When the couple Juan Pérez Figueras and Mercè Roselló bought in 1991 what is now Restaurante Agullers, it was an old run-down bar in the inner streets of Born, a neighborhood near the Port Vell area. “When I got the place it was totally ruined,” Juan explains.
They decided to keep open only a long and narrow front section, creating a small bar-restaurant that specialized in fresh fish. All food was made in front of the clients, on a tiny grill behind the bar. This minuscule spot offering grilled fresh fish really struck a chord, and by the end of its first decade in business, people were lining up at the door.
Since the strikingly tiny bar was bursting at the seams, they decided to open the room next to the bar (the two spaces were always connected, but this second room was used for storage). In this new space, they built an open kitchen (bigger but still small by most standards) and another area for grilling and plating, where Mercè and Sergi, an assistant cook, duplicated the activity of the bar.
Thus was born one of the best neighborhood lunch spots in this corner of Born. Restaurante Agullers developed a large, loyal following; most of their regular clients are people who work in the area (although the number of offices is decreasing by the day), but many also travel from other parts of the city, enticed by the promise of a healthy meal, one where fresh products are prepared traditionally.
The walls of the newer space are fitted with large stone arches. These apparently date back to the 19th century, when the structure was used as a house. At one point, Juan tells us, this room was part of a famous old brothel, which was located across from an old fish market that’s not longer standing. The structure is set up such that people could conveniently enter from one door and then exit out another door into a different street.
Nowadays, this room is the restaurant’s main seating area, especially for groups that were difficult to fit in the original tiny bar. “If a group came [during the early years],” Juan says, “I used to move everybody in the bar to fit them, as we all knew each other and there was a very good vibe, so it wasn’t a problem. It sometimes happened that someone who started eating on one side of the bar ended up finishing [his meal] on the other side.”
“If someone is eating out at a restaurant every day and not at home, it’s easy to end up with a slightly injured stomach.”
Their menu changes every day depending on what’s available at the market (in this case, mainly Santa Caterina Market and the farmer’s market at Boquería). While the exact offerings depend on the season, they always have a large variety of vegetable dishes, including vegetable-based soups and puréed greens.
There are usually a few meat dishes, but the main draw here are the many fish and seafood options, which also always change depending on what’s freshest. While some of their fish and seafood is farmed, they also have some excellent wild options at reasonable prices, thanks to deals from some of their providers, from squid to sea bass, monkfish to cuttlefish. Here you will not find a lunch formula or daily specials – all dishes are a la carte and often varied, so that regulars can continually taste something new.
The whole experience is oriented toward the needs of busy workers. The service is efficient and the menu always has a good number of lighter dishes, often spotlighting vegetables and fish. “Even 30 years ago, my intention was to make healthy food,” Juan explains. “If someone is eating out at a restaurant every day and not at home, it’s easy to end up with a slightly injured stomach. Our customers, most of whom come here on their lunch break, know that they can eat in 20 minutes, and that they’re getting healthy and quality food at a fair price.”
The menu is a mix of innovative dishes that are the creations of Juan and Mercè (although still based in tradition) and simple classic ones, like grilled squid or grilled entrecote. On a recent visit, we tried salted fava beans with cep mushrooms (Boletus edulis) and asparagus, which was aromatic, juicy and very satisfying. Next was an excellent grilled sole with crispy almonds, a perfect combination of tradition with high-quality products. New dishes – usually variations and tweaks on the classics – pop up daily on the menu, which is written by hand and photocopied.
“We learned [how to run the restaurant] by working hard and from Juan’s mother, Carmen Figueras, who was also cooking in the restaurant in the beginning,” says Mercè. “The three of us were in the kitchen, and we were learning everything from her. When we started out, our cooking was much simpler, then with time and experience you are learning, improving and creating new dishes.”
“Cooking is all about finding a balance,” she continues. “You can add ingredients only if they don’t surpass the others. Ours is a cuisine that’s very soft, very light but with flavor. And we do all things with care and love – this is how you come to work happy and motivated!”