Mercè Vins is exactly between two worlds, located on the quiet, narrow and dark Carrer d’Amargós, close to the shopping area of Portal de l’Àngel, near the Cathedral and Plaça de Sant Jaume, and on the border between the Barrio Gótico and Born neighborhoods, where there are numerous offices and public institutions, filled with employees looking for a breakfast that goes beyond a sad, ersatz “croissant” or for a lunch that approximates the kind of meal they would get if they were able to sneak back home.
For many of them, the answer to this dilemma can be found at Mercè Vins, a warm, cozy restaurant that has been making home-style breakfast and lunch for civil servants and bank and office workers since 1982. Mercè, the owner, tells us she feels very fortunate to have such customers, some of whom have been eating here almost from the beginning. Some are so loyal that, even if they change their jobs or move to another area, they still go back to Mercè Vins when they can. Mercè also mentions with pride that Princess Cristina of Spain used to take her breakfast here, when she worked for the social foundation of a Spanish bank during the 1990s.
This is the kind of place with its own peculiar atmosphere: rustic décor, warm lighting, an elegant coat stand by the entryway, old photos and paintings on the walls, checkered tablecloths and a little statue of the Virgin watching over the soul of the place. The restaurant began life as a typical bodega, or neighborhood bar, owned by a couple of Galician immigrants who lived upstairs. When Mercè took over the place, she removed the enormous wooden wine barrels left over from the venue’s bar days but otherwise left the structure the same as it was: the bar, the main room, the narrow stairs and the first floor. The furniture was restored and the house upstairs was transformed into another room of the restaurant. And then she started to cook.
These days, the venue offers a menú del día based on home-cooked food, natural ingredients and cooking methods that go easy on the fat. Mercè sources Extra Virgin olive oil and olives directly from her home village, Montbrió del Camp, in Tarragona. About five years ago, she also introduced organic ingredients on the menu. She buys these vegetables from a guy in La Boquería Market called “el Pere,” who has his own eco-orchard in Sant Boi, a village near Barcelona. El Pere’s organic lettuce, tomatoes and carrots are used in Mercè’s stellar salads, accompanied by Roquefort cheese, nuts and fruits all dressed in a homemade vinaigrette. His organic vegetables are also in the minestrone soup, which is smooth and comforting, made with just a bit of ham to add flavor.
People who come here swear by the breakfast bocadillos (sandwiches) with botifarra negra (a local type of blood sausage) and eggs, and the “spicy callos,” a tempting chickpea stew with pork whose aroma frequently wafts over the street outside the restaurant. But, on this visit, we decide to taste the “special chicken,” a homey dish consisting of a couple of chicken steaks covered with two creamy portions of soft brie cheese, seasoned with balsamic vinegar and served with rice and vegetables. And then there are the homemade desserts, or “casolans,” such as a very light and spongy chocolate cake flavored with mistela (a sweet fortified wine), or a lovely homemade yogurt accompanied by a marmalade of wild berries.
There’s something about this cozy spot – especially if it’s early and Mercè Vins is still not very crowded – that encourages us, as we eat the last spoonful of our homemade yogurt, to think about taking off our shoes, stretching our legs and really making ourselves at home. We would do just that, if it wasn’t for the line of hungry civil servants waiting at the door to take their place at our timeworn table.
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