As told to Elaine Glusac
A tranquil moment at the Plaza Real in the Gothic Quarter
OUR GUIDE, RYAN POLI: Chef/partner, Tavernita
Poli has worked in Spain twice—in 2003 and 2007—and spent most of the second stint in Barcelona, his favorite food city in the country.
GO NOW: May offers high temperatures in the 70s and a chance to catch the perennially strong soccer team FC Barcelona. The city is also a popular cruise port and the home base for several ships, including the new Carnival Breeze.
Barcelona appeals to a younger generation. It has incredible architecture. It’s more fashionable than other cities in the country. And it’s easy to get around—you can make your way around the city on foot, but the trains are convenient too. The mild weather reminds me of Southern California, but Barcelona also offers amazing restaurants, design, and culture. The streets are clean and the people are friendly—like Chicago. I really enjoy walking along the beach to clear my head and exploring the pedestrian corridor of Las Ramblas. You can turn down all these little alleys with great boutiques and gelato shops. When you’re in Barcelona, don’t try to do too much. Step back once in a while and just sit down.
Over the years, I have fallen in love with the communal style of eating and the energy you get from the restaurants. The camaraderie between chefs is unbelievable. They’re all friends; they all share recipes. The French don’t share. But in Spain it’s, “Here is my recipe book; if you have any questions, let me know.” Another thing I like about Barcelona is it’s not stuffy. You can eat at a Michelin restaurant in jeans and tennis shoes.
Ten of us from Tavernita traveled to Barcelona last May and couldn’t get a reservation at Tickets, the new restaurant from Ferran Adrià, the man behind El Bulli, and his brother, Albert. So we went to their bar next door and ended up talking to the bartender about the fact that we were visiting from Chicago to research our new restaurant. He found out I’d worked for Spanish chefs, including Joan Roca and Martín Berasategui, and all of a sudden Albert showed up. When we finished our drinks, Albert came back and said he had a table ready—for all ten of us. We were just dying. But that’s Barcelona. You never know what will happen next.
Photograph: (Gothic Quarter) Dorothea Schmid/Laif/Redux
(Left) Gaudí’s Sagrada Família; (top right) a whimsical dish at Tickets; (bottom right) a room at Eurostars Cristal Palace
RYAN POLI’S BARCELONA ADDRESS BOOK
The Boqueria Market
For an ocean view, I recommend Hesperia del Mar (Espronceda 6, 34-93-502-97-00, hesperia.es; doubles from $130), although the waterfront is a little out of the way. I prefer to stay in the Ramblas area so that when you step outside you’re where you want to be. Both the Hesperia Metropol (Ample 31, 34-93-310-51-00, hesperia.es; doubles from $142) and Eurostars Cristal Palace (Diputació 257, 34-93-393-09-70, eurostarscristalpalace.com; doubles from $209) are well priced and in the center of things.
EAT AND DRINK
At Moo in the Hotel Omm (Rosselló 265; 34-93-445-40-00, hotelomm.es), I ate edible terroir and desserts based on perfumes—weird, but it worked. At Alkimia (Calle Indústria 79; 34-93-207-61-15, alkimia.cat), Jordi Vilà pushes forward Catalonian dishes with some modern thinking. 3 Food People & Music (Carrer de Còrsega 231; 34-93-419-33-55, 3fpm.com) is a sexy little tapas restaurant with elevated presentations. At El Quim de la Boqueria in the Boqueria Market (Rambla 91; 34-93-301-98-10), you will wait for a spot at the counter, but the cuttlefish with fried egg is worth it. Tickets (Avinguda Paral•lel 164; ticketsbar.es) is El Bulli–style fun applied to tapas; a little bonsai tree came to the table with cotton candy tangled in its branches. The Adriàs’ next-door bar, 41˚, is a slightly easier reservation.
Park Güell (at Carrer d’Olot), designed by Antoni Gaudí, is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, bathe in the sun, read a book, or people-watch. Once you’ve been there, you’ll be able to pick out Gaudí buildings as you walk around Barcelona. Plan to spend at least half a day at his awe-inspiring Sagrada Família (Calle Mallorca 401; 34-93-207-30-31, sagradafamilia.cat); take the tour of the church and make sure to go up to the roof. In the afternoon, walk up Las Ramblas and sit in Plaza Catalonia to soak everything in. Barcelona’s leisure beaches were built for the 1992 Olympics and there are better ones in Spain, but what I like about them are the little cafés. Order a clara: It’s half lemon soda, half beer, and super refreshing on a hot day.
You could spend days wandering around the Boqueria Market (Rambla 91; 34-93-318-25-84, boqueria.info), which has every kind of food stall you can think of, from fresh seafood and olive oil to candy. Vila Viniteca (Agullers 7-9; 34-93-310-19-56, vilaviniteca.es) is the number one shop in Barcelona for wine, hams, and specialty foods. Carrer de la Riera Baixa, a single block in the El Raval neighborhood, is devoted almost entirely to funky secondhand shops; it’s one of the best spots in the city for vintage and retro clothing. In the Gothic Quarter, Les Bambes del Gatuqui (Comtessa de Sobradiel 1; lesbambesdelgatuqui.blogspot.com) is great for vintage accessories.
Photography: (Sagrada Família) irabell/istockphoto; (Tickets) Sergi Vicente Puig; (Boqueria Market) Gunnar Knechtel/Die Zeit/Laif/Redux