For the sake of alliteration, this blog title should really be top TEN taverns, but I think five is enough for a compact city of 325,000 people. Particularly as, unlike many tapas bars elsewhere in Spain, Cordoban taverns are designed for customers to settle in at a table to savour their tapas, or even indulge in a full-blown meal. So a taberna cordobesa is very much a multi-option venue, as convivial but less frenetic and more cossetting than a regular tapas bar.
Cordoba has always been my favourite of Andalucia’s great urban trinity. I know Granada’s Alhambra is gobsmackingly gorgeous – it’s so easy to swoon over its architectural artistry, its dreamy gardens and sublime views, while Seville offers a magnificent series of buzzy theatre sets, full of music, laughter and strumming guitars. But Cordoba has an indefinable gravitas, both poetic and discreet.
Tiny plazas, baroque churches, perfumed gardens and patios brimming with flowers, shady whitewashed alleyways and graceful orange trees all add to its charms. Above all the immense city walls go back to the Romans and of course it claims that unforgettable mosque-cathedral – a world one-off which started life in the 8th century.
1. Bodegas Mezquita (above) – I’ll kick off with the closest quality tavern to the Mezquita (aka mosque). In fact two tapas bars go by this name, one to the north of the hulk of the mosque, the other to the south. Both have the same owner and same menu. Go south I say, it’s closer to the river, has a more elegant and appealing lay-out, its whitewashed and stone interior hung with old photos. The staff are all tourist-friendly, given its location, but you also find locals diving in for a quick fix.
Rather sophisticated Cordoban tapas and dishes, cooked to perfection, include slow-braised oxtail, chilled salmorejo (thicker and creamier than gazpacho thanks to the addition of breadcrumbs), classic gazpacho, salad of sliced oranges with tuna-fish dowsed in a fruity vinaigrette, and velvety potato tortilla with confit of onion and alioli. The beauty of it is you can relax over a beer or copa de vino with a tapa, or indulge in a full-on meal, all within yards of the 1300-year old mezquita.
P.S. 2016 – Friends who went there recently were full of praise for the gigantic gin tonics – now a Spanish staple
2. Garum 2.1 Walk east along the well-trodden calle Cardenal Gonzalez to no. 122 to discover this “bistronomic tapas bar”. The trail-blazing modern tapas bar serves excellent, innovative dishes which have won a few awards. In warmer months, tables spill out onto the pavement, while in winter you have to fight for a table inside – it’s small. But it’s worth the effort to savour the first prize in Cordoba’s 2012 gastronomic festival: salmorejo.
Hey you say, she’s always writing about salmorejo. Yes I am, but this one replaces the traditional topping of chopped boiled egg and jamon with matchsticks of apple, jelly cubes made from Amontillado wine and toasted sesame. It’s a divine combination in both texture and taste, and only 3€ (see pic below). Even their traditional salmorejo is a dream. I found their oxtail croqueta with pine-nuts less successful, but a tender grilled squid was in its element served with mushrooms and sweet potatoes. Across the street is a newer place so packed with hipsters that I haven’t squeezed in yet – tbc.
2016 – another post-scriptum based on readers’ experience at Garum 2.1: beware being shunted upstairs to eat a full-blown tapas menu. Far better, when weather permits, to sit outside & linger over just one or two (ok, maybe three).
3. Taberna San Miguel An old favourite, also known as Casa El Pisto, which I’m recommending for the decor rather than its gastro-offerings. Dating from 1880 it’s said to be Cordoba’s oldest, but who knows. Old photos plastering the wood-panelled bar give a wonderful sense of Cordoba’s past, including its celeb bull-fighter, the late great Manolete, a soulful Buster Keaton lookalike. You can sit in the central roofed patio with its checkerboard marble floor, worn down by 130 years of hungry footsteps, to spoon up a classic salmorejo, pigs’ trotters or braised oxtail, or on a hot summer’s night collapse at an outside table on the pretty little Plaza San Miguel. Nothing adventurous in gastro terms, but an evocative place for a drink and snack.
4. Taberna La Montillana Keep your appetite for a 1948 tavern with a smart, youthful makeover, just down the road (going west) from the above, in calle San Alvaro. It’s north of the Juderia, that maze of touristy shops and restaurants, and pulls in local aficionados thanks to past connections with the University. I love the fact that it’s named after the source of delicious and underrated Montilla-Moriles wines, similar to sherries, yet produced a mere 20-minute drive to the south of Cordoba. The Alvear bodega (above) is the oldest. There’s a great choice of them here, from fino to nutty amontillado to mellow oloroso – plus reds and rosés.
Order a plate of velvety jamon ibérico from Los Pedroches, the hills to the north of Cordoba, or fried slices of aubergine drizzled in honey, redolent of Cordoba’s Moorish heritage, or flamenquin, a fried, breaded roll of pork and ham. Leave this till last – it’s filling. All dishes are seasonal and come in different portion sizes – as a tapa, a main dish or to share as a racion. A great place, but get there early before the hordes.
5. Finally, it’s a tough toss-up between Cordoba’s loveliest tapas-bar and restaurant, Bodegas Campos, and a funny little tavern hidden in the backstreets near La Montillana, Taberna Gongora. If you have the budget, go to Bodegas Campos for top quality tapas in a gorgeous, rambling setting of patios and separate rooms, full of wine-barrels and vintage posters. It’s at calle Linares, 32, about 15 minutes walk due east of the Mezquita. The tapas bar is at the front, but you can explore behind.
For those into quirkier, more basic places, then track down Gongora in a web of streets round the corner from the Plaza San Miguel, on calle del Conde de Torres Cabrera. This is quintessential, old-fashioned Spain, an authentic tavern with faithful regulars, antlers and boar heads on the walls and friendly old mono-lingual waiters, so polish up your Spanish beforehand. They’re known for huge portions of crunchy, fried anchovies, for delectable jamon iberico from Los Pedroches (as in above pic) and bacalao croquetas, all well-priced as is the local house wine.
So buen provecho – and live dangerously!
A 2017 addition to the above is the wonderful tapas bar La Fragua, Calle Tomas Conde – Calleja del Arco 2, hidden down an alleyway on the southestern edge of the Juderia. Flamenco music, outside tables in the alley, friendly service and ace tapas – including this creamy mazamorra, a kind of ajoblanco. Heaven.