"BARcelona Tapas sparks much-needed renaissance in downtown district

It was the third time I’d eaten at BARcelona Tapas, and the place was packed as ever. Tables were pushed together, more and more people were lining up at the host stand and the din of a crowd rose above the bustle of the wait staff, delivering plate after plate to hungry patrons. From our perches on high stools, we could feel a brisk breeze through the French doors off Ohio Street blowing in a whiff of big city life that gave the place an exuberance like few other places in town. Dozens of new restaurants open each year; this was different.

By this point, I’d already experienced the highs and lows of the restaurant, whose opening had been postponed countless times before it finally debuted in late May. I’d tasted surprising new flavors, groaned at classics I’d hoped would be better and puzzled at dishes much better one night than another — even the same night. Hadn’t things been ironed out at the first location in St. Louis’ Clayton neighborhood? I had received good service from personable, chatty servers, but I’d also suffered the squints of staff members unable to recall the Spanish names of dishes or forced, again, to announce, “Oh, we’re out of that,” to requests for staples. I’d even been ushered inside from my outdoor seat one gorgeous afternoon before all the licensing for sidewalk service seemed to be in order. (Thankfully, streetside dining is back.)

So, before I arrived with a willing troupe of friends to give the restaurant one more try, I’d formed a pretty solid impression of all this celebrated new eatery, bathed in rich reds and golds, could offer. Whatever you say about Barcelona — that it’s consistently great or hopelessly inconsistent, on the cutting edge or following a now somewhat stale trend — the best dishes and the clearly delighted crowds prove it’s injecting some much needed life into a once-derelict corner of downtown. To think this place was once a Burger King!

While one could order from various sections of soups, salads, hot tapas items and fried snacks, it’s best to go on whim. Even though “tapas” denotes small plates, you’re unlikely to go home hungry. Three to four dishes per person should suffice, though sharing is a must, and a more rambling meal will depart nicely from typical mealtime rituals. After all, one explanation of “tapas” derives from the legend of a journeying Spanish king who received a glass of sherry “topped” with a slice of ham to keep out the dust. Pretend you’re that king.

At its best, the place offers plenty of culinary highlights. Fried artichokes ($5.95) are utterly addictive and surprisingly light, with a very tasty Romesco sauce and shavings of quality manchego cheese. Chicken and salty Serrano ham croquettes ($4.95) are another sure bet, paired perfectly with aioli spiced with cumin. Grilled sea bass ($9.25) with more Romesco sauce and garlicky sautéed greens pack plenty of flavor, and a plate of grilled Spanish sausages ($6.95) rarely disappoints, though the luscious little chorizo links we had one time are apparently in another dish now. Skewered tapas, especially smoky pork tenderloin ($6.75), are very tasty, if a bit small and over-garnished. Among healthier items, a field greens salad ($4.95), also with manchego, is quite fresh with a slightly sweet sherry vinaigrette; a well-balanced gazpacho ($3.95) is perhaps more flavorful than the black bean soup ($3.95), though both will satisfy.

Other dishes need some perfecting. A saffron-scented cauliflower plate ($4.95) was sensational the first time but arrived tepid and undercooked two subsequent times. Also best on first try were tender chargrilled baby lamb chops with a tangy, sweet Spanish wine reduction drizzled with another aioli. The one time the tortilla Espanola ($3.95) was available, it was leaden and under-seasoned. Bacalao ($6.75), cod cakes so pervasive in Mediterranean cuisine that they turn up in several songs, lack punch and are served with one of the more timid sauces.

Tapas might not bring to mind desserts, but save room for them. “Capirote” or bread pudding ($6.25) is apparently quite popular. But it’s more a pan of heavily buttered hunks of bread than a cohesive pudding. What you can’t miss is the tres leches cake ($6.25), a pasty of untold richness. The three milks in this moist, wickedly dense cake nearly send it over the edge. The Montserrat Chocolata brownie ($6.25) is also very good, the slight crunch of its crust giving way to a deeply chocolate interior.

One could fault the irregularities here or get annoyed by servers asking all too often if you’ve ordered one dish or another. But chance and tapas seem perfect partners. And the chances this St. Louis mini-franchise and its local partners have taken are paying off. Who would have thought this corner of Delaware would one day be reborn in such a lively, tasty way?

BARcelona Tapas

201 N. Delaware St.


Monday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars

Atmosphere: Four stars

Service: Three stars

Handicapped accessible, Nonsmoking

Recommended dishes: crispy artichokes, lamb chops, chicken and Serrano croquettes, tres leches cake