Sadly, you can’t go to Edinburgh’s Barioja any more.
It was in Barioja I learned to love Spanish food. Where I suddenly understood a whole load of stuff about paprika that had nothing to do with Jonathan Harker. It was in Barioja that I first ate real chorizo.
In what now seems toe curling gaucheness, it was in Barioja I realised Spanish food is as as wide ranging and exciting as any in the world. There was this thing called Tapas – these little plates, and you could test them, and order as many as you liked. What the hell?
Because of Barioja, I went home, and was compelled to cook it myself, because you just couldn’t get it where I lived. In Barioja, I just asked the waiter what was in the dishes I liked, and he told me. You couldn’t get all the ingredients in Safeway, but you could get close. It was transformational.
Now that democratic foodiness seems everywhere – which can be intimidating because it isn’t really – it’s hard to recall that twenty years ago if you couldn’t eat at the best, or lived at all rurally, food could be new and challenging far more regularly than seems credible today. Today, you can go into the Co-op and buy Patatas Bravas as a ready meal. When I first encountered Barioja, this was unthinkable. Keith Floyd had only just come back from Spain on holiday, for pete’s sake, a gastronaut in outer food space.
Nonchalantly steeped in the place, an Edinburgh friend of mine took me there first. He was amazed at my reaction, but going from crappy bar suppers and tired takeaway choices into Barioja was literally to step into a new world. I didn’t stop raving about it all night, and we ate about ten Tapas. Every single time I went to Edinburgh thereafter, I went to Barioja. For years. And years.
In Barioja, I would eat crumbly Albondigas, Patatas Bravas, crispy Calamari, soft Spanish black pudding in red wine, little melty pork cutlets, salt cod cakes with garlic, lamb in thick sauce. In Barioja, I would drink icy Spanish beer, fine little chilled sherries and Rioja itself, by the glass, by the bottle, by the bucket. Sometimes, in even a small group, or a couple, whole pitchers might go west before a paella arrived, gorgeous and prawn-scattered to the table.
In Barioja, sometimes I would also just sit an hour in the afternoon, drink a strong coffee, or maybe another cold cerveza or two. There were two big windows where you could sit and read or daydream, and look up from either pursuit to see folk hurrying on the elastic pull of Waverley Station brooding down the road. Many times, with a train to catch myself, I’d just sit there just as long as I dared, dreading leaving, real life and those pubs back home as tense as claw hammers.
Every one I knew, if I heard they were going to Edinburgh, I told to go to Barioja. Those that did go, raved about it. No one ever disliked the experience. In the days before smartphones, I’d get half blootered texts from people as they stumbled merrily up High Street. Little beeping pixelly messages that said things like “U Wer Rite bout barioja. Gr8!”
When you’re fairly naive, when you’re learning and exploring cooking, there is nothing more exciting than finding a place like this, a new way of eating, a new cuisine, a laid back atmosphere that isn’t a pub but isn’t a scary restaurant either. Where there is no rush, no intimidation and with great staff and music, you can just discover something new like a kind of love affair.
Obviously, it wasn’t Barcelona, it wasn’t Michelin bedecked, and some days were better than others, there were better Spanish restaurants, probably. But it was bloody great in the sum of everything and helped me realise that with food, you can stay in a state of adventure as long as you want.
One day a while ago, I hadn’t been in Edinburgh for ages, and arriving there around noon, bounced up to Barioja as usual. To find it closed. Gone. Stunned, I took a photo of the new establishment (it’s a steak and seafood place now), and smartphones having by now been invented, pinged this to my Barioja friends. Even those supposedly at work came straight back, predictably: “OMG!”, “Oh no!”, “Agh, disaster!”.
“Where the hell,” asked one, “are we going to go now?”
Walking past the building today I feel such a terrible pang of sadness that I often head straight on to the World’s End for a pint. Indeed, with less call to be in Old Edinburgh nowadays, I sometimes avoid the Barioja route altogether and take Cockburn Street to the Royal Mile instead.
I read recently that it had been there twenty five years, on Jeffrey Street. Barioja. I maybe didn’t go all that time, but pretty close.
“Things that go away never return,” wrote García Lorca, ” – everybody knows that.”