date published: May 5, 2000

Tapas—Spanish dishes often referred to as little appetizers—are making a big statement in the Boston dining world. Similar to a chef’s tasting table, tapas gives the diner an excellent opportunity to sample many delicacies without becoming overwhelmed or over-filled. Oftentimes customers order three or four plates to share amongst the table or to devour by themselves. Hot or cold, vegetable or seafood (scallops and even squid), these unique dishes warm you up for the platos principales (main course) or act as the entree by filling you up. But don’t let their small size fool you—before you know it, you’ll have gobbled down as many as four dishes, leaving you feeling comfortably full. 

The history behind tapas is as unique as the dishes themselves. The concept is believed to have originated more than a century ago in Andalusia, Spain, also known as the birthplace of sherry. It is said that bartenders placed a slice of bread atop their customer’s glasses in order to prevent fruit flies from drowning in their drinks. It soon became customary to spice up the bread with a bit of ham or a slice of cheese, creating an enticing snack that kept diners coming back for more. And so tapas, from the Spanish word tapa, meaning cover or lid, was born. 

Nowadays, tapas are a bit more than ham and cheese; they are complete meals offering tastes reminiscent of Barcelona, Catalonia and Portugal. Alongside the tapas, don’t forget to try out the sangria. Served in most tapas bars, this red wine and fruit concoction acts as a wonderful accompaniment to the tapas and helps bring that added flavor of Spain to your taste buds. 

Local restaurants like Dalí, Tapeo, Sophia’s, Tasca, Rauxa and Gala are bringing traditional tapas to Boston. All these bars are pretty casual too, so you can wine and dine in khakis or jeans.

Bar None - Lively and colorful, the bar at Dali in Somerville certainly lives up to the legacy of its namesake.The first restaurant in our survey of local tapas bars is Dalí (415 Washington St., Somerville, 661-3254). Get there early. The place fills up quickly and finds diners lining up outside the door. Judging by the crowd on the sidewalk, however, Dalí is well worth the wait. Once inside, you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped out of Somerville (a funky, suburban enclave just north of Cambridge) and right into Spain. The dining areas are dimly lit, Spanish waiters don flashy garb and the interconnected dining rooms are eccentrically- designed, reflecting the creativity of the surrealist painter for whom the restaurant is named. Grab a pitcher of sangria from the authentic Spanish bar, complete with blue tiles, dried flowers and real stuffed animals. Choose from 40 hot and cold tapas, including esparragos blancos (Spanish white asparagus), vieiras al azafrán (scallops in saffron cream) and, if you’re feeling daring, chipirones rellenos (stuffed squid in its own ink). And brush up on your rolled r’s because they encourage you to order the dishes in Spanish. $10 food minimum per person per table; tapas range from $3-7.50. Open nightly 5:30-11 p.m.; bar ‘til midnight.

Brought to life six years to the day after its sister restaurant Dalí, Tapeo (268 Newbury St., 267-4799) is creating quite a reputation for itself on Newbury Street. The authentic blue-tiled bar decorated with dried chili peppers, garlic braids and real stuffed animals; excellent sangria; and extensive tapas selection, including gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), solomillo en tostada (beef tenderloin with pimento on toast) and alcachofas rebozadas (artichokes in saffron butter), are reminiscent of Dalí. However, at Tapeo you can enjoy all of this in a cozy basement bar or dining area, complete with tiled floors, blue tables and red chairs, and walls elegantly decorated with pots, pans, and plates; or you may choose to sit next to the fireplace in the fancier first floor dining area. Tapeo’s special summertime treat is its outdoor dining area where you can eat tapas and drink sangria while watching the Newbury Street passersby. The service is great and the funky pins worn by the hosts and waitstaff are a great conversation starter. $10 minimum per person per table; tapas range in price from $3.50-$7.50. Open for lunch Sat & Sun noon-5:30 p.m.; dinner Sun-Wed 5:30-10:30 p.m., Thu-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.

Since there are no more sisters, brothers or cousins of Dalí, we’ll move outside the family tree to Tasca (1612 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton, 730-8002). This Spanish paradise, opened by a native of Ireland, is very simplistic in its design, unlike its aforementioned counterparts. There is one dining room, resting on a level slightly lower than the bar. The distance between tables is spacious and the interior decorations consist only of soothing blue wall paintings. Dim lighting and candles atop every table create an atmosphere of utter relaxation. The sangria (which also helps quite a bit in the relaxation department) is served up in ceramic pitchers and is highly recommended. Having to choose from an array of more than two dozen tapas, including confit de pato (roast duck leg served over red cabbage and apples), croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes with basil aioli) and hojaldrados de chorizo (spanish sausage in puff pastry), makes selecting your dinner the only stressful part of the visit. In a neighborhood full of college kids, this ethnic hotspot draws crowds every day of the week. Tapas range in price from $1-5.75. Open Mon-Thu 5-11 p.m., Fri & Sat 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun 4-11 p.m. 

Last but definitely not least in the survey of full-fledged Boston area tapas bars stands Sophia’s (1270 Boylston St., 351-7001). The popular Fenway locale is not only easy to get to, but a hotspot at which to see and be seen. Slightly more dressy (no jeans allowed) and significantly larger (holding a total capacity of 541) than the previously mentioned tapas bars, Sophia’s tapas are synonymous with delicious. The menu offers chicken en escabeche (skewered chicken in vinegar and herb marinade), pan seared sea scallops on the half shell in a cava saffron sauce and chilled shrimp with saffron allioli and almond romesco sauces. And, yes, they serve sangria to accompany the meal. So what makes this place different from all the rest? The music. The sounds of live Latin bands waft throughout the joint Tue-Sat 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. So chow down to merengue and salsa beats, then stay for the after-dinner party (it’s a Latin dance haven). Don’t worry about looking like a Ricky Martin poseur as you wander about this mini-Latin invasion. They have instructors who teach patrons the salsa, merengue and bachata every Tue from 8:45-10 p.m. Before you wear yourself out dancing the night away, walk up a few flights to check out the sizzlin’ roofdeck for a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. Tapas range in price from $3-8. Food served nightly 5 p.m.-midnight; bar and club open until 2 a.m.

Due to the newly discovered popularity of tapas, restaurants which usually don’t serve tapas now find it beneficial to serve these unique dishes once a week. A prime example is Rauxa (70 Union Sq., Somerville, 623-9939) which offers up tapas on Wednesdays only. Rauxa, a Catalan word referring to the spontaneous side of the personality, serves cuisine from Catalonia. Since this region of Spain is more strongly influenced by southern France rather than its homeland, it is not traditional to serve sangria and tapas in such restaurants. However, Rauxa has made an exception. There is still no sangria, but there are tapas the likes of chicken croquettes and white asparagus every Wednesday night. The lack of sangria is more than accommodated for by Rauxa’s impressive wine selection. Located in the basement, Rauxa’s cement floors, cafe-style tables and chairs, and orange and turquoise painted walls provide the bistro with an authentic Spanish feel. Enjoy a meal at the bar or head into one of two cozily romantic dining rooms. Reservations accepted. Plenty of parking in nearby lots. Open nightly for dinner; brunch on Sat & Sun.

Also serving tapas once a week on Tuesdays is a great little spot called Gala (138 Mass. Ave., Arlington, (781) 483-3377). Although it’s a bit further from Boston than the rest, tapas night at Gala is worth the extended trip (note that parking is not a problem). The adorable dining room, brightly painted with blues, yellows, reds and greens, sports a tile floor, cafeteria-like tables and chairs, and a very low-key, relaxed atmosphere. The Mediterranean style tapas include winter pears wrapped with prosciutto in a creamy gorgonzola sauce, linguiça grelhado (grilled Portuguese sausage with grilled pineapple) and a score of other dishes prepared especially for Tuesday nights. Once again, there is no sangria, but a delectable wine list satisfies any sangria cravings. An excellent waitstaff and wonderful service is sure to top off your evening at Gala. Tapas range in price from $6.95-8.95 Open for dinner Mon-Sat 5-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 5-9 p.m.

So praise be to the flies for their nasty habits of swarming around open glasses and dive bombing fruity drinks. As annoying as that may seem, think of the tapas treats you’d be missing out on if the fruit fly never came into existence.

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