We went to Cal Pep for dinner last night and, I have to say, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself more in a restaurant!
Cal Pep, by reputation, is one of Barcelona’s best Tapas restaurants. Cal Pep opens its doors for dinner at 7:30pm. And when we arrived at 9:00pm, the place was absolutely hopping. The restaurant seats about twenty customers who all sit diner-style at a long counter and have the opportunity to watch the two Tapas chefs work their magic. There is very little room behind the counter for the two chefs, the four serving staff and the three bus boys but they seem to manage as if it is a well-practiced dance.
We only had to wait ten minutes or so to find a spot at the counter. Less than fifteen minutes later the place was suddenly packed with tourists, most of them Americans as, we discovered, they had just started their Spring Break. And because the restaurant is so small, I had the opportunity to listen in on all kinds of conversations as the people waiting behind me were less than a foot from my back.
Simon was seated beside a young German woman on his other side and, thanks to her flawless English, they got chatting and spent the better part of the meal in animated and intriguing conversation. Simon’s conversation with her meant that I was free to watch the goings-on around me without feeling I was ignoring my partner and I, in turn, did not feel the least bit ignored.
I think the most amusing aspect of Cal Pep was the ordering process. One of the waiters approached us and asked, in broken and heavily-accented English, if we had any allergies or, God-forbid, were vegetarian. We knew better than to launch into the long list of allergies…gluten, dairy, corn…and just told him that I am a vegetarian but that fish and seafood would be perfectly acceptable. He spent a determined few moments asking if I could have a little bit of ham, a little bit of pork or even just a bit of chicken. We assured him that none of the above were preferable but to go-to-town on the seafood. He seemed a bit disappointed in my meat-free insistence but finally acquiesced.
Simon and I turned to each other laughing as we recalled the funny scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding…’that’s okay, I’ll make lamb’.
Once we had established allergies and preferences, I assumed we would get a wine list and a menu. However, neither of those things happened. The waiter asked us whether we wanted four of five Tapas dishes and what we wanted to drink. We told him five Tapas, beer for Simon and red wine for me.
And that was the end of any input from us. While we waited for our mystery order to start arriving, we noticed that the Spanish-speaking patrons were not only offered menus, but wine lists as well. At Cal Pep, life is moving far too fast to accommodate us fumbling English-speakers so they take full and unapologetic control.
What I have not mentioned yet is the owner of Cal Pep who is a short and rather rotund man dressed in his chef whites. He has big glasses, a loud voice and speaks absolutely no English. He commands the chaos like an army general and nothing escapes his notice. Every few minutes he will clap loudly when one of his staff needs to attend to something or other.
While I observed the jovial and steely owner, plates started materializing in front of us and my wine was produced from an enormous bottle. I had absolutely no idea what type of wine it was but I was certainly not challenging the authority of the staff on their choice for me! The food was absolutely delicious and piping hot. Watching the precision and talent of the cooks was inspiring and the barely controlled chaos of the tiny restaurant was utterly bewitching.
Simon was still busy with Cristina, the German woman, so I just ate my meal and basked in the chaos.
Just as I was launching into my artichoke chips, I was aware of a commotion behind me. Part of the Cal Pep protocol is to enter the restaurant and walk to the end of the line behind the diners along the counter. As soon as places become available at the counter, the ones furthest into the restaurant are seated. Apparently, the system had become a little mixed up and a loudly insistent man from Manhattan was voicing his disapproval at the fact that there were people in front of him who had arrived after his party, which consisted of his teenage daughter and heavily bejewelled and gorgeously coifed wife.
Watching one of the waitstaff try to explain that he was aware of the order of patrons and that they would be seated before the party in front of them was fascinating. It was completed with finger actions of walking people, whistling and a funny kind of humming. As the American man was directly behind me, I had front row seats to this comical attempt at communication.
As luck would have it, the Manhattanite was eventually seated beside me, so I had the opportunity to witness what I knew was coming next. What I found particularly interesting was that the owner quickly materialized to take the order from the Manhattan family. There was much back-and-forth in loud Spanish and loud English.
Why is it that when someone clearly does not understand our language, we think that talking louder will smooth out the communication?
Eventually, a wine list was produced and selections were made. The Manhattanite had to fight hard to get a bottle of water as the owner seemed to be trying to communicate, as he patted his round belly and had his hands to his throat, that water was not good for anyone, and that they should just stick to wine.
The man was not amused by these antics but I was transfixed…and they hadn’t even tried to order food yet!
I’m sure you can imagine the tug-of-war that occurred over the food ordering. And, to add insult to injury, the man’s teenage daughter was a vegetarian and no amount of hand gesturing, waving of arms, or belly-patting from the owner was going to budge her, or her infuriated father, on her eating preferences.
By the time the Manhattan family’s food arrived, the man was so angry that I am sure he had to choke down every bite of his food. As I compared his dining experience with mine, I realized that where I had had fun letting go of control and going with the flow of Cal Pep, he had tried to assert control over an environment that was, unapologetically, having none of it.
As we made our way out of the bustling restaurant and into the narrow alley outside the restaurant I was absolutely delighted to have spent our last night in Barcelona in the company of such diverting, delicious, and hilarious surroundings.
And it reminded me how much fun letting go of control and going with the flow can be! And, truly, if we can’t let go of control when we are in someone else’s intriguing culture, then when can we?