THE LITTLE EATERY IN SEVILLE has no seats and the crowd at the well-worn bar is shoulder to shoulder, two deep. Bit by bit, my husband and I weave our way to the front and manage, with barely adequate Spanish (bad accent, poor pronunciation, and so on) to politely greet the bartender — this is essential — and order glasses of local pours and a few tapas. With them come picos, the tiny, impossibly crunchy breadsticks we see everywhere and can never get enough of.
In minutes, we’re served thick slabs of tortilla Española, the famous potato-egg pie often compared to an Italian frittata, along with succulent black and green olives, and boquerones, the tangy, white anchovies cured in olive oil and vinegar. We love the bustle of the place and the brisk, attentive service. From our hard-won positions, we can watch the cooks in the busy kitchen.
The next night, we head back to the same bar and as we find a place to perch, the bartender approaches with two glasses. He’s also holding a bottle of the white wine I drank the night before and the sherry my husband had ordered. By the third night, he pours our drinks without asking and brings warm tortilla and other small plates. We’re old friends apparently.
This scenario has happened to us any number of times in Spain, partly because during our travels we make a point of revisiting the establishments we like, and also because many Spanish tabernas are family owned and genuinely delighted to welcome return customers. It taught us an important lesson about traveling here. White tablecloth dining rooms are convivial until late into the night. No one’s in a rush. The reservation system starts around 9 p.m., and you’ll rarely get your entree before 10. A fortnight of this can wear out anyone not used to the schedule. In self-defense, we often eat the main meal at lunch, just before the country virtually closes up for the midday break. In the early evening, we head straight for wine bars for a supper of tapas or larger servings (raciones) to share.
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WE TRAVEL TO SPAIN often, typically settling in a city first, then renting a car and getting on the road. We had a particularly nice trip one year driving from Madrid north to Bilbao, where some 22 years ago the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (guggenheim-bilbao.eus) revitalized a sleepy port in the country’s autonomous Basque region. We might fly into Madrid and drive south, or land in Málaga in the autonomous region of Andalusia, and motor north.
Málaga, Pablo Picasso’s birthplace, is along the Costa del Sol, where celebrities hang out. Away from the beaches near the center of the city sits the port where cruise ships dock, an area that was rebuilt with miles of walkways, palm trees, shops, and restaurants. The promenade along the water is striking, with wing-shaped concrete strips that look like sails as you approach them, forming a pergola to walk under. The brightly colored glass squares that crown the Centre Pompidou Malaga art museum (museosdemalaga.es) can be seen in the distance. At sunset, even the locals stroll here, men and women with their arms linked. It’s not far from the Museo Picasso Málaga (museopicassomalaga.org), where the artist’s work is displayed chronologically so you can understand the breadth of his career.
Andalusia still bears the imprint of the Moors, who came from North Africa in the eighth century. Their influence on the art, architecture, and foodways of the region is evident everywhere here, sometimes obvious — as in the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba (mezquita-catedraldecordoba.es), a grand mosque-cathedral — but more often subtle, think cakes soaked in sugar syrup, characteristic of Arabic sweets.
Because we usually fly in and out of Madrid, it’s the city where we settle into a routine. The place pulses with energy late into the night and it’s easy to walk everywhere. We usually stay at the Sercotel Gran Hotel Conde Duque (granhotelcondeduque.com) because we like its residential Chamberí neighborhood, away from the heart of tourist traffic, but near the museums and all kinds of cafes. It’s also close to a very large branch of El Corte Inglés (elcorteingles.com), a department store along the lines of Paris’s Le Bon Marché.
We typically start the night at Angelita Madrid (madrid-angelita.es), a trendy wine bar in the Chueca district in central Madrid, owned by brothers David and Mario Villalón. There’s a stunning cheese cart that greets you at the door and once at the bar, you’re looking at a massive wall of wines from all over Europe, an eclectic list that’s unmatched for sheer excitement by any we’ve seen here. We’ve learned to let the servers suggest pours and cheeses. Platters of cured meats and other tapas are all carefully curated and presented. The floor below houses an American-style cocktail bar.
The next stop is La Fisna (lafisna.com), in Madrid’s edgier Lavapiés neighborhood, which just happens to belong to David Villalón’s significant other, Delia Baeza. Hers is a small, crowded bar and wine shop with an impressive Cava list and unusual offerings emerging from the kitchen.
In many cafes, food is arrayed in stunning displays — rows of toasted bread topped with cured meats and cheese, clusters of shrimp, smoked salmon, baby eels, egg, tomatoes, and more. Regional styles vary, of course, and so do the names. In the north, these are pinchos or pintxos; other places they’re tostas.
More substantial tapas on a menu might include sauteed baby squid in a sauce made from its pan juices; cod — and all kinds of other croquettes; patatas bravas (crisp, spicy potatoes) sometimes sprinkled with the smoky paprika, pimentón, and served with aioli; octopus; and sausages simmered with beans.
Surprisingly, Spanish food hasn’t attained the status of its neighbors in France or even Italy, and neither has its olive oil. It may come as a surprise that Spain supplies the world with half its olive oil, according to the online industry publication Olive Oil Times. But that should come as no surprise to those who drive the highways here. Olive groves cover the southern hillsides. Round a bend and a new vista appears — olive trees as far as the eye can see.
Olive oil infuses the cuisine, of course, but the food is rarely overly oily. That tortilla in the Seville cafe is one example. The classic method is to cook potato slices in olive oil, then add eggs to the pan and cook until the mixture forms a thick omelet. The potatoes absorb the oil and it’s one of the things that makes the dish delicious, but somehow never greasy. At many cafes, tortillas the size and shape of small Parma cheeses have a place of honor on the bar. You see them set on cake stands, and though sometimes slices are warmed, they’re mostly served at room temperature.
Outside Córdoba’s Mezquita-Catedral is Bar Santos (facebook.com/grupopalacihost), a hole-in-the-wall cafe so famous for its tortillas that customers are lined up out the door and down the sidewalk. Your slice comes on a paper plate and you can take it outside and eat it in the shadow of the cathedral. It’s luscious with tender potatoes suspended in a silky, eggy cake. Eggs in Spain have yolks that are almost orange, giving tortillas a golden hue.
If you want to make the Bar Santos tortilla your appetizer before a grander lunch, the next stop might be Casa Pepe de la Judería (restaurantecasapepedelajuderia.com) where Córdoban art lines the walls and rooftop tables overlook the Mezquita-Catedral. The place is jammed with both locals and tourists, here for a menu that goes from bluefin tuna to suckling pig to custard tart. The waiter might ask you casually where you’re from and then present a plate at dessert with the restaurant’s name and your city, all written in icing. It’s hopelessly tacky and fun.
Olive oil is also an important seasoning in pan con tomate (bread with tomato), long slices of fresh or toasted bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil and covered with grated tomato flesh and coarse salt. A final drizzle of oil takes this favorite dish — common for breakfast or a midmorning snack — to another level. Also known as pan tumaca or pa amb tomàquet in Catalan, pan con tomate is even offered at highway rest stops, where it’s surprisingly good.
The bread under pan con tomate, like most of the loaves in Spain, has a crackly crust and soft crumb, and is not at all dense, unless it’s artisan-style and made with whole grains. It absorbs the tomatoes. At meals, you can use the bread to sop up the juices of briny oil from gambas a la plancha, unpeeled, whole grilled shrimp. You get the heads too! It’s delicious, messy eating. So is whole fish from local waters, which come on the bone and might be black bass, bream, or perch accompanied by a few roast potatoes.
Some of this fish goes into paella, which originated in Valencia. It isn’t a restaurant-friendly dish because it’s so labor intensive, but some establishments specialize in it. You’ll find good and bad versions all over menus if you dine in the heart of a tourist area. Here’s how to avoid the bad: When you see a throng of tourists walking along the main road, turn off anywhere and walk a few blocks. Always look for the neighborhood cafe.
We do this when we’re spending the day in the magnificent Museo Nacional del Prado (museodelprado.es) in Madrid. By lunchtime, we need air, so we get a bracelet that lets us back in (don’t just walk out of a museum here and decide they’ll honor your ticket a few hours later) and head in any direction away from the crowds.
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ON THE ROAD, when it’s time for lunch, we pull into any town we know nothing about and start looking around. It’s how we find Mesón Cervantes in Puerto Lapice (meson-cervantes.es). We are heading from Madrid to Andalusia on a Sunday and though almost everything in the town is shut tight, we hear noise from a courtyard and wander over. In a little cafe, tables are covered with red-checked tablecloths, families packed in tightly. We dine on roast chicken and potatoes, then a smooth, eggy flan; both tasted like someone’s abuela (grandma) was in the kitchen.
In these little places, there often is an abuela in the kitchen, with her son or daughter at the door. In Haro, in the northern La Rioja province, we drink the local reds with tapas at Bar Benigno, owned by a couple and their daughter, a typical place where you stand at the bar and discard your used paper napkins by dropping them on the floor (this is impossible for my husband and me to get used to).
We order the mixed salad and this one, like those on many menus, comes with tomatoes, tuna, olives, and onions. A slice of tortilla is garnished with a thick band of roasted green pepper. Everything is beautifully prepared. When we return the next day, they greet us with big smiles.
But by then we knew they would.