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At Culinary Backstreets, we are all about seeking out backstreets eating at venues serving authentic cuisine and frequented mainly by locals – an approach that usually leads both to delicious food and to prices that won’t break the bank. But how about underground dining, where even locals themselves aren’t always in on the secret?

A fascinating piece published recently in The New York Times looks at “clandestine” restaurants in Barcelona, a concept that’s becoming increasingly popular in a city and country hit hard by the economic crisis:

Economic hardship has inspired a full range of clandestine entrepreneurship in Spain. The combination of higher taxes and unemployment has pushed desperate Spaniards to convert their apartments and underused lofts and warehouses into jazz clubs, hair salons, restaurants and even flamenco halls. The venues typically have no listed addresses and are found through word of mouth or on Facebook and Twitter.

But underground restaurants seem to be among the most popular among the clandestine offerings, and though they are not new in Barcelona, or many other cities around the world, their purveyors say they are providing a needed refuge in a country with 25 percent unemployment where even Michelin-starred restaurants have been forced to close under economic pressure.

Paula Mourenza, one of Culinary Backstreets’ Barcelona correspondents, agrees that the trend towards clandestino establishments has picked up recently due to the crisis. “In these recent years of hard times, people have started new collaborations and new models of businesses with very low expenses: using a personal home or the art studio of a friend is always cheaper than renting, decorating and managing a restaurant,” she tells us. “And the results are attractive, because the service feels warm, human and intimate – you are not part of a commercial routine. I think this is something that matches very well with the innovative and social personality of Barcelona.”

As the NYT article notes, however, not all of Barcelona’s “underground” restaurants actually operate outside of the law. According to our correspondent, “Only a very few of these ‘underground restaurants’ are run illegally. More often this is part of the marketing concept; having a ‘hidden’ restaurant and a ‘password’ that customers need in order to enter is just part of the game.” Places such as La Contrasenya, for example, pay taxes like a regular business but cultivate a clandestine ambiance to attract interest, the NYT reports. Another such venue, Tintorería Dontell, is a flashy restaurant hidden behind a drab-looking street-front laundromat that can only be accessed by customers who know the password. But Tintorería Dontell (“Don’t Tell”) is no state secret; it has been widely blogged about and even received prominent billing in El País, Spain’s highest-selling newspaper.

Thus, although Spain’s economic situation is a large part of the impetus behind these restaurants, our correspondent believes the appeal for customers is as much the “cool” factor as the cost. “There are hundreds of restaurants with good prices in this city. I think it’s more that people want to have different, interesting and fun experiences that are not so expensive, than that they are looking for places to eat cheap.”

The full NYT story on Barcelona’s underground dining scene is here.

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