If, as we observed in our roundup of the best French restaurants in America, contemporary American cuisine has its roots in France, its future may belong to Spain. It was the Spanish, after all, who introduced us to the now-commonplace notion of small plates; it was they who mainly led the way in popularizing the techniques of molecular gastronomy so widespread today. (A single glance at the nation’s toughest restaurant reservations or the best restaurants in New York, L.A., Chicago and beyond goes to show the depth and breadth of the Spanish influence.) And our 16 picks for the best Spanish restaurants in America—be they the most rustic of tapas bars or pioneering of avant-garde temples—make that future look exceptionally bright.
Best Spanish restaurants in America
We’re not saying you should visit only one José Andrés restaurant in your lifetime. But if you do, make it the one that actually offers a once-in-a-lifetime, capital-E—or rather É—experience. Tucked within Jaleo, the living legend’s splashy fixture at the Cosmopolitan, é is an eight-seat chef’s counter for which reservations must be made three months in advance and confirmed by a golden ticket in the mail. Throughout the 20-plus-course, interactive prix fixe tasting, you’ll see things you’ve never seen before—shape-shifting, gravity-defying, carnivalesque things involving bags and boxes and vases. You’ll taste things you’ll never taste again: a sphere of sparkling sangria that liquefies in your mouth, say, or a caviar-filled cup made of flash-frozen almonds, or an “empanada” of foie gras and corn nuts in a cotton-candy shell. It may damage your wallet, but unless you’ve had years of practice serving wine with sea cucumber or jellied egg yolks, we suggest you take the beverage-pairing plunge as well.
Cúrate, Asheville, NC
Highlighting stints with none other than José Andrés and Ferran Adrià, Cúrate chef-partner Katie Button’s résumé may be deadly serious, but her family-run destination in Asheville is as warm and charming as her name is cute. Button recommends that the guests who belly up to the long tiled bar overlooking the kitchen put themselves in their servers’ hands when it comes to dish selection: “It’s a lot of fun and you end up trying and enjoying things you might never typically order.” Perhaps you’ll be treated to the chilled almond-garlic soup called ajoblanco and béchamel-smothered canelones de carne mixta; or perhaps meltingly translucent slices of smoked lardo on toast and stunning rossejat negrowith squid ink-tinted fideos. You’ll certainly want some wine; the bottle prices are reasonable enough to throw in a copita of fine Sherry too. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to cap it all off with the eye-popping, off-menu pièce de résistance that is pañuelo de chocolate.Photograph: Courtesy Cúrate/Evan Sung
For all its dynamism, Toro really hasn’t changed much in the decade since it opened, blowing the roof off of Boston’s then-gentrifying South End. The rustic cubbyhole of a storefront it occupies is as jam-packed and convivial as ever with revelers passing porróns of Cava around; day-one staples like grilled street corn and quince-glazed duck drumsticks are still breaking the hearts of every tapas virgin who wanders in unawares. (And speaking of hearts, ours still belong to the corazón, in whatever glorious form it appears, as well as the beloved uni bocadillo.) Of course, its success has wrought changes aplenty for chef-partners Jamie Bissonette and Ken Oringer, who’ve gone on to open an offshoot in New York (not to mention an equally celebrated South End trattoria, Coppa). But regulars know that—even as they expect the unexpected from Toro’s blackboard specials (wild boar-stuffed squid, sweetbread pâté, sautéed cockscombs)—they can count on the still-strapping flagship to bring sexy back night after night.
When smoke.oil.salt landed in back in 2014, Los Angeles breathed a sigh of relief: Finally, good tapas in the city! Split into two rooms with brick walls and dark furniture, smoke.oil.salt feels warm without being cramped: on one side, a chef’s counter circles around the stove; on the other side, a large communal table and a smaller wine bar gives the sense that it is all about community here. And tapas is all about community: share a bite here, a bite there, and the meal soon becomes a patchwork of (hopefully) great bites and company. A cucumber gazpacho is grand in the summer, all smooth texture and a dollop of light cream; and the pa amb tomaca, a Catalan tomato toast with house-made red and white sausage, stands out among the starters. The parade of hits keeps coming at the heavier end of the menu (a squid ink pasta with mussels and shrimp that’s fabulously fishy; quail atop a bowl of black lentils and chickpeas) all the way through to dessert (yes, they have the requisite Catalan custard). Los Angeles has one word for this flavorful new(ish)comer: gracias.
Offal-loving partner Mario Batali and protégée Andy Nusser (Babbo, Po) broke new ground at Gramercy Park’s Casa Mono by serving dishes that less-adventurous tapas restaurants seem to shy away from: think pig ears with chilaquiles and excellent fried sweetbreads in an almond-flour batter. For non-organ lovers, there's a juicy skirt steak atop romesco sauce and the iconic fried duck egg. A section of the menu is called “Whole organic animals”—the restaurant buys its various beasts whole, then spreads their bits across the always innovative menu. The open kitchen lends a fun and fiery atmosphere to the dining room, which is adorned with mosaic tile floors and lined with wine bottles. And speaking of those bottles, Casa Mono continues to house one of the most impressive collections of Spanish wines you’ll find in the Northeast. Sherry lovers, be warned: You may never want to leave.
Inspired by the flavors of Barcelona, Contigo is one of San Francisco’s premiere Spanish and Catalan restaurants, dishing out rustic cuisine in an eco-friendly setting since 2009. Contigo’s walls are made from salvaged 100-year-old redwoods—eco-friendly and, frankly, gorgeous—while the water glasses are recycled glass bottles. And the food? A curated selection of Spanish hams is a big draw, as is the daily Catalan flatbreads. Most of the dishes range from medium to large in size, and expertly marry California locavore freshness with powerful Iberian flavors—local Dungeness crab roasted in Contigo’s wood oven with black pepper, paprika, garlic and butter; Monterey squid with chorizo, artichokes and aioli on a bed of rice. The duo behind Contigo—chef Brett Emerson and wife Elan—recently opened Barceloneto in Santa Cruz.
Bright and breezy and bursting with alegría de vivir, Ataula embodies the prodigious talent and energy of the team of young guns behind it—starting with second-generation chef José Chesa, whose menu reveals both his native-born fluency in Spanish cuisine and the locavore sensibilities of his adopted hometown. Between such signatures as the creamiest of salt-cod fritters and xuixos (a sort of custard-filled cross between xurros, aka churros, and sfogliatelle) is a seasonal bounty of delightful surprises: funky house-preserved tuna and mushrooms with pickled onions; braised-oxtail ravioli brightened by piquillos, sunchokes and caramelized pineapple; and, if you’re lucky, the off-menu cult favorite of croquettes stuffed with true jamón ibérico. Craft cocktails showcase cool Spanish spirits, fortified wines and liqueurs, while Basque cider’s a neat alternative treat. With wife Cristina Baéz and their partner Emily Metivier, Chesa has parlayed his success into two hot new projects—the sleeker, more upscale Chesa and a xurreria called 180—but Portlanders aren’t about to stop heeding the call to feast that Ataula literally emits (the name paraphrases as “come to the table”).
The setting says it all. BCN occupies a nearly century-old Montrose home in which an eggshell-and-beige color scheme, soft lighting and crisp linens form an intimate gallery for works by Picasso, Miró and Dalí—as well as a stage on which Barcelona-born chef Luis Roger must therefore compete with the masters. The onetime Ferran Adrià intern and five-star resort chef is doing just that. Precision is his hallmark: pure, clear flavors and meticulous compositions distinguish everything from the signature “stew” of lobster and rice in coral roe-infused cream to rare-grilled duck breast bathed in a sauce of Idiazábal cheese, with balsamic reduction and quince paste for contrast. (Roger is also an accomplished pastry chef, so dessert is non-negotiable.) And the bar follows suit with its beautifully presented gin-and-tonics, turning your average porch pounder into something truly special. Under the rarified circumstances, the all-Spanish wine list is shockingly reasonable (though the trophies it does boast would be well worth the splurge).
Chef Alexandra Raij celebrates the cuisine of Spain’s Basque region at this spartan tapas spot. Though it lacks the bustle of Raij’s previous projects (Tia Pol, El Quinto Pino), her sprawling menu is stuffed full of inspiring Iberian fare. Instead of the standard-issue tapas most American diners are used to, you’ll find more adventurous fare, such as breaded-and-fried tongue cutlets; squid cut into wispy strands with sweet onions and pine nuts; and fries with cod-roe mayonnaise. A big bonus, especially for a buzzy Manhattan restaurant, is that on most nights, a small party can get in with little wait. And we recommend trying to nab one of the few seats at the bar—they’re the most lively and sociable seats in the house.
Any old celebrity chef can build a restaurant empire. Very few can run one as smoothly as Jose Garces. Wood-filled and burnished by lantern light, his handsome Old City flagship remains the unshakeable foundation on which his fame was founded. No doubt its endurance reflects, first and foremost, the kitchen’s fealty to and mastery of the classics: though the menu takes seasonal twists and creative turns here and there, it’s grounded in the ultra-robust likes of lamb meatballs, crab-stuffed piquillos and roast pork with white beans. Even luxuries like lobster and truffles get the rustic treatment in hearty paellas or on flatbreads. As for booze, far be it from us to suggest you cast aside the gorgeous list of wines by the bottle, but in sangría veritas. And here’s some truth we hope you swine lovers can even handle: twice a year, Amada (which has a New York sibling, by the by) hosts a suckling-pig banquet for the memory books.