“I still don’t know where the siphon bottles for the vermut are,” says an employee of Marina, a small bar in the newly renovated Mercat de Sant Antoni. It’s clear as we’re walking around that the staff of the market’s few bars and its many vendors are still settling in and adapting to their brand new spots.
At the same time, hundreds of visitors have been exploring the revamped market each day since its opening last week asking, “Where can we eat or drink something?” So far, that seems to be the question on everyone’s mind, particularly locals. But this is not another food hall, this is a proper neighborhood market focused on selling quality fresh produce and other food products. Rather than dive into the restaurant business, Mercat de Sant Antoni decided to maintain its authentic identity as a municipal market.
The restoration work has been going on for almost nine years, yet the results are stunning – the beautiful old market, built in 1882 by Antoni Rovira i Trias, has been reborn, its characteristic wide Greek cross shape restored to its former glory and its iron structure elegantly decorated with classic maroon-colored ceramic tiles.
While something to celebrate, the market’s reopening comes after a long, complex and at times tricky road. There was the incredibly large amount of money – 80 million euros – invested in the project, which was delayed after several ancient artifacts were discovered underneath the site. The restoration also included the creation of a pedestrian “super block” in the streets surrounding the market, which broadened the construction area. On top of that, many local residents were worried about gentrification and the potential touristification of the area, fears that were fueled by aggressive real estate companies hounding the current tenants in nearby buildings over the past few years.
In the short time since the renovated Mercat de Sant Antoni, one of 40 municipal markets in Barcelona, opened its doors, it has already welcomed around 150,000 visitors, many of whom are curious about the inner mysteries of this beautiful market that has been closed for so many years.
Much more than an old market, Sant Antoni is poised to become a neighborhood hub.
Covering 53,388 square meters, the new and improved market is spread across five levels. The main ground level is dedicated to the most important activity: the fresh food market. There are 52 stalls selling food, four eateries and 105 stalls selling clothes in a section called Encants. Also on this level are 78 outside stalls to be used for the Sunday flea market, where local vendors sell old and second-hand books, records, stamps and more.
Flanked by what remains of the medieval city walls and outer walls, now clean and bright as if they were built yesterday, the first underground level is home to a supermarket. A gymnasium and a community space with a kitchen are also in the works for this level and should be completed shortly. The lower levels are destined to the parking garages as well as offering other services.
Much more than an old market, Sant Antoni is poised to become a neighborhood hub, a place where locals can shop for food, clothes and other sundries, eat and participate in activities. Yet the complex still needs time to evolve and find its personality – at the moment, it’s still in flux.
Among the fishmongers, charcuteries, butcheries and produce stands with their rows of colorful vegetables, a long line of customers waits for a table at Casa Blanca, one of the few proper restaurants in the market.
Since it was previously operating in the market’s temporary location, the restaurant has already built up a local clientele. They have brought their acclaimed culinary offerings to the new market, although the space here is smaller – with fewer tables, they clearly cannot meet the demand of hungry diners during the lunch rush.
Theirs is a variation of, not surprisingly, market cuisine. The menu features classic Catalan dishes and an abundance of fish and seafood prepared in all different ways, from grilled prawns, turbot, tuna or monkfish to their great fish “festival,” a casserole that combines fish and seafood such as clams and lobster. You can also get some soul food classics like trinxat de la Cerdanya (cabbage and bacon) and cap i pota (succulent beef head and leg) or other interesting dishes like their funnily named and perfectly cooked “wild mushroom and ham omelet made wrong” (tortilla mal hecha de setas silvestres y jamón) or the “homey cannelloni – traditional Catalan ones – made with patience” (canelones caseros hechos con paciencia), which are so good they can be devoured in the blink of an eye. For drinks, you can order good Catalan and Spanish wines by the bottle or the glass.
The famous Catalan charcuterie Escofet Oliver, known for its luscious Iberian ham, also opened an attractive small bar where you can sample their varied specialties with some wines. The bacallaners or cod artisans Masclans, another big name in Barcelona, have set aside a discreet corner in one of their two stalls in the market where you can enjoy some of their cod and cured fish specialties, washed down with some drinks.
The only other eatery in the market is the small bar Marina, which puts out some tapas and aperitif specialties, like an ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad). They also do some good banderillas and gildas of anchovies, olives and green peppers all skewered with toothpicks to eat in a couple of bites – the proper complement to a vermut Yzaguirre, with or without the bubbles from the siphon bottles that are sure to show up in the next week or two.