As an Irish person living in Barcelona comfortable with my vacation tendencies I’m no stranger to bars of a different national disposition to the countries I visit. Whether the holiday calls for interruption by a 6 Nations match, a night of live Dad rock or simply pint of the black stuff (correctly) poured in two parts Irish pubs have a tendency to crop up in my holiday itineraries regardless of the destination. What’s more I feel no obligation to defend the urge – there’s a reason finding one in any city on earth requires a ‘where’s the’ question rather than the ‘is there a’ with which fans of Andorran pubs must pessimistically commence their searches.
High as Irish pubs tend to find themselves in my esteem there’s another nation close to my heart in terms of libation locations. I lived in Ghent in Belgium for the better part of a year and while there learned to appreciate bar culture on different terms. Beer menus replaced rows of taps, chips and chunks of salami replaced peanuts and beer could be ordered by holding ones hand aloft in the internationally recognised mimicry of ‘telephone call’.
As the story goes, Belgians love beer, chips and chocolate. Their loftier percentage beers took getting used to on the part of the twenty-year-old me who thought he knew a thing or two about casual inebriation. It was my time in Belgium that taught me to pace myself and taste my beverages and no better nation exists wherein to adopt such a foible.
Bar culture in Belgium is a different beast to Ireland, though perhaps it could be considered a cousin. The nightlife of the country is – or was at least – structured around late nights slowly sipping strong beer in charismatic establishments. Irish pubs – particularly the ones not found in Ireland – essentially compete to be the best version of a very similar thing. It’s like trying to pick your favourite AC/DC song – it’s probably enough to simply say you like AC/DC.
Belgian bars tend to vie for clientele based on individual charisma. Before I expand on this I’d like to say I have nothing but affection for Irish pubs. Reread the first paragraph. I baffle my Spanish girlfriend on every holiday we take together by insisting on dropping in to anywhere with a harp on the door for a quick look aka two pints of Guinness. But there are rules. There are carpets that simply would not be accepted in any Irish pub worth its salt and there’s a height of ceiling that can demote one’s status from Irish pub to American Irish pub in the blink of an eye – stand up George Payne.
Just as The George Payne is an American Irish pub so too is Dunnes a perfect imitation of a Temple Bar tourist pub in that it is overpriced and far too central. Flaherty’s and the Michael Collins come closest to the real thing and Shenanigans basically is a North Dublin pub dropped in Barcelona – a label with as many pros as cons. The point is they’re striving for something. There are rules. In Belgium the rules are to be clean, memorable and delicious and for my money Barcelona’s Imprfcto scores high on all counts.
Located on Paralel – near to theatres and hotels and hostels and clubs and restaurants galore – Imprfcto has been a regular fixture in my life since it was recommended to be four years ago by a Belgian man with whom I was to share a Currach. While Ollie the rower has since faded to the background fuzz of my memory bank Imprfcto still holds clout in the halls of my mind where fun times are stored. Even if it wasn’t fun it would surely be the only bar I’ve been to which utilises old washing machines as counters and light fixtures.
It is identifiable as Belgian not by flags but by beers, barman and the greatest fries I’ve ever tried in my life. The beers, while impressive in their variety, are standard enough fare for any bar that would dare name itself Belgium. Max, the owner and most frequent server, is a workhouse whose passion for running an establishment people enjoy on his own terms burns so brightly that anyone who’s spent time in his native land can read his gusto as more Belgian than any flag you’d care to drape. And did I mention the chips?
As anyone who’s spent time there can attest Belgians do not mess around with fries and neither does Max. He prepares every order fresh – spud-cutting and all – and seems to have the entire Spanish supply of Samurai sauce at his disposal. You might call it spicy sauce. Max calls it spicy sauce but that is for the lay among you. Anyone who has worshipped at the altar of Belgian fast food (Bicky Burgers and all) knows it only as Samurai. It goes well with the hotdogs and burgers – recent additions to the menu – but its paternal home is forming the greasy bedrock beneath a mountain of chips ensuring that your last mouthfuls are messy but by that point you’re committed and that’s what napkins are for.
On top of the beers and snacks Imprfcto provides an array of live entertainment – table quizzes, comedy shows, music, burning man meetings – that give it its own standing in an area of the city densely decorated in theatres and clubs and restaurants. Arriving there after work has always held a special comfort for me as I emerge from Raval and remove my headphones to take in a few hundred meters of the bustle of Parallel at 8pm on a weeknight. I always get greeted and served with a shorthand that feels like home.
I’m always happy to see holiday makers in there because then I know that at least a little of Barcelona’s buzzing tourist population – by accident or design – has ended up with something they genuinely wouldn’t get anywhere else. While guides might usher you in the direction of Carrer de Blai for pinxtos as essential anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in Spain can tell you pinxto streets are ten-a-penny and rarely contain the best pinxto bar – stand up Gasterria on Carrer Verdi in Gracia – in the city they’re in. Guides would have you sit through a staged flamenco performance and take in the views of Montjuic from a Segway with a goofy helmet toppling your posture. Locals would have you taste the greatest chips in the city as you balance a Kriek on a washing machine.
In writing this I was wondering what makes Imprfcto special and that has bled into what makes Barcelona special. There are beaches and there are mountains and parks and architecture and yet to ask anyone who lives here those would feature low on the list of pros to the cons. People complain about tourism in a facile manner though I’m sure most would acknowledge it is the lifeblood of the city. To placate both camps – visitors and residents – the question of why one should come to Barcelona is better answered with why one should live here.
I’m not talking about healthcare or weather though those are perks. For me the greatest Barcelona has to offer is it’s walkability between worlds. I’m fond of a route from my house of a Sunday that takes me to an Argentinian bar serving the best callos in Barcelona – the secret is spicy almond chunks – to a statue of Gandhi no one knows about to one of a giant lobster everybody does to a taco shop that serves michaladas from a slushy machine. It’s the warring charisma between neighbourhoods. Barcelona was put on the map by the Olympics some three decades ago but the regional sport is and will always be leisure by way of food and drink and laughter and on this point Imprfcto is a home ground as potent in sportsmanship as the Camp Nou. Seek it out, say hi to Max and try a beer you’ve never heard of. And definitely, definitely try the chips.