When Barcelona’s renowned El Barri group closed its entire portfolio of high-end restaurants in April 2021— including Tickets, Pakta, and Bodega 1900 — there was disbelief. Yes, the pandemic had been brutal, particularly in Spain, but surely if anyone could make it through, it would be acclaimed chef Albert Adrià — brother to El Bulli’s Ferran — and his celebrity restaurateur collaborators, the Iglesias brothers. Together they had all the money, fame, and experience one would think necessary, but none of it was enough. The El Barri group declared bankruptcy in the spring of 2021 with debts totalling more than 8 million euros.
While COVID-19 restrictions hit Spain’s entire restaurant industry hard, the El Barri group was its highest-profile casualty. Meals had hovered on average around 100 euros ($120) per person, meaning by and large, residents weren’t the ones booking up tables months ahead — it was moneyed visitors navigating extravagant online reservation queues for a chance to taste (and Instagram) the Adrià magic. That financial lifeline withered overnight when the pandemic hit. Initial travel restrictions prohibited all non-Spanish residents, including other Europeans, from entering the country, and the spendiest foreign visitors of all — Americans — were completely locked out until June 2021.
But the reality is, a restaurant scene buoyed by incessant waves of reliably hungry tourists is a restaurant scene that’s pretty dull. The Born and Gothic parts of town — central, walkable areas favored by tourists — have long been flush with mediocre restaurants relying on cheaply made, generic versions of paellas, bravas, and croquetes. As travelers and their vacation-sized dining budgets disappeared, the city saw mass closures of some of these tourist-leaning eateries, a trend that stretched throughout the city’s historic core.
As these tourist-reliant businesses flagged, Barcelona’s food scene, and the city itself, looked inward. A new appreciation began to form for restaurants that had always focused their efforts on courting local patrons. With every small easing of baffling and zigzagging regulations, city residents flooded back into the restaurants they loved. By spring 2021, the Barcelona Restaurant Association reported nearly 30 percent of all its member restaurants had closed for good. While this unfortunately included a number of beloved stalwarts, it cleared out many of the old tourist traps, too, leaving in their place a rare opening for a new kind of independent Barcelona restaurant to move in — something that would have been nearly impossible to pull off in central Barcelona pre-pandemic. Hence small, spirited places like Maleducat (which means “rude”), founded by three friends who are as irreverent and innovative as their menu; or Amaica, with traditional Catalan dishes cooked by Basque chef-owner Carlos Salvador. “Many new opportunities appeared during the pandemic,” says Salvador. “Our chance came when a small space with a terrace became available, which was ideal since it allowed us to stay open during the changing restrictions. We are very happy with how it’s gone.”
“The prices around here were always prohibitively high,”says Manuel Nuñez, the chef and co-owner of pescatarian restaurant Besta, which opened in central Barcelona neighborhood of Eixample in February 2021. In addition to rent, new restaurants in Barcelona must pay a traspaso, or fee, to the outgoing tenant in exchange for their cafe license: In the heart of Barcelona, traspasos traditionally cost anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000 euros ($117,000 to $466,000). Before COVID, high traspasos and rents were the two main obstacles for people like Nuñez trying to open new food businesses. But when the pandemic swept in, and then lingered, many departing restaurateurs lowered the asking price for their traspaso, while landlords simultaneously reduced rents to coax tenants. By the end of 2020, Nuñez was able to negotiate a traspaso far lower than he’d been offered in previous years, which allowed him, and others like him who had been historically priced out, to gain a rare foothold in the central Barcelona restaurant scene.
To stay afloat in this brutal economic landscape, these new restaurants had to maintain a steady local customer base. The locals of Barcelona are made up of Catalan, Basque, and other Spanish nationals as well as international expats who have chosen to make Barcelona their permanent home. At Besta, Nuñez and partner Carlos Ramón consciously created a menu that catered to those diners, serving niche ingredients not often seen on tourist menus, like fresh scallops from Galicia (instead of imported ones from Scotland) and inventive cocktails using locally distilled spirits. Residents appreciated the restaurant’s dedication to the region, and in turn, rewarded it with repeat business.
Chef Augusto Mayer of the new restaurant Proper in El Born credits local diners as “the only reason we were able to remain open.” Originally conceived as a Barcelona version of a steakhouse Mayer had shuttered in Buenos Aires, Proper debuted in July 2020. “We had assumed that Barcelona was a very cosmopolitan and tourist-heavy city, and that we would have an international dining public,” says Mayer. “But the pandemic turned that into an illusion.” So he decided to focus on what the pandemic residents of Barcelona wanted, instead: comfort food, something they wouldn’t be making in confinement at home. With a hand-built wood-fired oven at its heart, Proper reinvented itself as a pizzeria. Its sourdough pizza crust gained the new restaurant an enthusiastic local audience. “We’re very thankful locals liked our offerings,” says Mayer.
Pre-pandemic, it’d have been easy to miss the small Catalan eatery known as Fonda Pepa in the trendy tourist neighborhood of Gràcia. It’s nothing flashy, and tastes might lean traditional for a first-time tourist (the cap i pota, or head-and-foot stew, is a favorite), but this is precisely the kind of insider Catalan cooking that locals turned to for comfort in 2020. That, plus the warm welcome of owner Pedro Baño Fernández and the menu’s devotion to sourcing Catalan ingredients — including canyuts (a kind of razor clam) from the Delta de l’Ebre, a large wetland 110 miles south — encouraged a culture of regulars, something that might have seemed far-fetched for a place like this not long ago.
Local ingredients are the foundation of the menu at Fat Barbies barbecue, too, where smoky pork ribs and Hasselback potatoes appeal to Spaniards looking for something other than pa amb tomàquet. (Not many tourists come to Spain to eat South American barbecue.) The restaurant had been open for more than a year when the pandemic hit, and suddenly “it felt like we were opening a new restaurant every couple of weeks,” says chef-owner Juancho Martini. He quickly moved to a delivery format, adjusting the menu to feature sandwiches that travel better, bottling the restaurant’s cocktails, and selling off pantry items to neighbors in need of groceries. While profits from delivery were negligible, the platforms themselves ultimately doubled as advertising vehicles, drawing in an entirely new and even bigger customer base. “When we were allowed to start receiving customers again, there were a lot of new faces that told us that they came to know us because they had ordered delivery during the shutdown,” says Martini. This boon to business, as well as the low cost of a traspaso, allowed the Fat Barbies team to open a second restaurant, the vegan Fat Veggies, in spring 2021.
Granted, while smart pivots and local-leaning offerings helped draw them in, Barcelona residents were something of a captive audience. Even as COVID-related dining restrictions yo-yoed — takeaway only one day; decreased occupancy another — residents of Barcelona were prohibited from leaving the city limits. That meant the slew of urbanites who would normally flee the city on weekends couldn’t, and suddenly the historically slow Saturday and Sunday business was as busy as midweek. And while today the city once again has no shortage of month-long reservation lists and hundred-plus-euro tasting menus, there remains a robust local market for the ambitious, independent food folk who had long been waiting in the wings, and for the loyal little guys who’d been there, dutifully cooking for their neighbors, all along.
Of the El Barri empire, only Bodega 1900 remains in operation, renamed Bodega Lito and now owned by the former maitre d’, Ángel. It was always the most accessible of the portfolio, a vermuteria that you could walk into without a reservation if you went early or late. The kind of place that appeals to both locals and tourists — both of which you’ll find dining there side by side today.
Suzy Taher is a Barcelona-based writer and founder of the blog Foodie in Barcelona. Gerard Moral is a Barcelona born and based photographer specializing in portrait, travel, and lifestyle photography.