in glow-in-the-dark irradiated yellow rice.  You came to the right place.

Your fearless author pigging out!

Located perfectly, almost as if the traditional fisherman’s neighborhood of Barceloneta were a spear jutting into the sea, if you ask nicely you can score a table looking out onto Playa de Sant Sebastiá.  Bring a scarf so that you can leave the windows open; the briny sea breeze is the perfect seasoning for the rice.

But don’t rush to the rice too quickly!  The chef creates magnificent symphonies of mussel concoctions based on whatever is fresh that day.  On our day, my companion and I were simply blown away by a Szechuan pepper and lemongrass broth that was perfectly balanced, and not too spicy for my spice-shy dining partner.

As regards the service, I believe this little vignette will tell you all you need to know about Barraca’s standards and care for excellence:  on our first visit, we ordered a bottle of wine.  Normally I find the rote present label-open-present cork-taste-approve traditional wine service song and dance to be a gratuitously formalistic bore.  But, as any wine nerd can tell you, every now and then a cork goes bad or bottle gets mishandled, turning the otherwise good wine inside into something from a dare reality television show.  My poor Catalan companion was horrified when I sent the wine back.  She, and the waitress, both were noticeably nervous that I had somehow executed a breach of etiquette, the punishment for which was likely to be grave.  The owner, however, came to the table, nonchalantly poured a taste into his glass, and took 1.5 seconds to nod and declare the bottle a dud, removed it from the check and issued us a new wine.  No fuss at all.

So, for the location, the service, and the food, make this an afternoon stop for classic seafood rice (paella, that is) in the sun.

Barraca, Passeig Marítim Barceloneta, 1, 08003 Barcelona, Spain 

St. Remy, Barcelona, Spain

If you’ve never dined in a classic-style Spanish or Catalan restaurant, here is your opportunity to do it right.  From the moment you enter, the vaulted ceilings, stately décor, and impeccable service are on display.  Austere luxury, served up as only the Catalan’s can.  The white table-cloth, white glove service is simply perfect.  But, as with other entries in this blog, you came here for one specific thing:  sea urchin, or eriçó de mar.  I cannot honestly say that I’ve ever had sea urchin like this:  served in the hollowed out spiny shells of the creatures, the preparation is the thickest, richest, almost gravy-like, umami-packed preparation I’ve ever spooned into my mouth.  The effect of the deep richness is that you’ll feel like you just ate steak covered with melted gelato, or some other insanely indulgent concoction.

This is an amazing little date-night spot, even if Sarria is a bit of a hike from the city center.  If you’re lucky, your date will confuse the sea urchin-induced swoon in their belly for one in their heart.

St. Rémy, Carrer d’Iradier, 12, 08017 Barcelona, Spain