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
Chef Ashlee Aubin (also of Wood) hit on something long missing Chicago—elegant Spanish food that’s definitely not tapas. At Salero, you order off a menu with appetizers, entrées and desserts, which is refreshing, considering America is dining in the age of shared plates. That difference is doubly thrilling, since it means you get—all to yourself—an entrée-sized portion of potato confit, topped with a gleaming egg and accompanied by mushrooms and a dreamy slab of melted Spanish cheese. Other items on the menu—perfectly textured grilled octopus tentacles, seafood bathing in a sherry-saffron broth, silky flan capped with blood orange gelée—just further confirm how good this Midwest slice of Spain really is.
For a taste of Spain in Oakland, Duende is the name that rolls off of most Bay area residents’ tongues. The neighborhood restaurant in Oakland’s Uptown district boasts a spacious interior, one wall lined with bottles of wine while the other sports a brightly colored, geometric design. But you’ll likely be paying more attention to the food than the ambience. A hearty tapas menu includes classic items like crispy patatas bravas, pressed melons with air-cured beef and padrones fritatas, while larger dishes feature paella, fideua and skirt steak. Pair your meal with one of Duende’s cocktails or Spanish wines, including 15 sherries by the glass.
Living up to a name like The Iberian Pig is easy enough: just import lots and lots of world-class jamón. But of course Federico Castellucci does much, much more than that to win the hearts and minds of Atlantans who cozy up in his Decatur date-night haunt, lined with wine racks and glowing like a wall-to-wall hearth in brown-and-red tones. Though its porcine possibilities are endless—blood sausage on toast with wild mushrooms, melt-in-your-mouth pork cheeks braised in a cast-iron skillet beneath a poached egg and a dollop of black-truffle spread—the seasonal repertoire proves as diverse as it does deeply soulful, covering rabbit empanadas, boar meatballs and vegetarian delights like calçot-inspired grilled spring onions drizzled with Sherry in romesco sauce. Uniquely suited cocktails skew dark and decadent with brown spirits and bitters. And while Castellucci’s newer, slicker Basque-influenced venture Cooks & Soldiers warrants celebration in its own right, the Pig’s foie gras French toast—oozing with mascarpone and drenched in barrel-aged syrup—inspires next-level loyalty, which the gracious service only cements.
Here’s the exception to just about every rule on this list. Noriega’s isn’t a Spanish restaurant per se: it’s the dining room of a fin-de-siècle boardinghouse for Bakersfield’s sheep-raising Basque community. And the 2011 winner of the James Beard America’s Classic Award hasn’t changed much in the century-plus since it began serving set menus, family-style, at long banquet tables three times a day. Its ambiance is that there is no ambience—other, that is, than the festive air that’s fueled by Picon punch at the bar and/or the wine that comes with every meal (breakfast included). As inhibitions fade with the booze, says co-owner Linda Elizalde-McCoy, “the best tip I have for new customers would be to pace yourself, because there are several courses.” She isn’t kidding. Working primarily from her grandmother’s recipes, the kitchen turns out such a mountain of dishes you practically have to be a sheepherder yourself to climb it: bread and soup and salad and pickled tongue and blue cheese and then some, followed, depending on the day, by beef brisket and liver with onions or omelets and leg of lamb or oxtail stew and fried chicken. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Paul Narvaez
Mark and Liz Mendez, both formerly of Carnivale, escape the trappings of their former employer with this quiet spot. Vera is a wine bar, so drink up—Liz has assembled an excellent sherry program, and all the servers can direct you toward a glass. Mark handles food, and we’re fans of the hearty paella, perfectly seasoned meatballs and the generous cheese and charcuterie plate. A new daytime menu features coffee and tea paired with sherry, plus snacks like doughnuts, English muffins and tortilla española.
The lone stateside outpost for a Madrid-based restaurant group is, name notwithstanding, no humble taberna. Sumptuously decorated in high European style—ruby-red walls, white linens, chandeliers, oil paintings—La Taberna del Alabardero has been preparing edible works of art to match the atmosphere for 27 years and counting; in an era of rampant informality, the old-school show is a rare pleasure. That’s not to say the experience is entirely traditional: on the contrary, from prawn hamburgers on squid ink-tinted buns to suckling pig in peach gravy and desserts involving dry ice or chocolate sculpture, it has a distinct edge. But the kind of textbook feast that starts with an order of exquisite jamón iberico de bellota and patatas bravas, followed by the paella Valenciana with rabbit, chicken and seafood and, finally, crema catalana—all paired with fine Spanish wine, of course—is one on which the most romantic year-in-year-out rituals are founded.
See the best Spanish restaurants by city
Make like a Spaniard with small plates, paella, wine and more at the best Spanish restaurants NYC has to offer
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Share a lusty spread of Spanish small plates at these bustling tapas restaurants in New York City
Graze on traditional tapas or new twists on the theme at the city’s prime places for Spanish small plates