How Have Spanish Restaurants Changed?

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Roca Fontané familyReal Academia de Gastronomía

Julia Pérez Lozano explains the ways restaurants have adapted over the years  

Over the past 20 years, Spanish restaurants have become almost unrecognizable, with open kitchens, tasting bars, live performances, and chefs doing the job of waiters. This is the restaurant industry in the age of the spectacle. Surprise and the concept of an "experience" are what mark the success of businesses, which are changing at a dizzying pace. Today's restaurants come with an expiry date.

It hasn't always been this way. There was a time when the notion of "the experience"— now something we can't do without — was unheard of. We have become accustomed to diversity and beauty, to comfortable spaces in which gastronomic expression takes on another dimension, and to every meal being a spectacle that we want to enjoy and share.

The Invincible Family-Run Restaurants

Modest family-run restaurants were incredibly popular in the post-war years, when Spain was a poor, battered country, and simply eating at all was a luxury. For several decades, many families found a means of making a living and growing their livelihoods in this humble yet legitimate business model. El Celler de Can Roca is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world. But perhaps it would not even exist if Montserrat Fontané, mother of the acclaimed Roca brothers, had not been running Can Roca for so long. She remains very much in charge of the kitchen at this formidable but small family-run restaurant, which opened in a working-class neighborhood in Girona in 1960. "It's not my customers' fault my sons are famous. My menu still costs €11. I'm not going to increase the price. They can do whatever they like in their restaurant. I'm in charge of this one," she says firmly.

Familia Roca Fontané (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

This type of establishment, which epitomizes the idea of comfort food, continues to thrive. Many of these small family-run restaurants have modernized and new ones have emerged, and while they may appear to be ultra-modern, they maintain the old hallmarks of identity. Many are managed by young chefs with no interest in so-called haute cuisine.

Lighting the Spark

A country's economic upturn usually coincides with the rise of its gastronomic industry. When people have money to spend, restaurants flourish. That is why the gastronomic offering in big cities is so varied. In the Basque Country in 1977, people's social lives revolved around food. It was there that a group of chefs — young at the time but veterans now — started a movement that was to have far-reaching consequences: the New Basque Cuisine. Inspired by the nouvelle cuisine of their French counterparts, Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana, Karlos Arguiñano, and several others made it their personal mission to modernize traditional recipes, making them lighter and presenting them in innovative ways. They ignited the spark of what was to come. Their restaurants became more sophisticated and adapted to the demands of the new gourmets, many of whom came from France. Changes were also afoot in Madrid and Barcelona. It was a golden age for the restaurant Mayte Comodore, where the Cantabrian chef Carmen Aguado cooked for politicians and business people. The same can be said for Zalacaín in Madrid, which was the first Spanish restaurant to be awarded 3 stars in the prestigious Michelin guide in 1987.

Group of Basque chefsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Group of Basque chefs (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)

Hurricane Adrià: Breaking the Rules

The nascent modernity of the restaurant industry accelerated in the last decade of the century. It seemed like a hurricane was about to hit — and indeed it did. After elBulli appeared on the scene, nothing would ever be the same again.

elBulli kitchenReal Academia de Gastronomía

Bullinianos (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)

Ferrán Adrià and Juli Soler championed rule-breaking, and asserted their freedom. They changed people's understanding of how to relate to diners and transformed cooking into a new spectacle from which there was no turning back. I still remember the reaction of a very chic French family, who were having dinner at elBulli, when they tried the famous "Dragón Khan." It was a truly special mouthful: anyone who ate it ended up with smoke coming out of their nose, as a result of the liquid nitrogen that it contained. Those elegant diners, skeptical at first, suddenly couldn't stop laughing. From that moment on, dinner became a much more fun and relaxed experience. Humor and the element of surprise had made their appearance, and with them came the concept of "the experience," which nowadays, everyone expects.

For a decade, restaurants offering "signature dishes" — although many were of questionable authenticity — sprung up all over the country. And this helped raise the gastronomic bar. There was undeniably an excess of so-called avant-garde cuisine — or rather, fake avant-garde cuisine — because everyone thought they could imitate elBulli, or just brazenly copy it. Even so, the phenomenon progressed more than ever over the next 20 years.

A Phenomenal Decade

Just as there were innovations in the kitchen, there were innovations in the dining room too. Diners acquired a taste for elegant venues with top-notch service. Ambitious establishments aspiring to be haute cuisine appeared in towns all over Spain. There was an abundance of long linen tablecloths, the finest crystal glasses, decanters, and trolleys for bread, cheeses, desserts, and oils. At last, the things that chefs and hotel owners had seen and learned in France, but had not yet been able to do themselves, were being put into practice. In the decade between 1996 and 2006 — a phenomenal decade for Spanish cuisine — dreams became a reality. Croquettes and stews made way for foams and spheres that exploded in the mouth, to the joy and amazement of diners. The sommelier became a key figure, while waiting staff became less important. Carving no longer took place in the dining room; instead, meals were brought from the kitchen, already plated. Signature chefs turned proprietors were now setting their own standards. The diner was a willing subject who complied without question. But the economic crisis, and those who had had their fill of it, undermined the tyranny of the white jackets.

The Return of the Croquette

Like a slap in the face, the economic crisis shattered the illusion. Toward 2010, the recession reached the restaurant industry and the best-trained generation of Spanish chefs were forced to retreat. The croquette emerged victorious. Small taverns, bars, and informal venues began to appear, some run by prestigious chefs seeking a model that would sustain their restaurants financially. And so the "gastrobar" was born, its name was coined by the El País restaurant critic José Carlos Capel, in reference to Paco Roncero's bar Estado Puro. La Terraza del Casino, which is the other establishment run by the Madrid chef, earned two stars in the Michelin guide. Sergi Arola, Carles Abellán, Quique Dacosta, Dani García, and many more followed his lead. Others such as Marcelo Tejedor at Casa Marcelo (Santiago de Compostela), made a virtue out of necessity and enlisted their kitchen staff to serve dishes in order to save on staffing costs. Noma in Copenhagen would later do the same, making it something of a trend.

Ham CroquettesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Ham croquettes (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)

So, little by little, the rules of haute cuisine began to find their way into bars, improving the standard of their salads, meatballs, patatas bravas, and oxtail stew. Tapas, that icon of Spanish cuisine, entered a golden age that has not yet come to an end. This transformation was accompanied by an aesthetic change that combined modernity with a sense of humor, as can be seen in Estado Puro's curved ceiling of ornamental combs, and Tapas 24's menu boards. Seemingly by osmosis, bars — that essential element in Spain's restaurant trade — moved into haute cuisine, perhaps influenced by Japanese culture, which is increasingly admired by chefs and diners. Restaurante Mina in Bilbao, A'Barra in Madrid, and Tatau in Huesca are some examples of places where diners can enjoy haute cuisine while sitting on a bar stool.

A'Barra restaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

A'barra, Madrid (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Open Mind, Global Palate

Over time, people's willingness to try new things has grown. Fusion cooking has extended its reach into all areas, local Chinese restaurants have become more sophisticated, and sushi has taken cities by storm. Asian restaurants such as Nodo, Kabuki, Dos Palillos, StreetXO, and Pakta were closely followed by flavors from Mexico, Peru, Thailand, and Hawaii.

Spanish restaurant DiverXo (2007)Real Academia de Gastronomía

DiverXO in Madria (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Rosa Esteva, who is from Barcelona and founded the Tragaluz Group, has a style that people began to imitate. Her obsession with creating pleasant spaces where the food was an important — but not exclusive — element, caught on. The concept of an experience was gaining ground. The arrival on the scene of chef Albert Adrià's Tickets in Barcelona, and David Muñoz's DiverXO in Madrid, demonstrated the importance of ambience and the ability of interior designers to underpin a restaurant's success.

Society has become much more informal. Nowadays, formal service in restaurants is unheard of; tables are set without tablecloths, cutlery is placed in the middle for diners to help themselves, and reservations are made online. Economic recovery, new technologies, and new diners have been the driving force behind restaurant groups such as Larrumba. Its restaurants, frequented by the rich and famous, are less about the food itself and more about being there, being seen, and talking about it. Instagrammable: that's what restaurants are expected to be in the era of post-truth and social networking.

Reflection, Responsibility, and Science Fiction

On the cusp of the second decade of the 21st century, society has become polarized, and the restaurant industry is no different. Meat and steak restaurants have become controversial with the growing popularity of veganism. Alongside the superficiality of seeing and being seen, there are voices calling for social responsibility, including rationalizing consumption, saving energy, and animal welfare. The range of what's on offer is growing to accommodate all options in a society that is increasingly fragmented and pluralistic. Young people have access to knowledge and information, and are demanding change. And chefs, who are now media stars, are declaring their commitment to society to feeding the world, healthy cooking, and respecting biodiversity.

"Azurmendi" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

Azurmendi restaurant (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

The restaurant Azurmendi, owned by Biscay-born Eneko Atxa, has become a global example of sustainability, and it is not the only one. There is also the culinary project run by the chef Ángel León, from Cádiz, which is about making the most of the sea's resources and reviving the salt marshes on which his restaurant, Aponiente, is located. These are different visions and perceptions in the face of an unpredictable and uncertain future in which, according to some, the robots will take over. Well, we'll see…

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