Eating tapas with Spaniards in Boston is a bad idea. They over-order. They drink too much. They criticize relentlessly. Then — a pitcher of sangria later — they’re smacking their lips and sending the waiter for another plate of patatas bravas.
Dali, in Somerville, lays claim to being the Boston area’s first major tapas outpost. It opened in 1989, and 27 years later it continues to thrive. Show up on a Wednesday, slip in on a Saturday, the place will be packed and raucous.
I hadn’t visited in a decade. Many people I spoke to carbon-date their Dali experience to their 20s or early 30s, when they first had a little disposable income. You might think a place like this has slowed down, that the competition, which is considerable, has leached off clientele.
You’d be wrong. The appetite for Spanish food around here appears bottomless. To check my bearings, I stopped by Barcelona Wine Bar on a recent Thursday night, then hiked across the South End to Toro. I passed by a number of restaurants. Most were doing business, yet the Spanish places were full. I stood two-deep at the bar as streams of servers delivered armfuls of small plates. Bartenders climbed ladders with porrons, streaming 3-foot arcs of cava into women’s mouths. Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’ ” thumped the room.
Dali is a different kind of party. Sure, it can feel lodged in amber, stuck in an eternal 1993. But it also presents as a rebuke, a sort of sweet, democratic counter to its South End competitors, which can look like exercises — granted, very fun exercises — in studied, moneyed sleekness.
No corporate restaurant designer got her calculating mitts on Dali. The exterior is a daub of tranquillity: creamy purple splashed with boxes of impatiens. Stepping inside can feel like tumbling down a tunnel: to a time when new restaurants were more earnest, to a cuisine untouched by the rigors of now, to your younger, more innocent self. In other words, you’ve entered a nostalgia echo chamber.
Under low ceilings and low light, the insides run rococo and rampant. Spanish tile mounts the dusky bar. Walls drip. A jeweled fountain crawls with cherubs and trickles water. The flamenco dancers gracing the walls could be Elvis’s velvet sisters. Flowers everywhere have gone wild. It’s like Pedro Almodovar and Dali himself sat down to share a shot of garlic-laced helium.
Is this inspiration or kitsch? Throwback or the real thing or someone’s Technicolor fantasy of the real thing? All of it, I’d say. What’s important is that the setting creates ideal conditions for having a big, boisterous, unencumbered night.
Am I avoiding discussion of the food? Maybe a little. Before that, let’s return to the Spaniards. Mid-dinner, one of them winked at me across our table, then called over a waiter. He whispered in his ear. The waiter disappeared. Suddenly the lights were killed and three staffers appeared tableside, brandishing candelabras and a strobe light, bellowing “Happy Birthday.”
We toasted. Everyone around us toasted. We slugged back sangria. Everyone around us slugged back sangria. Was this maybe the best time I’d ever had in my life?
I said to my friend, “It’s your birthday?”
The Spaniards smiled knowing smiles among themselves. The party continued. Next visit, when I sat in the back room, most tables celebrated a birthday, accompanied by the same lights-off, candle-and-strobe clamor. By the fourth explosion of “Happy Birthday,” the joke was on me.
Alas, the food. It should be established that neither the tapas nor the cocktails here aspire to those in the South End. Where the menus there navigate a line that threads tradition, invention, and ambition, Dali’s has been untouched for years. Never at Dali, for example, would you find an uni bocadillo or a foie gras torchon with pistachio butter or Padron peppers sourced from Western Mass.
And yet there’s plenty at Dali to satisfy, even if the Spaniards don’t always agree. Yes, just about every tapa here can be quibbled over, yet that attitude can feel silly and pinched in such a spirited place.
The patatas bravas are well executed, the potatoes cut in triangles and traced with aioli that could use more bite. Its sister classic, tortilla espanola, is decent, though too eggy and sweet for some at our table. Everyone loves the Catalan spinach, lightly sautéed, laced with thin-sliced garlic and pine nuts. It disappears in seconds. Ditto for the mélange of woodsy mushrooms sautéed with garlic.
The seafood follows a similar erratic pattern. The gambas al ajillo — shrimp and garlic sautéed in olive oil — features small, bland shrimp. Yet the generous puddle of leftover oil is addictive, and especially with Dali’s delicious grilled bread. The chipirones, or stuffed squid, filled with chorizo and breadcrumbs, pack dense satisfaction, yet the squid ink sauce is room temperature and en route to coagulation.
As for Dali’s octopus, between an ill-timed trip to the restroom and many stabbing forks, I spear just a single measly piece. Lesson: Never leave a Spaniard alone with your seafood. Smirking, they claim it was forgettable. Apparently not forgettable enough.
Some of the vegetarian tapas are duds. The empanadillas de vegetales taste watery, recently unfrozen. The crepe stuffed with eggplant is the eating equivalent of staring at a blank screen. The deep-fried cauliflower puffs — basic, though deep-fried, thus hard not to eat.
The tapas featuring meat sound a familiar key. Bathe anything with blue Cabrales cheese and I’d be content. In Dali’s case, the sauce happily smothers pork tenderloin. Same goes for beef tenderloin, which is laden with an indulgent apricot-y cream-brandy sauce. But then the lamb meatballs are nothing special, and the beef short ribs in rioja sauce taste strangely like my mother’s New England pot roast (sorry, Ma).
The Spaniards have it in for the paella. They’re under the firm belief that the rice at Dali is long grain, not short. In other words, blasphemy. I find it flavorful. They volley that the rice should taste less like stock, more like its constituent parts, in this case clams, squid, mussels, shrimp.
The consistently robust service at Dali is best exemplified in the way our waiter delicately, ceremoniously serves striped bass cooked in salt, Cadiz-style. Like all of Dali’s waiters, he looks familiar — a face we remember from a decade ago. He is friendly and patient, chatting with us before he rushes off for yet another rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The desserts: all excellent. Plates of churros, served with warm chocolate sauce and dulce de leche, crisscross the room like paper airplanes. The flan and crema Catalana — old standbys — explain why we have old standbys.
As we exit, we pass Mario Leon, the dapper owner of Dali. He’s been staked out at a table near the bar since we can remember. Where he once drank Chartreuse, now he sips herbal tea. Still, his presence provides ballast and authenticity to what these days is a rare sort of dining joy.
415 Washington St., Somerville, 617-661-3254, www.dalirestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
PRICES: Tapas $4.50-$14. Plates $26-$40.
HOURS: Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., bar until 11:30 p.m. Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m., bar until 12:30 a.m.
NOISE LEVEL: Big and boisterous
WHAT TO ORDER: Catalan spinach, sautéed mushrooms, patatas bravas, pork tenderloin with blue Cabrales, beef tenderloin with cream-brandy sauce, churros, crema Catalana
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A previous version of this story misidentified the owner of Dali. His name is Mario Leon.