I have to admit, it felt strange — surreal, even — the first time I ate breakfast in the same bar I’d been drinking in the night before. But this isn’t uncommon in Seville, where the line between coffee house and tavern is a blurry one. Then there was the morning I found myself sipping café con leche next to a man downing a glass of anís seco (aniseed liqueur with a paint-thinner aftertaste), and I began to wonder if some folks never went home at all, but simply settled onto their barstool from sundown to sunup and beyond. Not so, said the Spanish friend I consulted. She explained that here in Seville, when a man must rise very early (that is, before 10:00 am) to get a job done, he may feel the need for an eye-opener such as anis seco to reanimarse (reanimate himself) for the task.
For many Sevillanos, the morning reanimation process is a ritual whose elements are so unvarying that their local barista begins assembling their preferred breakfast the moment a regular steps through the door. Nobody ever glances at a breakfast menu — indeed, in the more old-fashioned eateries, there isn’t one. Why would you need such a thing? Everybody knows what breakfast consists of — except of course for visitors, who often find themselves struggling to get up to speed. If there’s a chance you’ll be ordering breakfast in Seville any time soon, keep this post handy so you‘ll be ready to belly up to the bar and order like a local.
Start by choosing a beverage. Here in Seville, the popular favorite is café con leche (half espresso, half steamed milk). Other options include café solo (a straight shot of espresso), leche manchada (literally “stained milk,” a half inch of espresso topped with steamed milk), café Americano (weak black coffee), descafeinado (instant powdered decaf), and descafinado de máquina (decaf espresso). A few trendsetters stock bebida de soja (soy milk) for vegan hipsters and out-of-towners. Most places have té (tea), which is rarely ordered, infusions (herbal teas) such as poleo menta (mint), and fresh zumo de naranja (orange juice).
Toast is such a cornerstone of the Sevillano breakfast that you don’t even ask for a tostada (toasted baguette), you simply tell them whether you want a media (half) or an entera (whole). Some places serve integral (whole wheat) as well as normal (standard white). Next you tell them what you want on it. Until quite recently, your choices were aceite (olive oil), jamón (ham), tomate (tomato), mantequilla (butter), and mermelada (jam), with seriously old-school places offering manteca (ham lard), which I can tell you from personal experience tastes about as ghastly as you’d expect and will never cross my lips again.
That’s been the lineup around here for decades (possibly centuries) but over the past year, as the city has settled into its serious foodie phase, shockwaves rocked the breakfast-eating community as a new player burst on the toast-accessory scene: aguacate (avocado). Many old-school cafés refuse to put it on the menu, viewing this unseemly upstart with deep suspicion. Improve on breakfast? Impossible! But avant-garde cooks not only offer aguacate on your tostada but may throw in such garnishes as oregano and bean sprouts. Shocking, I know; that’s why I thought you’d better hear it from me first.
Upscale international restaurants may serve a full British breakfast and American-style eggs and pancakes; you’ll find these in and around the big hotels. But if you want to eat like a local, at a place within an easy stroll of the city center, here are a few of my favorites to consider.
Bar Alfalfa, Calle Candilejo, 1
Popular with locals and hospitable to visitors and dogs, this is my go-to breakfast spot. The food is traditional (no aguacate so far), the staff is efficient (they always remember our preferences), and the music is eclectic mellow.
Café Hércules, Calle Peris Mencheta, 15
This slightly funky, super friendly eatery offers an excellent selection of breads and toppings; they toast it, you fix it the way you like it. I go for avocado on whole wheat saturated with garlic olive oil and dusted with coarse salt and oregano. Yum!
Otto Café, Plaza Monte Sion, 8
Here everything is prepared with artistry, and the menu includes such non-Spanish fare as bagels and eggs, as well as gorgeously presented avocado toast. Outdoor tables in the quiet plaza are a great place for a leisurely mid-morning coffee.
Torch Coffee Sevilla, Paseo de las Delicias, 3
Started by two American sisters, Torch roasts its own beans and makes international favorites such as flat whites and cappuccinos. How trendy is it? The avocado toast is topped with bacon and bean sprouts. Enough said.
Un Gato en Bicicleta, Calle Pérez Galdós 22
Artsy types love this mix of bookstore, ceramics studio, gallery, and café. They serve good coffee and sweet cakes if you’re ready for a change from the ubiquitous tostada. But the real attraction is the quirky, entertaining atmosphere.
XIX, Calle Tomás de Ibarra, 9
Before you go nuts trying to pronounce it, the name is the Roman numeral 19, or diecinueve (dee-yes-ee-NWAY-veh) in Spanish. At night this offbeat, chic bar is guaranteed to impress a date, but I like it best for a great breakfast in a hip yet soothing environment.
“Wait, you aren’t including Milk Away or Jester?” a friend said incredulously when I mentioned the lineup in this post. “What about Caótica?” asked another. The fact is, there are far too many fabulous breakfast spots in Seville to mention more than a few top picks. If you’ve tried one that deserves a mention — or should be avoided at all costs — let me know in the comments below.
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And other reasons to love the stuff ancient Romans called "liquid gold"
Before I moved to Seville, I regarded all fat as the enemy. When I used olive oil at all, I tended to pour a scant half teaspoon on my salad or into a non-stick pan to sauté my homegrown vegetables. So I was mesmerized — horrified, even — the first time I watched a Spanish friend order toast in a café, then pick up the olive oil bottle sitting on the counter and proceed to drizzle and drizzle and drizzle and drizzle… When the crisp, hot baguette was thoroughly saturated, he took a big bite and beamed in satisfaction.
Now I do the same. Because it eventually dawned on me that my friend, all those medical studies, and 150 generations of Mediterranean grandmothers were right: olive oil is good for you. As if that wasn't enough, just this week I was gobsmacked to stumble across scientific evidence that consuming high amounts of olive oil does not make you fat. In fact, it can actually help with weight loss! This was as thrilling as my earlier discoveries of medical research demonstrating that chocolate makes you smarter and coffee can help you live longer. Obviously it’s true, to paraphrase Ben Franklin’s comment on wine, that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Amen to that!
Of course, not all olive oil is created equal. To enjoy its full health benefits, you’ll want to make sure the kind you’re consuming qualifies as extra-virgin: unfiltered, with low acidity, and mechanically pressed rather than extracted using heat or chemical additives. “The best olive oils are made using a simple hydraulic press or centrifuge — they are more like fresh-squeezed fruit juices than like industrial fats,” wrote Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity. “The olives are harvested at the moment of the invaiatura, when they begin to turn from green to black; ideally they are picked by hand and milled within hours, to minimize oxidation and enzymatic reactions, which leave unpleasant tastes and odors in the oil. There are approximately seven hundred olive varieties, or cultivars, whose distinctive tastes and aromas are evident in oils that are made properly, just as different grape varietals are expressed in fine wines.”
Like wineries, many olive oil shops and growers are now appealing to foodies and members of “generation yum” by arranging tastings. In Seville, these range from an impromptu stop at a gourmet tienda such as La Oleoteca or a day-long field trip to an olive orchard under the auspices of a professional guide. Last week Rich and I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to visit a Spanish olive oil company with our friend Steve, an exporter who wanted our help in choosing which varieties he’ll be sending to the USA this year. As you can imagine, we leapt at the chance.
This wasn’t our first rodeo. Two years earlier, Steve had invited us to join him on an exploratory tour the facility, Almazara 1945, and last year, when he was ready to make his purchase, Rich and I helped with the tasting. Our main qualifications are 1) we consume plenty of olive oil, 2) we like road trips, and 3) by sheer coincidence we happen to share the same last name as Steve, so we consider one another family. The fourth member of the 2018 tasting team was a Spanish ornithologist named Fran. Earlier this year Steve had pitched in to help Fran capture and band birds for a research project, and now Fran was returning the favor by lending his taste buds to the day’s endeavor. Luckily, Steve actually knows what he’s doing in choosing the oils; to be honest, I suspect he brings the rest of us along mainly for company on the drive out to the countryside.
Arriving at the sleekly modern, fully computerized factory, we were welcomed by a young man named Victor, who told us this year we’d be using an official, industry-standard scoring sheet to rate the oils. Skimming down the list, I saw the categories started out logically enough, with qualities such as fruitiness, sweetness, and astringency, but soon veered off into such unexpected byways as banana skin, artichoke, fresh-cut lawn, ripe apple, and something called tomato raff, which I never did figure out. As Victor passed around cups of oil, we took sips and gamely attempted to discern any hint of tree trunk or mature banana. If anyone said, “Taste any tomato raff?” I always solemnly shook my head and we moved on.
All the oils were delicious, and by the end of the morning it was easy to agree on which we liked best. The Arbequina was fruity, nutty, sweet, and mild, and although Victor pointed out that the smaller fruit size and larger pit make this olive a bit more expensive to cultivate, we knew it would be a hit with American buyers, who tend to like smoother flavors. The hands-down favorite was the Hojiblanca, which was more robust and complex, with a gorgeous long finish. We spent the last half hour tweaking a proprietary blend, but that’s all I’m saying about that, as I’m sworn to secrecy.
I rose from the table, wiping the last of the oil from my lips, feeling replete and mellow. In a world where we are warned away from so many foods we once held dear, it’s tremendously comforting to know that something we love to eat is as beneficial as it is satisfying. So next time you’re in a Spanish café or your own kitchen, go ahead and slather on the extra-virgin olive oil with a clear conscience. Your body and your soul will thank you.
Unlike some of my more practical and better-organized blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind or do product placement or promotion. Everything I talk about on this blog is here to help you plan your own adventures. However, I know I'll have people writing in to ask about Steve's olive oil, so here's where you can buy it on Amazon. Enjoy!
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
Who could resist a talisman capable of warding off the evil eye, especially one priced at less than $5? This nazar seemed like a lot of good karma for the money — until I got home from Athens and the lapel-pin promptly snapped off the back of the amulet so I couldn’t fix it to my jacket as planned. I was going to repair it, but then it dawned on me that any fetish without sufficient juju to protect itself from harm probably wasn’t capable of safeguarding me, either.
Impulsively buying frivolous souvenirs is one of the pleasures of travel, and over the years I’ve collected my share of gimcrack jewelry, gaudy refrigerator magnets, and the kind of pottery and t-shirts that lose their lettering the very first time they’re washed. But every once in a while I run across something so lovely and unusual that I dig a bit deeper into my budget in order to take home something that will provide lasting satisfaction.
Finding such treasures isn’t always easy, and it’s even more rare to be able to buy them directly from the artist in the studio where they were brought into being. That’s why I was delighted to connect with so many members of Seville’s creative community during last weekend’s 11th annual Barrio Abierto (Open Neighborhood) artwalk. Best of all, I obtained their permission to pass on their contact info, in case any of you want to check out their work next time you’re in town.
What kind of stuff are they working on these days? I'm so glad you asked.
Sculptor Marcos Domínguez was trained in Paris then returned to his home city of Seville to work in wood and stone, creating powerful images of humans, animals, and the natural world. He's just putting the finishing touches on his latest work, Oliva, carved from the stump of an ancient olive tree. Information: marcosescultor.com, facebook.com/marcoscultor. Contact: email@example.com.
German-born Alexander Richter creates powerful, often playful images from metal. The chess set he created for his son has pieces up to a foot high and so heavy you'll think carefully before making a move. Information: fuirio.com. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura loves creating offbeat, mesmerizing images of people who defy the classic concept of beauty. The woman at the far left in the one-piece bathing suit is her mother. Laura and partners Javi and Luis are known as El Pez Camera (the Fish Camera). Nope, I have no idea why. Hey, they're artists. Enough said. Contact: email@example.com.
British-born Nicholas Chandler designs fine wood furniture and furnishings in contemporary styles, often with touches of whimsy. He arrived in Seville 16 years ago during, he says, "a mid-life crisis when my life went pear-shaped." Today he receives commissions from clients around the world. Information: nicholaschandler.com. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Telita Laboratorio Textil is a sewing cooperative and community space launched by four enterprising young women: Lorenza Conti, an Italian who designs and makes children's clothing; Spanish graphic designer and seamstress Esperanza Covarsí; Ellavled Alcano, a dancer and designer/seamstress from Venezuela; and Danish Fraya Kanuka who creates clothing and gives clown classes to children. Information: barrioabierto.es/telita-laboratorio-textil. Contact: email@example.com.
Tramallol provides a space for community members to work, play, and cook. During Barrio Abierto, Santiago created a traditional meal from his native city, Valencia, the paella capitol of the world. Rich and I took advantage of the Barrio Abierto special of the day: a couple of plates of superb paella and a two small beers for a lunch with a total price tag of 10 euros ($12). Info and contact: facebook.com/pg/Tramallol.
American wood artist Chris Mott shows off his latest creations: cleverly designed natural wood bottle openers. His day job is teaching English, but woodworking is what he loves doing most. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was sorry to have missed this ceramic artist during the Barrio Abierto; I love her sense of style and way of capturing the fluidity of sea creatures. She markets her work under the name PotMic (POTtery ceraMIC). Information: facebook.com/kookinjapotmic. Contact: email@example.com.
Miguel Conradi was proud to show me the sinuous mirror he created, hanging above Nick's chair and near Cris's bottle openers in the woodworkers' space known as Hombres de Madera (Men of Wood). Information and contact: Instagram #MiCon Furniture.
If you visit one or more of these artists, you’ll find that getting there is half the fun. They’re located in some of Seville’s quirkiest neighborhoods, just twenty minutes easy stroll from the bustling downtown but a world away from souvenir shops and trendy boutiques. Plaza Pelícano, for instance, was created in the 1920s to house a series of music workshops, mostly flamenco, and the big open spaces are perfect for artists, dancers, a few chickens someone is raising, and my Saturday morning yoga class. The once-upscale Plaza Pumarejo is now the haunt of bohemians and the epicenter of the battle to maintain the area’s local character despite the rising tides of gentrification and tourism. Back in the 19th century, the Paisaje Mallol was the heart of a thriving cork industry (for all those wine bottles!) and today the warehouses, grand homes, and stables are community spaces for work and play.
Arriving at one of the studios or collective workspaces, I find that climbing a crooked stairway or stepping through a massive old iron portal is a bit like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole or entering Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. You never know what you’re going to find. There are those who say the world, like my amulet, has lost its magic, but I say those folks don't know where to look. Just check out this video of local artists making a bottle disappear using nothing but water, the laws of physics, and a little good, old-fashioned wizardry.
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“You’ve heard of Diego Armando Maradona, of course,” said Alessandro, our guide on the Naples Street Food Tour.
I had to confess that my knowledge of European football ranks somewhere below my expertise in quantum physics, progressive jazz, and the history of duct tape.
Alessandro, a street-smart Neapolitan whose “day job” is working nights as a fire juggler, was gracious enough to overlook my ignorance. “Our next stop is a bar devoted to Maradona worship.”
Worship is putting it mildly. The entire Bar Nilo was consecrated to the man who was arguably the greatest footballer of all time and is still revered as the hero who brought Naples victory after victory in the 1980s. A shrine on one wall displayed strands of the great man’s hair, a glass vial (allegedly) containing tears shed by fans when he left the team in 1992, and a print of the Sistine Chapel ceiling featuring Maradona as Adam. A sign warned, in four languages, that if you take photos and don’t buy a cup of coffee, you’ll drop your camera “capisc’ a me!!!” (get me!!!). Yikes! Was that an urban legend or a threat? Obviously we weren’t going to take any chances.
As we hastily bought espressos, I asked Rich, “What do you think? Is this a dive bar?”
A dive bar is a uniquely American concept, a kind of funky, no-frills local tavern providing cheap drinks and little or no food, usually in an atmosphere of kitschy memorabilia and dim lighting. The name comes from basement bars in the Prohibition era, when you had to dive down the steps under the cover of darkness to do your drinking. It’s never easy classifying European bars and cafés as true dives, because without the Puritan ethic and history of outlawing booze, few deliberately cultivate an old-school atmosphere of sinful, clandestine tippling. But Rich and I love dive bars and are constantly seeking out European establishments that offer the same quirky combination of cozy familiarity and taking a walk on the wild side.
“It certainly has the kitschy art,” Rich pointed out. “On the other hand, we’re drinking coffee, not beer.”
For years, Rich and I have diligently conducted research to refine our completely unscientific criteria for identifying dive bars and distinguishing between American standard and European traditional. Wherever we are, we look for a small, downscale place frequented by offbeat local characters, preferably with amusing tattoos. We award bonus points for kitschy bar art, duct tape on the seats, floors richly textured with beer and peanut shells, juke boxes, pool tables, and bartenders who drink along with the customers. In Europe, many places we consider dives have some elements you would never find in their US counterparts, such as decent food, coffee, and wine. But we overlook these lapses when they’re outweighed by other factors.
During our recent unplanned, disorganized trip through Italy, Greece, and (briefly) Albania, we explored many promising venues, including the Bar Moro in Lecce, Italy, where the bartender’s hair, clothing, and tattoos were all the same gorgeous shade of royal blue. Classy! Between her personal style and the general ambiance, we decided the Moro qualified, despite serving coffee and what looked like delicious meals.
One night on the Greek island of Corfu, we wandered into a shabby place with no name on a back street called Στρατηγού Ξενοφώντος. Along with our ouzo we were served snacks, possibly involving some sort of sausage, that were so dubious that even we wouldn’t eat them. But we had the pleasure of sitting for a while in a room full of what appeared to be local fishermen taking their ease, and we all enjoyed pretending that we weren’t really spending the time checking each other out.
One of my true regrets of that trip was a missed opportunity during our day trip to Albania. We happened upon the Anchor at just 11:30 in the morning, and as we only had a few short hours in the town of Sarandë, we decided not to stop for a drink. I feel certain it would have been memorable, and I have added it to my must-return-someday list.
As Rich and I soldier on in our research, we’ve come to accept that we may never perfectly define what constitutes a dive bar. But we have proved conclusively that after a night out in one or several of them, we’re likely to be in serious need of restoratives and recombobulators, starting with caffeine. So I will leave you with this little video I made at the bar Mokka in Athens, where I was introduced to coffee made the old-fashioned way, as it was brewed 500 years ago: in hot sand. It’s υπέροχος (delicious) επιπτώσεις (eye-opening), and τονωτικό (guaranteed to cure what ails you).
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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