Independent from Barcelona until 1897, the neighbourhood of Gracia has always felt somewhat separate from the rest of the city, steadfastly retaining the village-y vibe established by migrants moving in from the countryside in search of work in the first half of the nineteenth century. With them came exceptional produce, bountiful markets, artisan know-how and a strong sense of identity that has remained characteristic of the area ever since.
If you want home-grown fashion, handcrafted homewares, organic rye bread, or a locally brewed ale – look out for the flowery hoppiness of IPA De La Vila by La Rovira – look no further. Even today residents proudly declare they don’t come from Barcelona, but from Gracia, one of the most vehemently Catalan neighbourhoods in town. Despite which it has always welcomed outsiders, and these days as well as the yummy-mummy set it’s a cultural melting pot, both in terms of the people who live there and its food. Nepalese, Korean and Ethiopian restaurants happily co-exist with hole-in-the-wall ‘delis’ selling meatballs and cooked beans, and a traditional aperitif culture where the dining masses spill onto sunny plazas to throw back salty anchovies with sweet vermut (vermouth) before lunch. You’ll find craft beer pubs, artisan Mexican tortilla factories, cult coffee roasters and anthropological food tours, all of it run by postmodern food lovers looking for deeper meaning in how and what they consume.
Not just a bar, but an entire movement for the nocturnal beer-loving locavore, Cara B is a cosy little place with a bar hewn of ancient cassette tapes, vinyl fixtures on the beer taps and a carpeted stage for the live bands that rock out here most nights. It’s a rare bird in a city that lacks a solid local live music scene, especially one that combines it with a passion for real ale. Two barrels of locally crafted brews rotate regularly, ensuring there’s always something interesting on tap. Twenty or so bottled beers, from micro-producers in Catalonia to big producers across the rest of Europe, vie for space in the fridge, and most travel-worthy of all, Cara B joined forces with nearby brewery Guineu three years ago to create their own limited- edition beer every year for the Gracia Festival in August. It’s been so successful that folk have been known to cross oceans just to get a sip, but if high-summer heat and festival crowds bring you out in hives, stop by any old time for a taste of house favourite La Calabera, which hails from the Catalan north.
You can barely move in Barcelona these days for food tours, with little to distinguish between them. Not so if you sign up with Devour, who have made it their goal to mix food, culture and history while supporting family-run businesses, many of which have been operating for generations. Steering visitors away from the obvious, they’ll introduce you to the people, producers and venues behind the barrio’s best-kept culinary secrets – starting at the Pastelería Ideal, which opened in 1919 and is still using its original kit to turn out stellar cakes and pastries. You get the chance to meet the Fabregas family at the Mercat de l'Abaceria Central, who make their own embutidos (cured sausages) to a secret recipe; taste grassy olive oil at Oli Sal; master the perfect pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with garlic and tomato) at L’Anxoveta; pull up a stool at Jose’s four-seater bar for escalivada (roasted vegetable salad) and romesco (hazelnut and red pepper sauce); swing by Mostapha’s legendary Syrian pastry shop – he came here on holiday countless years ago and never left – and finally come to rest at Cal Pep where, if you’re lucky, a game old boy will sing you a farewell Catalan folk song.
Here lies everything that makes Gracia great in microcosm. A team of cooks pitch up in town from a restaurant named La Cava de Tàrrega, from the remotest corner of Lleida province and celebrated for its excellent regional cuisine. They open what looks like little more than a shack beneath a small copse of palms and pines overlooking a broad, shallow sheet of water where kids splash in the summer while parents idle in the shade. Then they knock you sideways with platters of Catalunya’s finest products including a creamy Tou dels Til.lers cheese and unpretentious, authentic Catalan dishes so good and keenly priced it leaves you speechless.
Imagine if you will, a slice of porcine heaven in the shape of pork cheeks slowly braised in vi ranci (fortified wine) until meltingly tender, or confit of pork belly with crackling that snaps like the thinnest glass, classics like patatas bravas up-cycled with just-sweet-enough quince infused allioli and chocolate, olive oil and salt on gossamer thin toast. Trust us, this works.
It took a while for the coffee craze to hit Barcelona, but now it’s the city’s latest obsession, with small-scale independent cafés such as Onna leading the way. From the ‘brew station’ – it doesn’t have anything as pedestrian as a counter bar – chemex, V60 drippers, aeropress and a coffee siphon are proffered among the flat whites, cold brews and iced doppios. Cold coffee, we are assured, is the way of the future, as is combining bean with leaf, so we’re expecting the range of specialty teas that currently include Pu-her, Sencha and chai to expand exponentially. Although many take their coffee to go, and there is a rather gloomy room at the back that doubles as a workspace for students attached to laptops, the main café is a sunny, light-filled space with a couple of stand-up tables on the street where you’ll find traditionalists nursing old-fashioned cortados and con leches. That may be so, but even they now specify the blend from an oft-changing roster of beans roasted daily in house and brewed with lashings of love.