From recent activity on this board it seems like chowhounds are flocking to Barcelona this season. We'll be here for awhile so we plan to try out some of the places Brain recommended recently, plus we still haven't made it to Badalona for Llar de la ali oli (Jim Leff's favorite restaurant. still?).
We have some specific recommendations below, but first it's interesting to note that there are millions of restaurants in Barcelona. Most of them do a huge lunch business with low priced daily menus. Few of them are worth seeking out specifically, but if you're in Barcelona for more than a few days it's worth trying some to get a feel for how the local people normally eat. They eat a lot. It's best to just walk off into the L'Eixample somewhere (not Passiage de Gracia or near any tourist site). Usually the menu of the day is around 7 euros and includes 2 courses, a dessert, bread and wine (or water and sometimes beer). The food is usually reasonably good and definitely a bargain. Wine is often all-you-can-drink. They simply bring a full bottle of wine to the table when you order. It took us a few times before we realized that it wasn't necessary to drink the whole bottle. :) I think they marry the bottles at the end of the day (like ketchup). Luckily there's a pretty quick turn over. At the wine shop down the street from our place you can buy it in bulk straight from a cask at 1 euro per liter. The wine isn't great mind you, but it's pretty good once you accept it for what it is. Free. It tastes somewhat like beaujolais nouveau and goes well with food.
My general dining strategy is to order things off the menu that I don't recognize. I won't soon forget some of them and it's a great way to increase my Catalan vocabulary. Cheyenne's strategy is to avoid tripe. She's also discovered that it's usually possible to take two first courses and therefore avoid a huge plate of meat which is often what the second courses are. I really like daily menus and can't understand why this practice isn't more popular in the US. It limits the number of choices and encourages you to try things you may not normally order.
Finally the goods. Most of these are budget places where you can get a great meal for less than 10 euros if you stick to the menu. Ordering a la carte will usually be a little less than double the cost. The exceptions are D.O, Casa Jordi, and Cal Pep where you should expect 20 euros per person or more.
D.O (Verdi 36, Gracia) Asian/Catalan fusion tapas and wine bar. Nice modern decor and atmosphere--definitely not too fancy. They serve about 20 different wines by the glass and they have a long list of additional wines by the bottle. Prices range around 2-4 euros for glasses of wine (the one we tried was really good) and average 5 for the tapas (tapas portions are small--so this isn't exactly your average (we're going to load up on tapas for dinner sort of place). I thought this place was great; everything we ordered was really good and the things we saw others eating also looked excellent. The menu is in catalan only, but seemed strangely readable (maybe we are just used to asian-fusion food..). Tapas are artfully arranged on japanese-style dishes and the service is really relaxed and friendly.
Bar Central "la boqueria" (Mercat Boqueria) . There are a few places to eat in the market but after scoping out the place and looking over peoples shoulders, we decided upon this one. We got a plate of grilled artichokes and the calamares a la plancha (grilled) and both were excellent. We will be back to try the razor clams, gambas, etc. Everything looked great! We haven't gotten this completely figured out yet, but when you order a 'cervesa' in a bar (even when EVERYONE is drinking it), stuff gets complicated and you end up with beer menus, or large and strangely shaped glasses, etc. If you order the 'cana' (w/the 'ñ' 'enya') you get the normal looking glass of what's on tap (like everyone else has). Whew. (There's a 'Bar Central' across from the Universitat station but they don't appear to be related.)
Maur (Comte d'Urgell 9, Sant Antoni) We had just finished checking out the Sunday used book market at the Mercat de Sant Antoni when we found this place. I ordered the calcots. I actually thought I was ordering snails (cargols) which caused Cheyenne to immediately counter with grilled endives. Imagine my surprise when I was delivered a roof tile covered with steaming blackened onions. They appeared to have been yanked out of the ground only moments before. The were still covered with dirt and even had large dirt clods clinging to the roots. Grilled dirt clods! Luckily another table had order them as well and I was able to get some pointers. You peel off the burnt and dirty outer layers to reveal the tender juicy insides and dip them in romesco sauce. The grilled endives were also good and came with the same sauce. In addition, we split a decent pizza. We've already been back for a second try and we weren't disappointed. I'm not sure that we have anything like calcots in the US. Green onions are probably too small to be grilled this way. They offer a menu for 8 euros but you should go for the calcots if they are in season.
Roure (Luis Antunez 7, Gracia) We were following up on a chowhound recommendation and were pleased to find a cool low key tapas bar. The name is unclear, it might be called Bar el Roble and the address might be Riera de Sant Miguel 51, but never mind... that. It's on the corner of these two streets. It has a neighborhood feel with a constant stream of people meeting up for a beer and some snacks before heading out to where ever. If you keep an eye on the kitchen you can see what's coming out fresh and order accordingly. The best things are the atmosphere and the prices. We had 5 tapas, 4 beers, 2 coffees, and a dessert for less than 18 euros.
Casa Jordi (Marimon 18, Sant Gervasi) A bit fancier than we were expecting, but the portions ended up being fairly good sized and we were stuffed after splitting the espinacs a la catalana, calamars a la plancha and a crema catalana (oh, and a bottle of wine). Everything was excellent. The house wine was definitely better than average by far (this wasn't the free wine though--we paid the outrageous amount of NINE euros!!!), the Catalan spinach was really good--they add little bits of a hard salami to it which gives is a really nice flavor, the grilled calamaris were perfect, and the crema catalana was mighty fine. This is one of those places where they immediately start to load your table with appetizers, which has always sort of freaked us out a little. Maybe it's just an american thing to assume that whatever they put on your table unordered is free. Anyway, they bring all the stuff to everyone who comes in and it's quite normal to send it away if you don't want it, or eat this exclusively for lunch accompanied with several beers like the table neighboring ours.
Smooth (Enric Granados 73, L'Eixample) We spotted this place after we'd already eaten, but it looked intriguing so we took a card and finally made back a few weeks later. It's near Casa Mila so you might find yourself in the area. The decor and atmosphere are in keeping with the name. Our waitress was very friendly. The menu del dia was 8.40 euros and the second course choices were Quiche or Carpaccio. I didn't know what carpaccio might be so I went ahead and ordered it. Cheyenne intuitively knew she didn't want it and went with the Quiche. My carpaccio turned out to be tissue paper thin sliced raw beef sprinkled with Parmesan and drizzled in olive oil. It was wonderful. I even got Cheyenne to try and she begrudgingly admitted that it was pretty good. The quiche was unlike any quiche we've every encountered. It had thick layer of cheese below the normal egg quiche layer. It was pretty good but not outstanding and even richer than a normal quiche. Very good apple cake for desert -- tart apples. Also, better than average coffee.
Cal Pep (Placa de les Olles 8, Born) This place gets a lot of traffic on chowhound so there isn't much need to mention it again, I guess. Delicious though. The best thing was the tigrelitas (I think, scampi?) which were amazing. Just barely cooked. I must learn to cook shrimp like this. I've tried this at home but didn't get very good results. I've been dreaming about it since we had gambas cooked this way at a random place in Caceras on a rainy day 4 years ago. It was pouring and we couldn't be budged--we spent the whole day eating shrimp, olives, and drinking wine. Cal Pep is small and crowded but the ventilation system does a good job of keeping the air clear or maybe it's just that the diners are too intent on the food to bother smoking. There are tables in the back somewhere, but I'm not sure what you have to do to get one.
Bar Pastis (Santa Monica 4, La Rambla) No Food. This is a very cool atmospheric little French-ish bar that seats about 4 people. They apparently have live music on Tues/Wed/Sundays; I'm guessing they must suspend the musicians from the ceiling. They have their own house label Pastis, which is the best in the entire world according to the bartender (downright tasty according to me, but I hadn't ever tried any pastis before). The place is decorated with zillions of postcards and trinkets, old liquor bottles, etc., and a life-size paper mache woman sculpture hanging from the ceiling. We're going back to check out the music next time--out of sheer curiosity as much as out of interest in the music. (We found our way back on a Wendsday night and thoroughly enjoyed a singer/guitar duo doing Argentinean folk songs)
Bar London (nou de la Rambla, Raval) A previous chowhound rec. No food. This is a dense and smoky bar with live music every night (starting at 11:30PM). When we first went here the band was billed as "reggae" but it didn't sound like any reggae I've ever herd (spanish afro fusion maybe?). It was amazing. I want to track them down and become a groupie. There's no cover so your free to wander in and check out the scene before committing to a drink.
Bar Marsella (C/ de Sant Pau 65, Raval) Recommended on chowhound as a good place to drink absinthe. It seems to be the thing to drink here and there are dozens of pre measured glasses behind the bar waiting to be whisked of with a sugar cube and small bottle of water to a table of giggling tourists (4.50 with water and 3.25 without). We observed the preparation and discovered that they mix in one shot of sweet vermouth per bottle of absinthe which makes the absinthe sweeter and it almost doesn't need the sugar. Even if you aren't interested in the absinthe it's worth stepping in just to check out the bar, which is a groovy art nouveau decor with dozens of moldy bottles lining the room. The chandeliers are thickly covered with cobwebs and dust. They only have one type of absinthe though and it's not the best brand. If you want to try something better head over to Bar Pastis.
-----------Good Basic Lunch Menu Places-----------
La Fonda (Escudellers 10, La Rambla) It was recommended on chowhound and by a Catalan friend. Because it's just south of Placa Reial, this place is in all the books and does a heavy tourist business. However, don't let this turn you off because the food is good and the prices are very reasonable (menu del dia, 14 euros but oddly this doesn't save much over the a la carte prices since the portions are large). There always seem to be a fair number of locals here as well. Get in early though. We arrived at 1:15 and it was mostly empty but when we left an hour later there was a line at the door. Another nice feature is the non smoking section downstairs, although upstairs is nicer. I don't understand why it is necessary for Spaniards to smoke ALL the time. The smokers etiquette here seems to require that one smoke in inverse proportion to the size of the space and quality of the ventilation. This is an excellent choice for a first meal in Barcelona because they have good catalan food along with translated menus. Also, since it near the main tourist area you won't feel like you stick out too much. Unfortunately, our second visit left us a little disappointed, but we haven't crossed it off our list yet. The paella was so-so and the crema catalana was sub par.
El Raco de L'Aguir (Tamarit 117, Sant Antoni) It's right around the corner from our apartment but it took us weeks to get around to trying it. Slightly fancier than your average neighborhood lunch place but they still have a menu for only 7.50 euros. We both had the arroz al forn (catalan rice dish similar to paella but is baked in a terracota dish without safron) which was very good. My second course of pork loin wasn't nearly as good though. The pork was slightly overcooked an smothered in a boring brown gravy. Why rice/noodle dishes are considered first courses in a mystery to us. I'd usually be happy with paella as a second course (or an only course for that matter). To know that you'll be getting a gigantic plate of meat as soon as you finish your huge plate of rice is somewhat alarming. We almost dropped this from the rec list due to the pork loin, but then we remembered that it was the best flan we've had so far. It's worth a try if you're spending a lot of time near the Mercat de Sant Antoni.
Miria (PL. Ruis i Taulet 11, Gracia) We've been here twice already since it's close to where we go to Spanish class. For the first course you always get a little of each of the 3 appetizers (a salad, a soup, and some sort of baked thing). On our first visit I choose meatballs with inkfish as my second course and cheyenne had a small bony fish (it was delicious even though she was irritated by having to pick out all the bones). The second time I had goat ribs and she had bacalao. My ribs were excellent but Cheyenne was overwhelmed by the saltiness of the bacaloa (especially after the anchovy tartlet). The major duds were the asian salad and the chocolate pudding. I ordered the pudding without knowing what it was, I don't normally like pudding so I'm not really one to judge. The menu is 7 euros and they also offer an alternative vegetarian menu for 5.40.
BioSpace (C/ Valencia 186, L'Eixample) We've seen a couple of organic markets in L'Eixample but I think the prices are better at Bio Space, which also has a small non-smoking cafИ inside w/a 4 course vegetarian menu for 8.50 Euros. There are also combination plates with meat (presumably organic). The food isn't outstanding, but in case you are jonesing for soy products, brewers yeast, or sprouts or something, it's nice to know it's there.
If you need decent internet access the best place we've found is "Click Center" at Tamarit and Sant Antoni. You can get an unlimited weekly pass for 6 euros (or 1.5 per hour) and the connection is not restricted (ie no draconian firewall). This is also the only place I've found where they will allow you to connect your own hardware (for example, a digital camera or a usb hard drive).
Also, at any newstand you can pick up a copy of "Guia del Ocio" for 90 cents. It comes out on Thursday and lists everything that's going on in the city. It's in Spanish, but it's pretty easy to decipher event listings even if you don't read Spanish.