It was about 15 years ago when I made my first visit to a tapas restaurant. It was a friend's birthday, and once I realized he wasn't inviting me to a strip joint, I happily went along to share a selection of small plates. Back then, tapas restaurants didn't maintain much of a culinary connection to their Spanish namesakes, and instead focused on serving multiple appetizers as dinner. Fortunately, most places have dropped the conceit and simply call them small plates.
But in Richmond, true Spanish tapas are difficult to come by.
Enter Torero Tapas Bar & Grill, the newest venture of David Bess and Matt Busch, who also own Shockoe Slip's Society American Bistro and Cha Cha's Cantina, neighbors of Torero. Filling the former Europa Italian Café & Tapas Bar space, Torero advertises traditional Spanish tapas. A glance at the menu shows Spanish favorites such as jamón, pequillo peppers and tortilla — the country's classic potato omelet, not to be confused with the Mexican version — oddly referred to in the description as torta Espanola.
Spain has a firmly entrenched late-night dining culture. Many restaurants open at 9 p.m., fill up around 11, and wind down between 2 and 3 a.m. — on weeknights. The lines blur between dinner and night life, fine-dining and bar culture. Torero attempts, somewhat awkwardly, to reproduce this.
On Friday and Saturday, a downstairs space opens as Ibiza Lounge. The music dominates the upstairs dining room, however, leading staff to apologize for the volume on one visit.
The interior design blurs the line, with a slightly jumbled selection of seating that stymies a cohesive vibe. If you visited Europa, the interior is almost unchanged except for a fresh coat of paint and some Spanish-themed pictures. Perhaps, though, the problem is a cultural one — a single restaurant can't create a new dining culture on its own. It's not quite at home as either a dining or night life spot and instead hovers somewhere in-between.
Like the vibe, the food is uneven. But the beauty of tapas is that if you order several dishes, you're likely to find something good. Excellent choices include the decadent chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates ($7/$8), the light and refreshing crab and mango salad ($12), the crispy, deep-fried chicken croquettes ($9) and the well chosen meat-and-cheese sampler ($19).
The jamón trio (market price, $38 on my visit) will transport you instantly to Spain with a rotating selection of authentic imported ham, including iconic jamón ibérico. Thinly sliced, mildly salty, with a texture that almost melts in your mouth, this cured meat is ubiquitous in Spain and a delight to find on a Richmond menu.
Another tapas mainstay, the potato omelet ($7), frittatalike wedges of potato and egg, is adequate but could be seasoned more. It's saved by the side of paprika sauce, but needs twice as much. The gazpacho ($6) is disappointing, with no discernible trace of the promised sherry. An off-menu octopus dish, which our server recommends before realizing it's been rotated off the seasonal menu, impresses with a garlicky vinegar sauce, but there could be more octopus for two diners to share. For dessert, the tres leches cake ($6) is too dry, but the flourless chocolate torte ($6) is rich and dense.
Paella is another bright spot on the menu, made to order and available in multiple versions. The chicken and chorizo variety that my table shares is a universal hit. Available for one, four or six ($18/$29/$37), the rice comes perfectly cooked, infused with saffron, with a mix of meat and sweet bell peppers, and served in a traditional paella pan.
In Spain, like much of Western Europe, good food and drink is cheaper than here in the United States. Small bites that would cost a euro or two cost $6-$8 here. Torero's decent white or red sangria is $8 a glass, $30 for a carafe. Add that to the three or four plates per person the servers recommend, and the bill adds up.
Nevertheless, if you're longing to reminisce about your last holiday in Madrid or you're looking to try authentic Spanish tapas for the first time, there's promise here at Torero. With a few tweaks in the kitchen, the potential that's evident in some dishes could translate to a consistently great food experience.
Now if Richmonders would just take siestas so that they can eat and party late into the night, maybe Torero will help us shake off our conservative, early-to-bed American image once and for all. S
Torero Tapas Bar & Grill
Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Ibiza Lounge: Friday and Saturday 9 p.m.-2 a.m.
1409 E. Cary St.