I first visited Spain in 2001, and I had no idea where to eat in Barcelona. I also had no clue how to navigate a city that seemed bewilderingly alien. France, where I was based for the year, already struck me as foreign despite being a Montrealer who spoke French. The fact remained that it was my first time away from Canada on my own, and even the little details and the inherent formality in my fellow students stood out as confusing.
Spain was far more casual. Dining hours were shifted, with lunch served late and dinner even later. During my first of several visits to Barcelona, I struck up a conversation with a man at a cafe after he ordered in melodious, smooth Spanish. Amazed, I asked him how he had learned to speak so fluently. It never occurred to me that I could do the same. “Nothing is stopping you!” he said, decades ahead of me in confidence. Me, with my wide eyes and confusion about why eggs were kept out of the fridge, stared at him blankly. “You just decide to learn, and you take the time.” And then, leaning in conspiratorially, “The best way to learn is between the sheets.” My face flushed red. He threw his head back and laughed, hands rising in surrender. “Ok, perhaps not just yet. Start by learning through your tastebuds and your stomach. Food is the key to everything.”
I have no idea what his name was or where he might be, but that one line from an American in Spain stuck with me. During my year in Aix-en-Provence I skipped quite a lot of classes, arms curled protectively around my backpack as I opted instead to take the evening train from Marseille down to Barcelona. I can still hear the clicking of lighters flicking on throughout the night as the cabin filled with smoke until the train spat me out at the Spanish border at dawn. The next leg, the shorter train that took me into Barcelona itself, was my favourite. I would press my face against the window as the light began to glow from behind the hills at the sides of the tracks.
I returned again and again during my year in France, drawn to the joy and expressiveness, an open appreciation for existing that I felt was missing in Aix-en-Provence. But I have not returned since, until I finally made it back to Barcelona earlier this month.
Where to eat in Barcelona, with notes for gluten-free dining:
As many of you know, I have celiac disease. While I have to be extremely careful as I travel – even frying foods in oil contaminated with wheat remnants will get me sick – I don’t seek out restaurants that cater specifically to gluten-free eaters. Instead, I choose to research as much as I can, arming myself with information versus relying on a place that claims to know what I can and cannot eat.
The restaurants below were all successful for my stomach. They were delicious, they were reasonably priced, and they were able to feed me without getting me sick. It merits stressing for those with celiac disease that I had to ask each time and for each dish what had flour in sauces or was dredged first; the one time I forgot to ask about a dish it turned out to be lightly battered, so lightly that I only realized it when a few minutes into my meal I started to feel drugged and dizzy, sharp stomach pains following shortly thereafter.
Basically: this is a list for anyone who wants to eat. I’ve included specific tips for celiacs at the end of the post.
Carrer dels Agullers, 8
Tel: 932 68 03 61
(Lunch only, no English menu)
Daily menu, written by hand and photocopied, often with the prior day’s menu on the flip side with a giant “X” over it. Small plates for the entrées, with larger mains that we shared at the table. If the black rice is on the menu, it’s well worth a try. In its place on a different visit was paella, also delicious and at 4 euro per small plate, a great way to try what usually requires a large purchase for two.
Mains were beautifully cooked and very fresh. For celiacs, be sure to tell the waiter or waitress exactly what you cannot eat. (“No puedo comer harina de trigo. Soy celiac(o/a)“, i.e. I cannot eat wheat flour I have celiac disease.) The restaurant was happy to cook dishes with corn flour instead of wheat, but if I did not ask for every dish they forgot what had wheat in it vs. not. Provided you ask, this is a great and homey place to visit. It’s only open for lunch, so arrive any time after 1pm.
After your meal, don’t miss a stop into Vila Viniteca – great wine shop.
Pork..Boig Per Tu ($$)
Consolate del Mar, 15
Tel: 932 956 636
Obsessive about pork, this restaurant revolves around all things pig — as its name would suggest. From cured plates to baked dishes that are cooked in an in-house clay oven to sandwiches of pulled pork and homemade bread; the menu is a full tribute to the pig in all its glory and not a part of it goes unrepresented. Staff was very helpful once I said I had celiac disease, and they have gluten-free bread in order to serve pork sandwiches for those who cannot eat the regular stuff.
Try the pork ribs cooked in the oven, and the ear stew with beans, which is far more appetizing than it sounds.
Tel: 932 687 569
Oh, Mosquito. I enjoyed its cozy corners and smiling bartender, its packed bar and reasonably priced dim sum. Most of all, I loved the rice dumplings that assuaged my growing craving for the delicious steamed treats I used to enjoy before I was diagnosed with celiac disease.
There are plenty of small dishes available for non-celiacs, but if you have a gluten-free diet and dine at Mosquito, the staff will happily circle what you can eat on their paper menus. Don’t miss the eel bao (eel soup dumplings), tasting just as I remembered from years and years ago, when I last ate them. Eel and pork, steamed in rice instead of wheat casing — an impossibility almost everywhere else I have traveled. They were so good I returned again to savour them before I left town.
The fried duck was also delicious, savory and crunchy, and ideal with a side of rice. The starter eggplant dish was a cool contrast to the warmer steamed meals, and the chicken salad with sesame oil and vegetables was a perfect appetizer to kick off the meal.
I’m still dreaming about those dumplings.
For those interested in more substantial plates, their sister restaurant RedAnt ($), Tiradors, 3-5, is another option and it’s right around the corner.
Carrer del Cometa, 3
Tel: 932 69 06 71
(Open daily, 1:00pm-11:30pm)
My first meal in Barcelona wasn’t tapas and it wasn’t paella: it was sushi. I was craving salmon sashimi, and nothing would stop me from finding it. Luckily, SushiYa2 was nearby and they had a huge sashimi plate for 10 Euros, as well as a mixed salmon and tuna version for a few euros more. The staff were well-versed with celiac disease and had special gluten-free soy sauce kept aside for customers. The sashimi was fresh and delicious.
For those without any eating restrictions, the restaurant has a good value lunch combo menu, with both bento boxes and donburi bowls on offer. They come with miso soup, salad, and the main meal.
Carrer Rec, 10
Tel: 932 681 572
(Open every day from 13h-23:30h)
I have an arepa problem. Specifically, I cannot stop eating them. Made with corn flour and hearty, they are safe for celiacs and a fast, cheap meal on the go. This small areparia is low on ambiance but a good option if you are in the Gothic Quarter or the Born and need a fast snack in between meals. Many people used to earlier dinner times find themselves desperately in need of a snack around 6, and La Taguera can accommodate you.
Try the plantain and cheese arepa if you’re looking for something different. Fresh passionfruit juice also on premises, to wash down the dense corn deliciousness.
La Torna ($$)
Mercat de Santa Caterina
Avinguda de Francesc Cambó
Tel: 932 683 410
Located at the edge of the Santa Catarina market, I enjoyed a less touristy version of market eats compared to La Boqueria’s chaos. At La Torna, the patatas bravas (the potatoes shown above) were spicy and garlicky, and I enjoyed how the sauces were kept separate, allowing me to eat them bit by bit. Most bravas I had eaten mixed the sauces together into a rosé carpet. This was far more fun. For celiacs: the staff noted that their current menu did not deep fry breaded products so the potatoes were safe to eat.
In addition to these, we tried a great tripe and chickpea dish with chorizo, salty and spicy and gooey. Good grilled vegetables to accompany the meal, and if you ask for your squid grilled instead of fried, you will receive a non-breaded version, safe for celiacs. I’d go back for the tripe alone.
Rambla del Raval, 43
(Open Wednesday to Sunday, 1pm-4pm and 8pm to 11:30pm)
I wish I had a chance to explore the menu in full here at this Carlos Abellan restaurant, a recommendation from a food-loving friend who said not to miss it if I could avoid it. The dishes are beautifully presented, divided into sea, land, and a mixture of the two, with an emphasis on cooking techniques that bring out the flavours of the base ingredients. Don’t miss the barbecued octopus with chickpeas (pulpo a la brasa con garbanzos sofritos) or the beans with poached egg crispy pork (judias con huevo y papada Iberica).
Cal Pep ($$)
Plaça de les Olles, 8
Tel: 933 10 79 61
(Open from 7:30 – 11:30 pm)
Cal Pep is in just about every guide to Barcelona, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it. We showed up at 7:15pm to get a coveted place near the front of the line. Since the restaurant opens at 7:30 and has very limited seating at the bar only, we got one of the few first seatings for the night. If you head there for dinner, try to arrive between 7-7:15pm.
The staff will try to serve you their “everything” menu, a 30 Euro per person extravaganza that allows you to sample everything in the house. Since I have celiac disease and we also wanted to tapas hop, we demurred. At first the waiters were annoyed, but one of the waiter’s nephews has celiac disease too and he swept in to take our order with smile. Everything was fine until he jokingly told me that my tortilla was full of wheat, then promptly cracked up. (It wasn’t, but he thought it was hilarious.)
For those with unencumbered diets and big appetites, by all means go for the whole shebang. For those like me who are limited, or if you just want to get a bit of food, I’d recommend: grilled squid (it is served breaded and fried usually, but they will grill it for you if asked), the tortilla (soft and firm all at once, filled with great jamón and eggs), spinach and chickpeas (sautéed quickly – simple and delicious), and the Catalan flan (enormous and gluten-free, shown above).
Bar del Pla ($$)
Carrer Montcada 2,
Tel: 932 683 003
Pork trotters and baby squid alongside a menu of tuna tartar and croquettes? Welcome to the creative Bar de Pla, located not far from Santa Catalina market. Recommended by Legal Nomads reader Vanya, the bar is long and narrow, with a huge wine list and a rotating by-the-glass menu to accompany it. As Culinary Backstreets notes, “the menu is familiar in content – bravas, anchovies, croquetas – but the dishes that arrive at the table have been reconceptualized, and there’s a clear Asian influence.” Worth a visit for the Secreto Ibérico alone, though non-celiacs have insisted I mention the squid ink croquettes for those who can digest them.
El Xampanyet ($$)
Carrer de Montcada, 22
Tel: 933 19 70 03
Another popular guidebook favourite, but ambiance alone makes it worth a visit. Beer, wine and cava flow freely, plates of cheese, jamón, and many other delicacies abound, and it is located smack in the middle of the Born. If you have to skip one place on the list it would be this one, but I do think it’s a great place to try. I enjoyed the busy, cheerful environment and the plentiful tapas. Best for groups, after a few glasses of vino. Prepare to stand as seating is very limited.
La Rambla, 91
La Boqueria is the always-packed-with-tourists market located just off of La Rambla. With a long history dating back to the 1200s, it bustles with food and noise and a lot of movement. I’ve listed two options for a bite, but the entire market is worth a visit, a sensory overload of food and fun.
– El Quim de la Boqueria: Right in the middle of the action. Try the fried artichokes if you’re not gluten-free. The pimientos de Padrón (photo below, fried tiny peppers) are addictive, as are the baby squid sautéed with egg.
– Bar Pinotxo: So busy, but so good. Friends recommended a visit for breakfast, which I second. Their tortilla de patatas (fluffy potato omelette) shouldn’t be missed, nor should the garbanzos (chickpeas) as they are served with tiny pieces of morcilla sausage and the simple dish bursts with flavor.
Avenida Litoral, 42, Bogatell Beach
Tel: 932 210 729
Known for its paella, this restaurant was recommended by a gluten-free reader, and its menu specifically notes what is suitable for celiacs. Their special paella would be my recommendation, full of seafood and their homemade fish stock. If paella isn’t your jam, they’ve also got a hearty sea and mountain stew.
Tel: 935 327 666
Avenida Francesc Cambó, 30
Tel: 686 19 26 90
Thin crust pizza, made to order in a wood-fire oven right in the middle of the city. It’s a fun option for lunch — try going early, around 1pm, if you want to avoid a wait. Their lunch special includes a pizza, a drink, and a dessert.
Decor was simple and sparse, but the food kept my dining companions quiet and munching thoughtfully. I had a salad, so for those who are gluten-free there are options. But you’ll sit and drool over the pizza throughout the meal, whether you want to or not.
If you’re celiac and want pizza, head to:
Calle Dos de Maig, 268
Tel: 934 502 452
This Italian restaurant has an extensive menu for celiacs, one that includes not just pizza but pasta and risotto too. With family members who have the disease, the owners took the time to ensure their menu was safe and lengthy, and Il Piccolo Foccone was the only place I could find in Barcelona that made their own pizza dough for celiacs. The rest had pre-frozen dough that was not worth a try — once they said “frozen” I was out.
Lovely family and good for celiacs and non celiacs alike.
La Plata ($)
Calle Mercè, 28
Tel: 933 151 009
Founded in 1945, this tiny bar in the Gothic Quarter keeps its menu simple. It serves only a few things: fried anchovies (dredged in flour), grilled sausages, an olive, tomato and onion salad, bread with fresh tomato spread, and wine. If any or all of these sounds enticing to you, please give it a visit. Simple can be better.
Tips for gluten-free eating and celiac disease in Barcelona:
The beauty of eating in Spain is that the base ingredients are so important to locals. The quality of the meat or the cheese, the freshness of the bread — all of these building blocks of food play a big role in recommendations. I went to a coffee shop and the owner recommended a bar specifically because the owner “cares about the ingredients.” Even smaller restaurants are noted for their attention to food quality.
As such, meals can be built out of simple components, which is great for celiacs. Other than sandwiches (bocadillos), fried squid (calamares fritos), bread (pan) and croquettes (croquetas) most of the dishes were safe to eat. From grilled fish or seafood to black rice and squid, many of the dishes in town were safe.
However, some tips:
- The magic words: soy celiaca for a woman, and soy celiaco for a man. If you want more: no puedo comer gluten (I can’t eat gluten). I did not have to explain further as almost every restaurant understood the nature of the disease.
- Be sure to ask if the fish or seafood has been dredged in flour. A simple ‘tiene harina de trigo?’ (Does this have wheat flour?) sufficed for me. Often restaurants can and will swap out the wheat flour with corn but if fried the contamination will still be an issue.
- Ask to have your fish grilled, limiting cross-contamination changes.
- Fried artichokes were mixed with flour without fail, lending them a thin crispness. I found this out the hard way.
- Many of the salamis and sandwich hams had flour or gluten in them, but cured jamón, waiting for me on a wooden stand to be carved with care, was gluten free, as was most of the home-made sausage at the restaurants.
- For a full meal of gluten-free options, many have recommended La Luna restaurant, though I did not have time to make it there myself.