There are a lot of entertaining stories about the origin of the now-trendy tapas. There’s some talk about hiding the smell of bad wine with food or keeping fruit flies out of wine (the word “tapas” comes from the Spanish word for “to cover”) by placing a piece of bread over the top, but the most plausible seems to be a law passed by Spain’s King Felipe the Third (1578–1621) that said that tavern owners had to sell wine along with food to keep sailors and soldiers from getting too drunk and raising a ruckus. The barkeeps would often pour the drink and place a slice of bread and a piece of cheese or meat over the top of the glass. Somehow, that morphed into 21st-century tapas, with diners sitting around a table in a lively restaurant enjoying a vast array of small plates and some cocktails. We’ve come a long way, baby.
217-219 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Chef Jose Garces is the unofficial mayor of memorable meals in Philadelphia. With seven wildly successful restaurants in the city, a best-selling cookbook on the shelves and the prestigious title of Iron Chef, you can see why Chef Garces is so celebrated. Amada, his authentic Andalusian tapas restaurant in Old City, has Philly foodies singing his praises even louder. Most fans suggest going with a group, so there are more dishes to try. Favorites include Pulpo a la Gallega (octopus) for $12, Ensalada de Jamon (Serrano ham and fig salad, with cabrales and spiced almonds) for $10 and Albondigas (lamb meatballs with shaved Manchego cheese) for $12. A pitcher of sangria ($32) is a must for your table; try the crispy white with pears, apples and oranges or the spiced red with cinnamon sticks, oranges and apples.
1229 Spruce St
Philadelphia, PA 19107
This fun tapas restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a dish named Figs in a Blanket, which has bleu cheese, almonds and figs, wrapped in applewood bacon ($9). The zany drink called the X-Boyfriend has x-rated passion fruit and blood orange liqueur, sky passion fruit vodka, blood orange puree and fresh lime. There’s also a decent amount of vegetarian selections like the Vegetable Empanadas ($6.50) and “Fiery” Potatoes ($5.50) with smoked paprika, chipotle-horseradish aioli and toasted cayenne. And don’t miss the Oreo Beignet, with vanilla bean ice cream, warm caramel and crushed Oreos for $4.50. Valanni is known for its generous Happy Hour with “you call it specials” for $5 and half-price tapas from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
1030 N 2nd St
Philadelphia, PA 19123
In “The Story of Ferdinand,” a classic children’s book written by Munro Leaf in the 1930s, tenderhearted Ferdinand the Bull would rather sniff flowers than fight in the bull ring. After some sangria at Bar Ferdinand, which is hung with dried roses, you may feel more benevolent, too. Keep the good mood going with some Pinchos (skewers) like Manchego Frito (fried manchego cheese, frozen apple foam and walnut membrillo puree for $7) or Empanadas (filled pastries), such as Datiles con Tocino (dates, bacon, cream cheese, honey and almonds for $6). The Churros con Chocolate (fried Andalusian doughnuts with a dark chocolate dipping sauce) would make Ferdinand himself pat his belly and sigh contentedly, especially at just $5. Be sure to take note of the cool paintings and mosaics decorating the restaurant, too–some of which were painted by the owner’s late father, Ben Kamihira.
236 Market St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
In this 50-seat Mediterranean restaurant, mellow is the mood until 10 p.m., when the DJ turns it into a hoppin’ party lounge. But before that happens, make sure you check out the innovative small-plate menu with Spanish Mussels ($9); Flatbread with filet tips, smoked mozzarella, goat cheese and arugula ($9); and Lobster Ravioli ($12). Unlike many other tapas places, Bocca will leave you with a full belly, even if you share your food. Its popular happy hour is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weeknights and includes well mixers, house wine, drafts and appetizers, all for a measly $5 each. When the weather is agreeable, sit outside and enjoy watching the people on Market Street pass you by.
124 S 13th St
Philadelphia, PA 19107
And now for something completely different: Pan-Asian tapas. Yes, by definition, tapas are Spanish. But if you serve anything small enough and encourage your diners to heartily share with one another, isn’t that the true spirit of tapas? That’s what Chef Michael Schulson has done in Midtown Village with Sampan. Fans love all of the skewered goodness, from Korean BBQ Beef ($10) to quirky offerings like the Crab Wonton Taco ($13). But what mostly everyone comes back for is Chef Schulson’s Edamame Dumplings–soft, melt-in-your-mouth awesomeness, that are somehow still subtle (must be the truffles) for $7. The happy hour menu is amazing: Bao Buns, dumplings and egg rolls for $4 each, each weekday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and ever-changing cocktails (tweeted to the bar’s followers at the start of happy hour). Sampan is also visually appealing, with unusual wood panels on the outside and clever lighting inside. The Graffiti Bar is its funky outdoor, glass-covered patio space that’s tucked into the alley.
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Trish Deitemyer is a freelance writer living in Philly. She covers Food & Drink and has been writing since 1986. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.