When I first visited Barcelona eight years ago, I read a lot about the tiny restaurant Cal Pep close to the waterfront, as well as from friends who raved about the fresh food. But I never got a chance to try it.
So I always regretted not giving it a try, since it’s an often-mentioned restaurant recommendation whenever people discuss Barcelona. On my trip last month back to this city, I came to Cal Pep with my sister and niece for our last dinner before we flew home.
Opened for more than 30 years, Cal Pep makes simple dishes using the freshest ingredients from that day’s market. That means the dishes changes daily, and there’s no real menu because you just arrive and tell them what ingredients you’d like to eat. (The staff is always ready to offer recommendations.)
In preparation for my visit to Cal Pep, I read that you should get there 30 minutes before it opened for dinner at 7:30 p.m. So that’s what we did, arriving to stand behind one guy who had dinner at Cal Pep the night before and liked it so much he came back again, and a family who was visiting from Australia.
It seems only tourists like us would line up to eat dinner around 7:30 p.m., which is way early by Barcelona standards. As the line continued to form, I noticed that almost everyone was a tourist.
When the restaurant opened, we were seated at the long counter. There’s a small back room, and I’m not exactly sure how it works. I heard you needed to make reservations if you’re a party of six or larger, but some people heard that they didn’t take reservations. I was just glad we were able to get a seat at the counter as the line continued to form along the wall behind us.
When ordering by ingredients, you can end up ordering too much, which happened to us. I started rattling off ingredients and so came plate after plate, including classics like fried artichokes and fried sardines, seasonal ingredients like padron peppers, seafood like tallerines (tiny clams) and squid, and meat (for my niece) of lamb and botiffara, the classic Catalan sausage.
Watching the chefs cooking in front of us, they quickly prepared dishes that came hot to our plates. There’s even Pep, who no longer cooks and basically just holds court with the counter guests, chatting them up.
There were a few changes from what I ordered: I ordered lamb but our server thought I said “clams,” which explains why we ended up with two types of clam dishes (the regular and tiny version known as tallerines). We ended up getting beef instead because they didn’t have lamb, and ended up canceling the squid because we nearly stuffed by then.
Of the dishes that we did eat, they were fresh and simply cooked, usually just with salt and olive oil. The fried sardines, a classic tapas dish, was addictive (and yes, I tried them even though they’re deep fried), and the tiny clams were actually like a petit snack, perfect for a bar snack.
Probably the only really fancy dish was the botiffara, which came out sliced with a port wine reduction.
While the food was good, it wasn’t any more different than the fresh dishes we ate every morning at the marketplace (at La Boqueria). Cal Pep is a fun place to hang out, but I’m not sure if I would eat there more than once on a trip, and definitely wouldn’t wait more than 30 minutes for a table. My sister said the food was decent, but she felt rushed through dinner.
I’m glad I finally made it to Cal Pep, so I could see first hand what everyone was talking about. Was it a life-changing dinner? Far from it. Did I have fun? Yes, and I’m glad I can check it off my list.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Cal Pep, Placa de les Olles 8, Barcelona. PH: (34) 93.310.79.61. Open Monday dinner, 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Tuesday to Friday, lunch 1 to 3:45 p.m. and dinner, 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.; and Saturday lunch, 1 to 3:45 p.m. Closed Sundays and holidays. No reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.calpep.com
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