In the past few years, Spain has rocketed up the popularity charts in terms for North Americans, and for many good reasons. Dollars go further, the people are warm, so is the climate, its history and landscape are rich and diverse, and recreation runs the gamut from world-class cycling and hiking to skiing, sailing, and tons of golf. But increasingly visitors are coming for Spain’s amazing food scene, which combines the best attributes of the Mediterranean basin and the influences of neighbors France, Italy and North Africa with homespun comfort food passion and centuries of local traditions.
But despite the down-home nature of Spanish cooking, its restaurant scene is highly elevated, ranking fifth among the world’s countries in Michelin stars, with more than the entire United Kingdom, more than all the now trendy Scandinavian countries combined, and more than the United States – despite being less than quarter size of Alaska, a single state. The Guide, launched in France in 1910, came to Spain just ten years later – and before it had shifted its focus to food or developed the current rating system. As long as there have been one, two or three stars awarded to the world’s best restaurants, Spanish chefs have been winning them in droves.
It’s always been a great place for food lovers, giving the world such staples as tapas, paella, fabled manchego cheese, acorn fed jamon iberico, more extra virgin olive oil than any country on earth, and for quenching adult thirsts, sherry, cava and rioja. Spain boats some of the world’s best seafood, on both its warm and cold-water coasts, especially anchovies, sardines, shrimp, squid, razor clams and octopus, along with amazing rice, wine and cheese. Its black pigs are legendary for pork, and its beef considered by many knowledgeable critics to be the world’s best.
But in recent years it was molecular gastronomy that put Spain on the map, and the entire “modernist cuisine” trend, now global in scope, is largely associated with the shuttered El Bulli, long ranked the World’s Number One eatery, and its legendary chef Ferran Adria. El Bulli is closed but Adria’s brethren have taken up the mantel, especially in and around San Sebastian, the country’s Basque region, home to the world’s densest concentration of Michelin stars and several of the leading practitioners of molecular gastronomy. Four of the nation’s nine 3-stars are found here, and half of those, Azurmendi and Arzak, along with acclaimed 2-star Mugaritz – which TripAdvisor readers have voted the world’s Number One – are dedicated to modernist cuisine: Arzak serves a signature seafood dish on the screen of a tablet with scrolling aquatic images.
While San Sebastian might be a little far flung from Spain’s more popular food tourism destinations – 5 hours by high-speed rail from Barcelona – it’s a very worthwhile add-on for the dedicated foodie who plans to hit more than one of these temples in a single visit. Otherwise, the best of the rest of Spain’s Michelin starred eateries are more convenient to sun and beach loving travelers. Here are some of our favorites.
Barcelona: Martín Berasategui is Spain’s answer to Alain Ducasse or Joel Robuchon, the nation’s only chef with multiple 3-Michelin starred eateries. His eponymous one is in San Sebastian, but his cuisine is more accessible at its sister restaurant Lasarte, (pictured right) in Barcelona. Berasategui does not practice molecular gastronomy, but rather a more traditional multi-course fine dining gastronomic march in the style of classic French 3-stars. His focus has always been on impeccable locally sourced ingredients in which he often plays a role dictating how they are grown, raised or caught, combined with Spain’s holy cooking trinity of extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and wine. The restaurant seats just 35 for drawn out and amazing tasting dinners. Elsewhere in Barcelona, Abac, Enoteca and Moments are the city’s trio of 2-star winners for 2017.
Costa Brava: Arguably Spain’s most famous eatery, the 3-star El Celler de Can Roca in Girona has twice topped the vaunted World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and is currently third. It focuses on traditional Catalan dishes and ingredients (lots of stews and thick soups, sweet and savory combinations, extensive use of pork, nuts, sardines, anchovies and Mediterranean vegetables including tomatoes, eggplant, and mushrooms) heavily updated with molecular gastronomy techniques. Local calamari is flash frozen with nitrogen to be baked into breadstuffs and olives are elaborately caramelized. They serve an ever changing 14-course tasting menu and boast a 60,000-bottle cellar. Miramar and Les Cols, also in Girona, round out the region’s 2-star winners.
Costa del Sol/Costa Blanca: The region’s sole 3-star is Quique Dacosta in Denia on the Costa Blanca, halfway between Barcelona and the Costa del Sol. Its eponymous chef took up the El Bulli banner of full blown modernist cuisine but with a twist – Dacosta will only use ingredients procured within 50 miles of his restaurant. The Relais & Chateaux member made the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and the Michelin Guide called Dacosta a culinary genius, but he goes beyond food – this is a full court sensory experience with flower petals crumbled tableside and an immersive style of dining that involves the eyes, ears and nose as well as taste buds, in the style of the UK’s famed Fat Duck. Tasting menus only, but it’s open for lunch, a rarity in its class. In the more touristic Costa del Sol, the standout is the 2-star Dani García in Málaga, named after its chef, whose personal slogan is “cooking with tradition.” In reality, there’s a heavy focus on local fresh ingredients cooked in a global style with touches from around the globe, but in a broader sense, it is more traditional than many other competitors, with dishes such as gazpacho with ceviche of local clam and fresh spider crab fried in batter with fennel and parsley. They serve both tasting and a la carte menus, are open for lunch, and the eatery enjoys a more relaxed beachfront setting than most 2-stars. The Costa del Sol is home to half a dozen notable 1-stars as well: Kabuki Raw in Casares; Sollo in Fuengirola; José Carlos García (pictured above) in Málaga and in Marbella, the area’s dining hotbed, Messina, El Lago, and Skina.
Balearic Isles: For hardcore foodies, Mallorca has far and away the wealthiest fine dining selection in the island group, including the only 2-star, Zaranda. A young veteran of famed European kitchens including Dublin’s Patrick Guilbaud, London’s Le Gavroche, and Naples’ Don Alfonso 1890 (pictured right), chef Fernando Arellano first opened Zaranda in Madrid to rave reviews and a fast Michelin star before relocating to this famed beach resort. He takes a slightly molecular approach to some classic dishes – his Mallorca oyster includes a kitchen-made pearl that you can eat – and a wildly creative approach to others, like Italy’s classic burrata cheese starter reimagined from goat’s milk in a sea of strawberry and basil coulis. Mallorca is home to half a dozen 1-stars: Jardín, Es Moli d’en Bou, Andreu Genestra, Es Racó d’es Teix, Simply Fosh, and Es Fum. Neighboring Ibiza is starless, but still has more than a dozen Michelin-recommended restaurants, many featuring the island’s abundant seafood, and the top such choices include Es Boldado and the lively beachfront Es Torrent.
One thing’s for certain, whichever region of Spain you end up exploring, you’re never far away from a great meal.