As much as I enjoyed the Basque region, I was thankful to arrive in Barcelona late Saturday night. By nature I am a city person. I am happiest when I am surrounded by the chaos and diversity that a grand city like Barcelona
I am especially excited because I rented a small apartment here. To a cook, this of course means I have a kitchen (and I am thankful to report a nicely equiped kitchen, with a four-burner stove, an oven, plenty of pots and pans, cutlery and more staples than I ever expected, including extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar and sea salt). All for the price of a hotel room. From now on, I can't imagine travelling any other way.
The problem, however, with arriving in Barcelona on a Saturday night is all the great markets (like la Boqueria) and even the supermarkets are closed until Monday. Of course, once again, I didn't have reservations anywhere, so I set out to go to a place I knew well from my visit last year, Cal Pep (Plaça de les Olles, 8). Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at 10, the coveted counter seats were all full and the wait exceeded an hour. "No problem. I come again more later," I told the waiter (or something along those lines. I studied Catalan for just a couple of months, so it's undoubtedly incomprehensable (no fault of the excellent and recommended Teach Yourself Catalan book and CD).
Off to El Xampanyet (C/Montcada, 22), just a stone's throw away. I sidled up to the bar and happily passed my hour here drinking too many glasses of cava, the local sparkling wine, and snacking on anchovies, pa amb tomaquet (pronounced "pahm tumahca," and meaning toast rubbed with tomato and drizzled with olive oil), olives, potato chips and other salty treats that just made me thirstier.
At a little past 11, I trundled over to Cal Pep and only had to wait for the three old men at the end of the bar to polish off their coffee and cigarettes. Fifteen minutes and another cava later, I finally sat down and tucked into a plate of what the menu called "fifty-fifty," perfectly fried calamari and tiny fish, which the waiter called baby sardines (and I forgot to bring my camera!). Then I requested a plate of cigrons, espinacs i botifarra negre (chickpeas, spinach and blood sausage), because I craved spinach and, while in Spain, I jump at every opportunity to eat blood sausage (known in Castillian as morcilla).
The nice thing about eating at a counter or bar when you're alone is you get to share conversation, and in this case food and wine, with those sitting next to you. Although it's in every tourist guide, the simple food at Cal Pep is still well prepared and the convivial atmosphere is well worth the wait (and can be avoided if you come early or late). Echoing a sentiment voiced by Anthony Bourdain in a recent issue of Food & Wine, I wish there were more restaurants that had great counters with front row seats to the action in the kitchen. Although they are challenging from the cook's perspective (trust me, I'm speaking from experience here), they are fun for the diner and offer an unparalled opportunity for interaction between the diner and the cook.