Granada: With your drink

If I lived in Granada, I’d be a raging alcoholic.

Not to say that wouldn’t be true in other places as well. The drinks certainly flowed well in cities like Budapest, and in New Orleans there was a go-cup in my hand from breakfast until, well, nearly breakfast again. But this part of the south of Spain is a special case.

It’s not because of the quality of the booze, either. While some of that Spanish wine is pretty decent, more often than not you’re just knocking back a fairly ordinary lager. Nor is it really a constant party like some other cities, with every individual moment of revelry staying relatively tame.

No, the potential damage to my liver in Granada would be thanks to one simple fact: In this town, drinking is the best way to eat.

“Tapas” has become one of the most overused words in the world of food. It has inexplicably morphed into a catchall term for any small plate, regardless of cuisine or style. But in this corner of Andalucía, they do tapas as it is meant to be done. That is to say, free with your drink.

That’s right. The bars and restaurants of Granada give you free food with every drink, all through the day. It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

And, to be honest, more often than not it is. A lot of the food is simply terrible. Just think about the sort of dishes that would be out for free by every tourist-trap beer barn, where everything is deep-fried in the same old oil. There are plenty of bars where free tapas is a horrible thing, but then they aren’t the bars that I go to.

If you ignore them, though, and go to the classic places, the neighbourhood places, and the places that take some time with their food, then it can be a great experience. Take, for example, Bar Casa Julio. A tiny hole in the wall bar down a tiny laneway off one of the main tourist squares, Bar Casa Julio has maybe eight items on the menu. With your drink you might get some salty, crunchy fried anchovies or squid, a fresh octopus salad, or some simply luxurious croquettes. And be sure to get the berenjenas, fried slices of eggplant drizzled with a thick, dark honey, one of the best vegetarian snacks I’ve come across.

Everything at Bar Casa Julio was simple and delicious, the way bar food should be. How could anyone stick to just one drink?

If you listen to locals, or do a bit of research, you can find bars like this across the city. There was a little neighbourhood joint called Bar Axia, suggested to me by a barber, which was wonderful. It was a warm day and people spilled out into the square, knocking back glasses of cold beer and plates of cured meats, sardines, fried seafood and deliciously silky potato salad. I didn’t want to leave.

Nor did I want to walk out the door at La Tana, where surprisingly bright slices of tomato on bread accompanied a killer wine list and a room buzzing with people enjoying themselves. The place was so packed that it was hard to move, random artifacts covered the wall, and it felt like a place that people wanted to be. I certainly did.

And that’s the thing about Granada. It’s not that the food is the best you will eat, or even the best tapas (Seville takes the cake there. I could spend ages talking about the pork cheek at Bodeguita Romero). It’s the conviviality of the culture that makes it special.

I love good food and drink. I think that is pretty clear. But as much as the quality of the food matters to me, food is at its best when it brings people together. The way they eat in Granada, with small plates and lots of drinks, works well for getting people talking. It’s no wonder that the rest of the world has borrowed tapas culture, even if much of the world hasn’t mastered the art yet.

Granada is a town fully immersed in the idea of eating and drinking together. That’s why I had to leave. I don’t know how much togetherness my liver could handle.