It is a daily challenge that every restaurateur faces: how do you make the customers feel welcome in what are often strange surroundings?
As I have pondered this issue, I have come up with a theory to match the popular maxim that a restaurant’s profitability is in inverse proportion to the quality of its food. The most immediate sense of welcome comes not at those expensive places awash with gleaming crockery and glassware, but rather at those restaurants where the owners are determined that the customer should have a really good time.
This was the rule I began to formulate within a minute of walking into Sense Pressa, a small, family-owned restaurant in the heart of Barcelona. Our aeroplane was late – it was 11pm – and we still wondered if we should have gone straight to the hotel. But there on the table was evidence that we were in the best of hands: a white plate with a dozen plump green olives topped with two halves of an anchovy and, by each wine glass, two slices of crisp baguette. This was inexpensive, welcoming, considered and immediate fuel for two tired bodies.
Sense Pressa is second home to the Díaz family and it exudes a cluttered, homely feel from the outset. There are a couple of tables on the pavement, two more inside the front door and then, down a short set of steps with cases of wine and six legs of ham hanging calmly to one side, another eight. All of these were occupied by locals.
José Luis is the chef, and more than happy to process credit cards from his satisfied customers once he has been assured that they have eaten well. They will certainly have been well looked after by Isabel Cañedo, his diminutive wife, whose smile resonates around the tables, and their son Victor, who is responsible for the wine.
Dinner was a combination of Catalan favourites and that day’s specials. Warm, tiny and ultra-sweet broad beans with diced ham; prawn croquettes; a subtle rendition of clams, garlic and chillis; and two thin fillets of turbot enhanced by a mouth-watering sauce of olive oil and vinegar. With this we drank a bottle of Palacios’s Villa de Corullón 2009 Bierzo.
This was not the last vestige of the Díaz’s hospitality. I am ashamed to say that I lost the argument about carrying our suitcases out to the taxi and could only shake Señor Díaz senior and junior by the hand and stammer our thanks in amateurish Catalan.
We were to experience the same level of hospitality at Bilbao – a justifiably popular restaurant in the central Gràcia district for the past 57 years – but this time at the beginning of our meal.
The rain was so torrential that we arrived half an hour before their 2pm opening for Saturday lunch as the waiters were having their staff meal. But they happily waved us in. Jordi Olivet, the chef here for two decades, took us through to our table and we dried ourselves off.
I have never seen a restaurant fill up so quickly. Just before 2pm we four were alone. Five minutes later, every table was taken, the waiters in their blue shirts hurtling around to be joined 15 minutes later by Bilbao’s jolly owner, Pere Valls Isart. Wearing a cardigan that just about hid a considerable girth, he first toured the rooms, kissing his female customers and the children, but quite soon he was hard at work, too. When I asked him for a card as we left, he handed me a dozen and, added, “For your friends.”
Olivet and his team certainly cook well enough for us to want to invite our friends back. Cannelloni with truffles; diced ham again but this time on top of artichokes; a plate of unadorned, glistening plump girolles, just in season; a delicious rendition of grilled octopus with pimento and sliced potatoes; and a thoughtfully modest serving of oxtail with a cube of membrillo whose sweetness cut the otherwise fatty meat.
Sense Pressa and Bilbao are not at the cutting edge of Catalan cuisine. But both carry the standard for a tradition of warmth and hospitality that has long been a hallmark of this region and I hope will only continue.
Calle Enric Granados 96, Barcelona
+34 93 218 15 44
Carrer del Perill 33,
+34 93 458 96 24
NB Cash only!
Both about €40-€50 for three courses without wine