“I first went to Barcelona, well… it must have been 15 years ago, when we were looking to open a tapas bar in the original Soho House on Old Compton Street. We spent the whole weekend strolling around Barcelona’s tapas bars and bodegas, and that’s when I fell in love with the city.
Barcelona has wonderful food, a great atmosphere, a creative soul; it’s only two hours from London and there’s good weather for eight months of the year. That first weekend we overdid it at every bar, got to the airport on Sunday evening and realised we hadn’t come up with a name for our own. Then I saw a sign at the airport and thought, there we go: Barcelona. So that’s what we called it, and it ran for 10 years.
I love a city on the sea – Miami, Rio. A city’s always great, but if it’s on the sea it’s a double bonus. My 11-year-old daughter came with me on my last visit here; we ate one of the best paellas in town at Xiringuito Escribà, on the beachfront; then after lunch, she and her friend went swimming. If it’s a nice sunny day you can sit at the tables outside and enjoy the views. But if you’re inside, you can watch the chefs cooking the beautiful rice dishes right in front of you. The key to paella is to eat it only at lunchtime. That’s what the Spanish do.
Last year, we opened Soho House Barcelona in a beautiful old 18th-century building amid the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter, which looks out onto the marina. Ten years ago you’d be guaranteed to get your wallet nicked if you went out in this area; but in the past three years it’s gone through a process of gentrification. There are hotels being redone, people buying apartments, fashion stores like Antonio Barcelona, and La Comercial, which sells scent, candles and clothes. Or there’s great vintage 19th- and 20th-century furniture at El Changuito, which is a kind of museum, art gallery, attic and market stall merged into one, and the amazing sweet shop Papabubble, where you can watch the sweets being made by hand. And just a bit further on is the interiors and concept store Luzio, which sells everything from jewellery to sofas to photography.
I wanted Soho House Barcelona to have the feel of a guesthouse built in the 18th century, but with all the updated bits and a Cecconi’s restaurant. We’ve reused the old terracotta roof tiles in the bathrooms and sourced vintage furniture from El Changuito and the vintage fair Mercantic in Sant Cugat. Even though our design is looking more and more contemporary, we’re very keen to make it warm and comfy and ensure guests have a strong sense of being in Barcelona.
I’ve stayed in several different hotels I’ve liked in town; one of my absolute favourites is the Casa Bonay. It’s a 19th-century family home that’s been converted into a hotel with the help of Studio Tack, a design company from Brooklyn. The space has some great original design details – I especially like the Nolla tiled mosaic floors – and a grand staircase. I was taken there by the team recently to try the pop-up Vietnamese restaurant, called Elephant, Crocodile, Monkey, which I’d recommend; try the pho soup and the nem.
There’s also Mercer Barcelona, which, like the House, is in the Gothic Quarter. It has just 28 rooms, and I love how they have incorporated original parts of the building right into them, with stonework from the 2nd century. I always ask for one that overlooks the courtyard and its Orange Tree Patio; they’re quiet, and private.
Then more recently, I’ve stayed at The Wittmore, down one of the darkest alleys in the middle of the Gothic Quarter. There’s no sign, nothing; just a doorman standing at the end of the street. There are 22 rooms, with old-fashioned touches I like – telephones and leather-bound books by the bed, with Bakelite wall switches. You can use the roof terrace to sunbathe, or get a great view of the city; the bar’s take on the Old Fashioned is excellent, a good way to finish a night.
I like to arrive in Barcelona on the early BA flight from Heathrow, and my perfect day is planned around lunch in a tapas bar. I took my daughter to one called Bar Cañete, where you discuss the specials with the waiters and then, after you’ve eaten, you walk out onto the busy Rambla. But my favourite is Cal Pep, the place that inspired the Hart brothers’ Barrafina in Soho. It’s family run, an institution with the locals and has a beautiful bar, which is full to the brim at lunchtime. So head for the dining room and get a table. There’s no menu – the waiter asks what food you like and then starts serving you plate after plate of tapas. There’s nothing better than a Spanish anchovy, or a simple plate of jamón or some croquetas. Croquetas are a difficult thing to get right; the ham and béchamel have to be cooked in just the right way so that the croqueta goes ‘splosh’ when you bite into it. Cal Pep has them down to a fine art. I remember one time when my wife Kirsty came over; we just sat at the bar, drank sherry, then Estrella, then wine, then fell off our bar stools and went on our merry way.
There are some bad tapas bars, of course. It’s a bit like Paris, where you think, “Ooh, Paris, the food’s great!”; but the food was great in the 1970s and hasn’t really evolved, and those corner cafés are now third- or fourth-generation families who don’t give a toss about them. In Barcelona you have to pick and choose too; but once you’ve walked into a place, you can usually suss it out very quickly. Just off the Rambla is La Boqueria, a massive, covered food market where the fish has just come off the boats and you see little old ladies choosing each tomato. I can spend hours there; I actually much prefer it to an art gallery, but there you go. Though, of course, the architecture in Barcelona is beautiful, starting with the airport. Designed by Ricardo Bofill, it’s phenomenal. And it seems obvious, but I do love Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia. The level of detail is incredible both inside and out; all the saints, birds, flowers, fruit… amazing. I’m not particularly religious but I visit the baroque church of Sant Felip Neri for the beauty of the architecture; and right outside is the slightly faded but very romantic square, Plaça Sant Felip Neri.
One of my favourite things is to go to Camp Nou to watch Barcelona play. It’s one of the finest football stadiums in the world; it’s already the largest in Europe and there are plans to extend it to fit 105,000 people. It’s easy to get there on the Metro, and last year I went to watch my team, Arsenal, get thrashed by Messi and Co. It’s different in London; you go to watch Arsenal and it’s all fun and banter. At Barça they’re so passionate, they live for their football. Then afterwards, you go to another tapas bar…
I haven’t done the clubs and dancing scene in Barcelona. I prefer to sit in a bar that might turn into a big party (it usually does). But in June they have a huge music festival called Sónar. People get really excited about it. Otherwise, from Barcelona you can go sailing. We’re also opening Little Beach House Barcelona, a 15-room beach hotel in an area called Garaff, that is set to open in the next couple of years. To get there takes half an hour by train from the centre of Barcelona, or an hour and a half by boat. We’ll have our own restaurant, but there’s already La Cúpula Garraf and Nàutic Garraf, which are both nice and worth the trip. And we’re designing the hotel ‘Catafornian’ style – you know, Catalan/Californian.
I think the way people live in Barcelona is different from other cities. They get up later, are not so obsessed with their careers and are more concerned about how they live. They’re in good shape, because all that Mediterranean food is so healthy, and everyone’s out jogging in the streets. But lunch and dinner are still really important to them. That, and a siesta!”