Every time I visit a new country, a part of me changes. This spring break, I visited Barcelona. And I’ve come to remember the place as where I got used to drinking wine like water, having three-hour-long lunches, and enjoying food as an end in itself—in short, I learned how to be a hedonist. Two restaurant meals, in particular, became some of the most formative ones I’ve had.
My first meal in Spain was at an unassuming restaurant called El Pou De La Beleta in a town near the Barcelona airport called Sant Boi de Llobregat with three companions—including two local hosts.
When we first walk in, it looked empty. We quickly learned that that’s because nobody likes to sit on the first floor. As soon as we went upstairs, it was full and bustling with locals, with not a single tourist in sight—a telltale sign that we had found a good place.
This part of Spain is known for growing artichoke, and on this particular day the restaurant was running a special Menu the Degustacion centered around this vegetable. Every single dish had artichoke in it. Our hosts, being hospitable, ordered the tasting menu for each of us. I was expecting three courses—one from each category on the menu—to be served.
I was wrong. Every single thing written on the menu was served for each of us. In a three-hour span (we ate from 2pm to 5pm), we consumed 7 courses, 2 bottles of wine, 3 bottles of beer, and 3 shots of dessert liquor. We were told that this was how Spanish people ate when they were welcoming guests/discussing business/celebrating. Sometimes a lunch goes from 2pm to 9pm.
The food was down-to-earth, homely, and simple. The ingredients retained their original fragrance and any seasoning would have been redundant. Even the lettuce in the salad tasted different—purer and juicier than those in the US.
The entire restaurant felt at once classy and casual. Even though the presentation and taste of the food felt like Michelin level, the place was as unpretentious as your neighborhood coffeeshop. The waiter had a very cordial relationship with customers, chattering and bantering with our host every time he brought food over. There was a man eating alone while completing a crossword, colleagues chatting over jugs of house red wine that cost less than water, friends talking and eating with their hands, mopping up every last morsel of the food. This was a place that welcomed anyone and everyone. You can spend less than 15 euros on a standard-sized meal, or you can go all out with the 35-euro Menu the Degustacion and eat till you drop. It was at once homely and refined, fast and slow, hearty and elaborate.
At the conclusion of the feast, I felt a degree of satiation—both physically and emotionally—that I had never experienced before. And of course, in true Spanish fashion, I capped it off with a siesta to recover from the long flights. We had a very Spanish welcome.
The second meal was at Cal Pep, a famed Mediterranean tapas restaurant that was enthusiastically recommended by a friend. The restaurant opens at 7:30pm, and we arrived over half an hour early and waited on benches outside. At around 7:20pm, a line started to form outside the still-closed doors of the restaurants. We could hear American English and Japanese, among other languages.
There were around a dozen counter seats in total, just like all those Michelin-star sushi restaurants in Japan (there is also a private room at the back for large parties which can be reserved, but need to be booked days ahead). The moment we started eating, a line was already forming behind us.
Once we sat down, a waiter appeared behind the counter with a pen and a notebook, and looked at us with anticipation—without giving us any menu, as if he expects us to have already memorized what food is available at this famed establishment. Seeing our speechlessness, he commenced, “Recommended menu ok? Four tapas. Meat ok? Seafood ok?” I then realized he went on to do the same with every customer; this was the standard routine at the restaurant. There was no menu. No one orders dishes here. The only option was to take the waiter’s recommendation—unless you might see someone else eating a particular dish that looks appetizing, and you tell them “I want that.” This felt paternalistic, but as clueless tourists, we were more than happy to take a leap of faith and trust the waiters to make the best decisions for us.
We started with three vegetarian dishes: grilled green peppers, fried artichokes, and spinach with chickpeas mixed with minced pork (I’m trying to describe the dishes with my own words because there was no menu).
The artichokes were crispy beyond description and infused with the original flavor of the vegetable. The only thing added to the pepper was salt; the only thing that seems to have been used to cook the artichoke was oil.
The food is decidedly simple yet delicious. It felt like home cooking, especially because you see all of it gets made literally right in front of your eyes—how the calamari is fried, how the meat is grilled, how the pancake is cooked. All the ingredients of your food was on display—there was a lot of raw fish.
Regarding drink, we were only asked: White, red, or beer? Upon saying “white”, we were given two glasses of a fantastic house wine—and then the waiter proceeded to place a whole bottle in front of us.
For dessert, we were asked “Cream or chocolate?” Seeing that we were hesitant to decide, the waiter brought both. The chocolate dessert was a fantastic piece of chocolate sprinkled with salt sitting on top a piece of crispy bread dripping with olive oil.
If I had to describe the atmosphere of Cal Pep in two words, it would be “chop chop”. The waiter took our orders (or rather decided for us the orders) in less than two minutes, and food appeared on our table within ten minutes after that. We finished the whole meal, from appetizer to dessert, in less than an hour—and we were eating slowly. The line behind us constantly reminded us that we should be considerate and not hold on to our prized seats for too long.
One thing I was delighted by in Spain was that everything had very reasonable prices. If you want to be a foodie without being extravagant, Barcelona should be your next destination. Our 35-euro tasting menu was considered luxurious. Most restaurants have tasting menus (complete with 3 courses) that cost between 12 to 18 euros per person.
Another thing was how important drinking culture is to Spanish people. In every restaurant that I went to, I did not see a single table that did not have wine on it. In the US, I only ordered wine when it was a slightly fancy occasion or when I was in an exuberant mood. In Spain, ordering wine felt like ordering water. It’s just something you do. We usually go with the house wine (which usually costs less than 4 euros per glass), and we have not been disappointed even once.
I’m usually an intense traveller. I like to compartmentalize my days and make the most of every minute. But in Spain, I learned to relax, temporarily forget the drown my worries with superb wine, and feel the real happiness that good food can bring.