By Edward Schneider
A perennial problem for visitors to Spain is the dining timetable. Many Spaniards have their main meal at lunchtime, eventually going back to work and staying there until well into the evening. Only then do they start to think about going out for a stroll, a drink, another stroll and something more to eat. But if my wife and I were to have a full-blown sit-down lunch, we’d be useless for the rest of the afternoon and would miss a precious half day of sightseeing. So going native is not for us.
Before a brief trip to Córdoba, our first, we asked friends for dining ideas that were a little off the beaten track – that might take us out of the ancient center of the city into neighborhoods that most tourists don’t see. The one that particularly struck our fancy was about a twenty-minute walk east of our hotel (the dreamy Palacio del Bailío, which for a September stay, for example, can be booked on hotels.com for $233 a night).
This was the Sociedad de Plateros (Calle María Auxiliadora, 25; 957 470 304;www.sociedadplateros.com; figure €15 per person, about $20) – not to be confused with other establishments with similar names – and, apart from feeding us awfully well, it gave us a glimpse into daily (or nightly) life in southern Spain. Looking at its web site, you’d get the impression that it is a pretty gussied up kind of place, with wine tuns and dark wooden chairs. Evidently, there is a dining room of that description somewhere on the premises. But in summertime, all the action moves out to the rear patio, which is quite the opposite of gussied up. Green plastic garden furniture is more the style, with five or six waiters huddled around a radio listening to an overwrought horserace announcer; the Spanish-only menu is laminated in plastic. Frankly, without a recommendation from a trustworthy friend who has spent a lot of time in Spain, we’d have taken one look at the place and fled.
As it was, our first evening was a little strange. We did our best to hold out as long as we could before starvation began to set in, but it wasn’t much later than 9 p.m. when we arrived. The place was deserted, apart from all those waiters. Well, it was a Sunday night, so perhaps everybody was at home preparing for the week ahead. We ordered glasses of the sherry-like white wine of the area, Montilla-Moriles – or rather we ordered white wine, and that’s what came. We chose half-portions (medias raciónes) of hand-sliced ham, creamy chicken-and-ham croquettes, salmorejo (a local version of gazpacho thick enough to be used as a dip) and a haystack of the tiniest fish, billed as chanquetes, lightly battered and perfectly fried. The ham was merely nice, but everything else was really delicious, perfectly seasoned and skillfully prepared. Portions were copious and the dishes typical of the city’s cuisine – in cooler weather, we could have had oxtail.
The food was so good and the experience so much fun that we decided to go back the next night too, and this time we tried one of the sixteen bacalao (salt cod) dishes that the restaurant features. I feel stupid admitting this, but we’d missed them on our first night because they are listed on the back page of the menu. Ours was a dish we’d seen a lot of people ordering, and it was simple, flavorful and filling: Revuelto de bacalao – onions, potatoes and shredded salt cod, all scrambled with eggs. With a half-portion of fried eggplant strips and a few glasses of beer this made a great dinner.
It would be fair to ask how it was that we had fun in an empty backyard watching a team of waiters with time on their hands. Well, gradually, people arrived: people from the neighborhood, and certainly no one who could be described as a foreigner. They came in happy groups, many of them with kids – little, well-behaved kids – in tow. There was even a coin-operated horsy for them (the kids) to ride. By the time we left at around 10:30, the place was hopping. When I was eight, I’d have been out like a light at that hour.
We did try a more formal restaurant, Casa Matías (Calle El Nogal, 16; 957 277 653; €40, about $52, per person), also a 20-minute walk from the hotel, but to the north. It was excellent – the best ham we’ve ever tasted, with fat that melted like butter on the tongue; perfectly roasted baby lamb; and a deeply flavorful paella-like dish of rice, tiny fresh fava beans and rabbit – but we were literally the only customers, which would have been positively creepy had the waiter not been so nice. He explained that they do all their summertime business at lunch and are located in a residential area lacking in the tourists who would be the main dinner clientele: in good weather, the locals prefer to do their nocturnal eating and drinking outdoors.
So, when in Córdoba, head for the green plastic lawn furniture and do the same.