“This place has the worst food in all of Seville,” I told a new acquaintance, as we sat down at a small outdoor table. “And the staff is downright hostile. We eat here every week.”
The restaurant (which shall remain nameless) is strictly old school with dark wood, tile floors, a long bar, and a giant espresso machine. It happens to be the only eatery within shouting distance of the yoga studio I go to on Saturday mornings, and as everyone’s weekends are busy, we opt for the convenience. Over the years, the quality of the ham (a mainstay of breakfast in Seville) has deteriorated from passable to leathery to ghastly. And don’t even think about asking for any newfangled nonsense like whole wheat bread or avocado because it’s simply not happening.
But it’s the hostility that’s truly astonishing. Maybe it’s because we arrive just before noon, the traditional cut-off for serving breakfast, forcing them to toast bread and make coffee for an extra fifteen minutes. “But isn’t that what they’re in business to do?” newcomers always ask in bewilderment. One would think. Maybe it’s because our yoga class is taught by an Englishwoman and attracts foreign students; they might feel we’re lowering the tone of the establishment. Who knows?
Whatever sparked the conflict, they’ve taken the battle to the bathrooms. The Ladies’ lost its toilet seat ages ago, and a rag is now duct-taped in the opening that once held the doorknob. The automatic light shuts off so rapidly that even the most efficient user finds herself plunged into darkness at various awkward moments during the proceedings, requiring her to leap up and flap her hands in the air to restore illumination. Each week as we arrive, the tile floor around the rest rooms is mopped, creating a slippery hazard. Just this Saturday they upped the ante by pouring eye-watering caustic chemicals — I’m guessing bleach mixed with radioactive waste — into the toilet; the bartender walked out of the Ladies’, holding the bucket and grinning, as I headed in.
Yet all week I look forward to spending time in that restaurant. Because much as I dislike the food, the attitude, and the lavatory, I love hanging out with my yoga friends. In Seville, choosing a place to eat is as much about tribal identity as it is about the particulars. As I sipped my coffee there last Saturday, I got to thinking about the three main food tribes in this city.
The Traditional Tribe
When I first arrived in Seville, just about every eatery served the same classic tapas, such as carrillada (pork cheeks), tortilla de España (Spanish omelet), and solomillo al whisky (braised pork with whisky sauce). Traditional bars tend to have gorgeous old tiles, ham legs hanging from the ceiling, and somebody’s abuela (grandmother) in the kitchen, making food the way her abuela taught her back in the days of Franco and food shortages. These dishes are simple, practical, and thrifty. Innovation and spices have no place on the menu.
The Foodie Tribe
The city’s recent foodie revolution couldn’t have been more shocking to local sensibilities if it had arrived in the city by flying saucer. Seemingly overnight we had Thai food, Peruvian-Japanese restaurants, Mexican taquerias, and impossible-to-define fusion places with amusing light fixtures and bewildering menus. If you’re heading to Seville, here are some you might want to check out.
Bar Castizo, Calle Zaragoza, 6. They define their cuisine as old-school, and many dishes are, but they’re produced with artistic flourishes that demonstrate cutting-edge foodie sensibilities. The setting is charmingly hip. Don’t miss the rest rooms walls covered with domino tiles.
Contenedor, San Luis, 50. Here you’ll find eclectic decor and some of the best eats in the city. On your way out, you’ll want to use the self-operated antique printing machine to print up a card so you can find your way back.
Eslava, Eslava, 3. This one's so popular you'll have to come early to have any chance of elbowing your way into the crowded bar and back room; avoid the more formal restaurant area, as it's not worth the extra cost.
Mamarracha Tapas y Brasas, Hernando Colon, 1 - 3. It describes itself as having urbanite conceptual character. Whatever that is. There’s a lovely vertical garden and offerings such as Thai salmon with seaweed; the food never disappoints.
Zalata, Doña Maria Coronel, 17. A cozy place with international dishes arranged so artistically they’re almost too gorgeous to dig into. And yet we do. Rich maintains their arroz negro (black rice) is the best in the city.
The Organic Tribe
With the profusion of Airbnb apartments in the city, eating in has become more popular with vacationers, especially foreigners used to organic produce and products. This is a boon to the city’s up-and-coming health food industry. Some friends and I recently attended the third annual BioCultura, “an ecological products and responsible consumerism fair.” We spent several happy hours nibbling and sipping our way through the free samples, chatting with cheerfully eccentric vendors who were delighted when we purchased their olive oil, wine, and chorizo. (How is chorizo a health food? Made from pigs raised on granola and tofu, perhaps? I never did learn for sure.)
I was delighted to run across some oatmeal, which is sold only in health food shops and not always easy to find. When I carried two large bags of rolled oats to the counter, the clerk shook her head. “We won’t sell you that.”
It took me some time to grasp what she was telling me: all the food in this, the largest booth in the entire fair, was for display purposes only.
“If we sold it to you,” she explained in a “well, duh!” tone of voice, “we wouldn’t have any to display!”
Ah, now I was on familiar ground. This store, like the restaurant I go to after yoga, exists for the convenience of the staff, not the customers. Perhaps the tribes aren’t that far apart after all.
Many of us are lucky enough to move back and forth from one tribe to another. I make my own granola, Rich cooks traditional paella, and we often go out with friends to trendy new hotspots and old-style café-bars where abuelas rule the kitchen. And despite all the recent changes, it’s clear that the Sevillanos have not lost their traditional attitude towards eating. They have taught me that food is one of the great pleasures of life, and even the simplest meal should be embraced as if it were a gift. Because it is.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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