Most restaurant reviews focus on just one part of the dining experience: the food. But just as important as the food is everything else: branding, interior design, service, music, and overall vibe. An exceptional dining out experience is one where all the senses are engaged, not just the taste buds. Find out which restaurants have the “taste” to meet our standards (and which ones don’t).
Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
south end, boston
A chain restaurant in the South End?
Barcelona brings el gusto
This week Hungry For Design explores new territory—a chain restaurant. When you hear the word “chain,” Red Lobster or The Cheesecake Factory might spring to mind. And while it’s true that chains come in all concepts and price points, the more successful ones have this in common: a tested and systematic operation that ensures consistent products and customer service experience across locations. We wondered how a chain would fit into Boston’s foodie mecca—and our neighborhood—the South End.
Barcelona was founded in South Norwalk, Connecticut and has expanded to locations throughout Connecticut into Georgia, Washington, D.C., and now the Boston market. Inspired by co-owner Sasa Mahr-Batuz’s memories of living in Spain, the concept is meant to capture the look, feel, and flavors of an evening on La Rambla. Today, Barcelona’s 10 locations on the East Coast make it the largest Spanish restaurant group in the United States—with more on the way.
Though its street presence remains nearly nonexistent—sheer white drawn drapes conceal the interior—Barcelona transforms the interior with a warm, comfortable, modern aesthetic. An active, U-shaped marble bar and adjacent wooden booths make for an attractive and functional focal point—the literal and physical heart of the restaurant-slash-wine bar. The kitchen sits behind the bar and two dining areas flank it on either side. The larger dining area on the right features wooden tables and chairs, and a festive vibe. The smaller, white tablecloth dining room on the left seems to cater to an older theatre crowd (at least on the night we were there). Throughout the entire space, the drawn but airy curtains covering the front windows create a kind of light box effect from the inside.
In addition to the excellent use of space compared to the former restaurant in the same location, Barcelona’s renovation brought about several smart design details. We like the repeated pattern of the open forms on the left room divider which gives a vaguely Mediterranean feel to the wall. And on the other side, a shelving system filled with books and various objets d’art brings a curated, residential influence. Both room dividers help separate the busy bar area from the dining areas while providing texture and interest to the room. We also like the patterned area rug in the larger dining room. It breaks up the dark wood used throughout and differentiates the space. Large potted plants—a strong design element you don’t often see used in restaurant settings—also help warm up the space, conjuring Spain’s climate and reminding us that spring is slowly-but-surely coming to Boston. In fact, we suggest adding more large plants along the side glass wall that will eventually open up to outdoor patio seating when (or if) warm weather allows.
Chef Steven Brand serves everything you’d expect to find at a tapas restaurant, many which go along with the outstanding bread served. We tried a wide variety of small plates highlighted by Patatas Bravas, Spinach-Chickpea Cazuela, Roasted Garlic Swordfish, Mushrooms a la Plancha, Jamon and Chicken Croquettes, Kale Salad, and Octopus. Entrée options, a leg of Jamon (sliced tableside), and cheeses/charcuterie are also available. Overall, we found the food extremely likeable. Our friend astutely observed that, “You can feel the market research that has gone into creating this.”
In addition to tried and true food, Barcelona patrons can expect service that’s a cut above. This is an area where a chain can often come off as corporate rather than personal (despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that corporations are people). During our visit, management staff trained new employees while the head manager visited each and every table. We were impressed by her requests for feedback and commitment to making our experience as good as possible. Like the best chains, Barcelona goes to great lengths to meet or exceed guest expectations at every location. Even though each one is a little different in terms of design and food, our experience in the South End made us confident that we would encounter the same quality at any Barcelona we visit.
Despite this attention to detail, Barcelona’s branding seems to be oddly neglected. The gilded typeface on the window, for starters, is very subtle as exterior signage and doesn’t match the brand identity used on the restaurant’s collateral or website. Also, we’re not sure what the logo is supposed to represent. A woman? A fan with legs? The connection is unclear. Finally, the website is sorely outdated. Despite some nice photos, it’s unconsidered design is out-of-sync with the professionalism that’s so apparent in the design of the menu, space, and service.
But in the end Barcelona is a welcome addition to the South End’s flourishing Spanish dining scene. While Ken Oringer’s chef-driven Toro and Madrid native Julio de Haro’s authentic Estragon will always have a place with local foodies, we expect Barcelona to garner a mainstream following. Its easy-to-love food and thought through atmosphere is sure to please large groups, visitors, and South End locals for years to come.
Like the best restaurant chains, the team behind Barcelona has spent time refining the concept to get just about everything right—from the interior to the food to the service. Visit this new slice of Spain in the South End, and we think you’ll agree: this chain is made of strong links.