The Best Tapas and Snack Bar in Toronto
Bar Raval (ranked #1)
Location: 505 College Street
Atmosphere: Intimate, warm, woody
I’ve wanted to eat at Bar Raval for years. Not only because of the great things I’ve heard about the food, but also because on BlogTO it’s ranked first on both the best tapas and best snack bar list, and second for best Spanish. Not to mention the nerd and former art history major in me wanted to check out the Antoni Gaudi-inspired woodwork that decorates the space. It seems fitting that Gaudi, a Spanish artist and architect whose fantastical buildings are symbolic of Barcelona, is paid tribute here. Chef and restaurateur Grant van Gameren, who also owns Bar Isabel further west on College, meant for the place to be an experience: “as much of an art piece as a restaurant,” he claims.
And an art piece it is (the interior is one of the most uniquely designed spaces I’ve seen in Toronto), but a restaurant, not so much. Bar Raval is a bar, first and foremost: on a weekend, the only seating is at the bar, the rest of the small space is standing room only. We had dinner there, and I’m glad I did because it allowed me to sample more of the amazing menu, but realistically speaking, it is probably a better place to have a pre- or post-dinner drink, and snack or two, especially since the cocktails range from $14-$17.
We went to Bar Raval on a Friday night at about 7:00 p.m., and fortunately only had to wait about ten minutes for space to open up inside. The bar has a side patio (turned into a heated waiting area in the winter) that doubles as a place to eat, but having your meal out there instead of the beautiful interior seems like a waste. It’s also worth noting that I’ve heard it can be hard, if not impossible, to get into Bar Raval after nine or ten at night on weekends, and the bar doesn’t accept reservations.
Our server led us inside and immediately checked our coats to give us more room. Bar Raval is quite small, but pleasantly intimate, never getting loud or out of control. The service was fantastic too, which is an absolute must for a place with some unusual menu items (that are mostly in Spanish). Every question we asked about the tapas was answered with ease and as they came out, our server took the time to point out the ingredients. She also asked us if we had any allergies even before she took our order, and although I personally do not, as a cook I appreciate that touch because it makes life a lot easier behind the line. To me, not only is it a thoughtful gesture, it is a sign of a well-run establishment.
The menu is organized into canned specialties (tinned seafood such as anchovy and clams imported from Spain, and the most expensive items), marinated and preserved foods, tapas, and Bar Raval’s specialty, pintxos. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that pintxos are a variety of tapas popular in the Basque region of Spain consisting of toasted bread with various toppings that are affixed to the bread with a wooden skewer (pincho is Spanish for spike, pintxos is the Basque word).
Our server recommended that we start with four dishes and go from there, so we ordered the Galician octopus, Valencian salt cod salad, chorizo con queso, and the shrimp and romesco pintxos. We ended up ordering a fifth dish, the conjunado pintxos, mostly because the first one was so delicious we had to try another. Everything was incredible–the octopus, to me, was slightly too salty, but my partner disagreed–however, the real standouts were the chorizo con queso and the two pintxos.
The chorizo dish, which comes in two sizes ($14 for the small and $21 for the large), features cubed manchego cheese, slices of chorizo, olives, artichoke hearts, and pickled shishito peppers, all tossed together in a very brightly flavoured olive oil. Being a fan of all things pickled, this dish was right up my alley, and the combination of salty cheese, spicy chorizo, and sour peppers made it the ultimate bar food. The shrimp and romesco pintxos was also a favourite, with slightly charred, tender shrimp atop a sweet and savoury tomato-based romesco sauce (our server mentioned she ate this dish all the time).
But the last thing we ordered, the cojunado, was perfection. Cojunado derives from the Spanish word cojones (as in, Paul Ryan and the rest of the disgraceful U.S. Congress have no cojones) but can also mean “excellent” or “wonderful.” It’s a popular tapas item featuring Spanish morcilla sausage and piquillo peppers, topped with a fried quail egg. This version also appeared to have thick cut bacon added, as well as a light drizzle of parsley olive oil. I was blown away by this dish. Think of the best breakfast sandwich you’ve ever had in your life, and multiply that by a thousand. That probably still doesn’t do justice to the perfectly fried quail egg, with its runny yolk coating the sausage and peppers and garlicky bread. I’m still drooling thinking about it.
There is an espresso machine on the bar, and throughout the night the fragrant smell of coffee would reach us in the corner of the room. Although I rarely get coffee after a meal, the smell was so decadent I ended up getting a cafe con leche and we split a piece of cherry and almond tart. It came as no surprise that the coffee was perfectly made, and the tart, with its sweetness offset by the sour cherries and delicate Marcona almonds, was a real treat. Bar Raval opens at 8:00 a.m., and I am extremely envious of the people who live in this neighbourhood and are able to afford such a luxury in the morning.
I sometimes worry when going to restaurants with great ratings, because eating at a place with high expectations can often lead to disappointment. I can unequivocally say that this was not the case at Bar Raval, which lives up to its reputation for excellent food served expertly in a stunning atmosphere. If you have some money to burn or a date to impress, I highly recommend checking out this little tapas bar on College Street.
Cost for five tapas and dessert, split in half (excluding drinks): $33 + tax + tip
Service: 5/5 Dean Sossins
Food: 5/5 Dean Sossins
Value: 5/5 Dean Sossins
Overall: 5/5 Dean Sossins