When Barcelona Wine Bar opened its Denver outpost last March, on St. Patrick’s Day, it did so with little fanfare, so little in fact that employees had to step onto Larimer Street to start getting the word out. “It almost looks like we’re not open,” general manager James Baetke joked of the dark, brick restaurant at the corner of 29th and Larimer Streets. “We want people to stumble in and then walk into this circus.”
Scene, party, circus — these words all fit for the neighborhood’s maybe most buzzing restaurant. When Eater visited recently, in the middle of the holidays, Larimer Street seemed like a ghost town. And then there was Barcelona. On that night, multiple millennial groups crowded the host stand, willing to wait, while the bar became a full-on Bumble mixer. Couples sat down to dates, friends chatted over tapas, families filled the booths; the age range was wide and dumbfounding.
“It’s something that’s not very typical in a quote-unquote chain restaurant group,” Baetke said. “We have a huge cult following.” Barcelona started more than 20 years ago in Connecticut, where it now has five locations. There are two restaurants each in Atlanta, Boston, and D.C., plus outposts in Philadelphia, Nashville, Reston, Virginia, and Denver.
Baetke said he sees two main types of customer — the one who’s been to the restaurant elsewhere and says, “‘Oh my gosh, this cannot be the same Barcelona!’” and the one who’s never heard of it and “thinks we are completely independent.” It’s a good confusion to create.
“We go into a market where someone doesn’t necessarily know who we are. It’s interesting to see,” Baetke said. “You walk in, you might hear Missy Elliott playing. Then you have a server on someone else’s shoulders pouring a porrón [...] People dine with us, they leave, and they don’t know what just happened, all they know is they had a really cool experience.”
About that porrón: It can be ordered or it can come out for special occasions. The other day, according to Baetke, it was a woman’s divorce they were celebrating. “You know what, it’s time to play,” is what he thought in that moment. A porrón was brought to the table; things “got wild.”
“I think we have this connection with our guests that is missing in a lot of other restaurants,” Baetke added. “I think it’s the identity piece.”
Call it a chain, but after decades and more than a dozen restaurants, Barcelona knows what it is: a place putting out consistent and reasonably priced tapas, pouring 40(!) mostly Spanish wines by the glass, and pumping Mediterranean good-time vibes to the experience-seeking masses. When it first opened in RiNo, customers were “overwhelmingly” put off by the loud music. “Will we adjust for guests? Sure,” Baetke said. “Will we turn off the music? No.” Barcelona did turn Missy Elliott down a smidge, and then something magical happened. The diners, they met Barcelona at its level.
“It is a scene; it’s a little bit wild, it’s a little bit edgy, it’s a little bit sexy, and it’s fun,” Baetke said. “Every day we throw a party.”