I’m hoping five taverns (2019: now expanded to 7!) is enough for this compact city of 325,000 people, particularly as 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, (and its tapas, though free, come with cohorts of students) while Seville offers a magnificent series of buzzy theatre sets, full of music, laughter and strumming guitars, plus some very avant garde cuisine. But Cordoba has an indefinable gravitas – poetic, elegant and discreet, particularly late in the day after the day-trippers from Seville have left and the sun sinks over the Guadalquivir river.
Tiny plazas, baroque churches, perfumed gardens and patios brimming with flowers, shaded whitewashed alleyways and leafy 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 (above) – the Mezquita, a world one-off which started life in the 8th century.
But let’s cut to the chase…
1. Bodegas Mezquita (above) – I’ll kick off with the closest quality tavern to the Mezquita (aka mosque). In fact four tapas bars now go by this name, one to the north of the mosque, the other immediately to the south, another minutes away beside the river, and the last five minutes’ walk to the east. All have the same owner and same menu. Go south I say, it 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.
The aim is to cook tapas and raciones that have a hint of Moorish Spain in them. Some are rather sophisticated, cooked to perfection, and 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 their gigantic gin tonics – now a Spanish staple. 2019 Bodegas Mezquita seems to be going from strength to strength adding its fourth branch.
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, perfect for people-watching, while in winter you have to fight for a table inside – it’s small. The upper floor is where they shunt large groups, so is best avoided. The rooftop though is not a bad place to be on a sultry night. Try their sherries by the glass, many from Montilla-Moriles, the wine region just south of Cordoba, or an excellent vermut.
Their modern salmorejo is ace too, replacing 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 above). Even their traditional salmorejo is a dream for which they’ve won and award or two. 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 and the oxtail does Andalucia proud.
Across the street is the fourth branch of Bodegas Mezquita. – so you can compare and contrast.
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 140 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, and produced a mere 20-minute drive to the south. 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, believe me. 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 signed wine-barrels (by Tony Blair no less!) 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. It looks closed, but never fear. 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 (sadly often booked by canny locals), friendly service and ace tapas – including this creamy mazamorra, a kind of ajoblanco. Heaven.
And, for 2019, I’m bringing in Taberna Santi, on calle San Pablo near the Plaza San Andrés, east of the centre. It’s well beyond the tourist beat and seems to be favoured by local oldies, so is not the place for a hopping evening. But for breakfast or lunch – yes! The owner has a family farm in the hills of Los Pedroches, so jamon de bellota is the speciality – as tender and full of flavour as they come. Tiled walls, plenty of tables, a restaurant section (which we didn’t try) and rather languid, monosyllabic service completed the experience!