Our Eat Out editor visits the world's most famous restaurant, but likes Barcelona's tapas bars more.

Photograph: Gabriella Gershenson

This past spring, I had the dumb luck of grasping what some believe to be the foodie Holy Grail. I scored a table at El Bulli (Cala Montjoi; 972 15 04 57, in Roses, Spain, a small resort town on the Costa Brava—which is equivalent to walking into Per Se at 8pm on a Friday night and getting a table, times about a million. The trailblazing experimental restaurant, helmed by legendary chef Ferran Adria, takes reservation requests only one weekend a year, and according to Albert Adria, El Bulli’s pastry chef and Ferran’s brother, they receive more than 400,000 requests a year (for 8,000 slots). Far be it from me to spit in Lady Fortune’s eye: As soon as I heard there was a table with my name on it, I started planning my trip to the nearest metropolis, Barcelona.

I logged on to Craigslist and found a comfortable one-bedroom to rent in an up-and-coming neighborhood called the Raval (a somewhat gritty enclave for artists and immigrants) for only 545 euros for eight nights. Another bonus: It’s within walking distance of one of the world’s most celebrated markets, Mercato de La Boqueria (Plaça de la Boqueria, 93 318 25 84).

At the Boqueria market, thronged with vendors and shoppers, I washed down perfectly cooked cod with rosé cava from Bar Pinotxo (La Boqueria 466-467, La Rambla 89; 93 317 17 31), and lingered over fried jamon and eggs, a plate of wicked prawns grilled on the plancha and mayo-laden, spicy patatas bravas at El Quim de la Boqueria (La Boqueria 584, La Rambla 91; 93 301 98 10).

The nearby Mercat de Santa Caterina (16 Avinguda de Francesc Cambó, 93 319 5740) in the leafy, boutique-strewn neighborhood of El Born gives La Boqueria a run for its money. Housed in a newly refurbished building—with a rainbow-hued, rippled roof—it’s host to a head-spinning variety of produce, fish, fresh and cured meats, cheeses, dried fruits and nuts, plus several tapas bars of its own, including the buzzed-about Cuines Santa Caterina (Avda Francesc Cambó, 93 26 899 18), known for its seafood. The neighborhood is also the site of my favorite bar: El Xampanyet (C/Montacada 22, 93 319 70 03), a shoebox of a space where patrons drop fresh anchovies from Cantabria directly down their gullets (with a dose of cava).

As a stand-in for El Bulli, try the impeccably executed traditional tapas at Albert Adria’s vivacious eatery, Inopia (C/ Tamarit 104, 93 424 52 31). Although the cuisine does not bear even a passing resemblance to what’s cooking in Roses, this dining experience was among my most memorable. Come early (the place gets packed) and cozy up to the bar for exquisite sliced seared tuna, model fried artichokes, featherlight fried anchovies and the most professional service I experienced in Barcelona.

To sample solid renditions of regional classics, try the old-school Can Lluís (C/Cera 49, 93 441 11 87) in the Raval, where the retro interior is reminiscent of a Sinatra-era restaurant in Little Italy. We relished the bacalao (salt cod) salad, fideus (a comfort-food dish of short pasta with squid ink and house-made aioli) and a satiny crema Catalana (the Catalonian crème brûlée) redolent of cooked-sugar flavor.

Quimet y Quimet (C/Poeta Cabanyes 25, 93 442 31 42) a combination liquor store–tapas bar in Poble Sec, is excellent for between-meal snacks. Every bite is conjured from finely tuned combinations of choice emulsions and conservas (canned and preserved goods), many of which are also for sale (a pricey but worth-it jar of sun-dried cherry tomatoes and a can of mussels make superb gifts). Try their small cured salmon and sour-cream sandwiches—and their gin and tonic, which is a generous dose of Hendrick’s matched with Fever Tree tonic water and crisp slices of cucumber.

I shopped for less precious souvenirs in the basement of El Corte Inglés (Placa de Catalunya 14, Barcelona, Catalonia; 93 306 38 00), a Macy’s-like department store with a glorious supermarket roughly the size of a city block. You can score astoundingly inexpensive local cheeses, iberico ham, membrillo (quince paste) and other perishables, choice olive oils, smoked paprika and honey from Valencia so gorgeously packaged that I risked a suitcase full of sticky clothes to transport it back. (Tip: Pack your glass goods in diapers and newspaper.)

Though I ate 37 courses at the most famous avant-garde cookery of the 20th (and possibly 21st) century—and it was good (for the full report visit our blog, The Feed)—the tapas bars of Barcelona are what really stole my heart. When I return to Barcelona, I will happily skip the Michelin star experience and be content to while away hours at the bar, sipping cava at noon and ordering the dishes my fellow patrons are eating that look so damn good.


Eight nights, two people

Airfare: $1,100
Apartment rental: $790
+ Meals: $700

TOTAL: $2,590

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