THERE are few places that get to be Number One. So, it was all the more surprising to find that an intimate, little-known restaurant in my home town of Ronda had been voted Spain’s top restaurant by TripAdvisor. Ok, not the best of the best for cuisine, but top of the pile for all round good quality, great local restaurants.
And that was where I found Tropicana,in the category for ‘Best Everyday Dining in Spain’ when the annual awards were announced in October. And, while I have never been a big fan of the US food giant, I have to agree. Tropicana rocks. Run by a local father and son team, Jose Antonio and Jose Antonio, conveniently, are making massive waves for Ronda cuisine.
While dad delivers a great range of carefully considered dishes focusing very much on local ingredients and with small, but anything but major twists, his son is charm personified in the sala.
It certainly helps that he has travelled the country honing his skills – including a year at Martin Berasategui’s legendary three star restaurant – and he speaks English to boot. But like any good restaurant, there is a story to most of the wines and dishes. Just ask him. You’ll love it.
Another amazing new joint in Ronda is Escudero. This is one of the absolute must-visit places in this soaring mountain town.
For starters, you won’t find better views. Nowhere. It looks over the ancient old town of Ronda, with an almost Biblical landscape folding out in front of you.
Next, you will love this creation of hard-working owners Jose Manuel and girlfriend Rocio, who have created a charming and busy eatery in possibly the hardest time in history.
This is one of the hottest places to hang out in Ronda today and I’ll let you know why: Jose knows his stuff when it comes to food. He has worked in the trade for 15 years, with three Michelin star chef Dani Garcia, when he got his first accolade at Tragabuches in Ronda over a decade ago. He has also had the honour to have personally served a luncheon to Michelle Obama when she dined at his old family restaurant of Escudero a couple of years ago. Ask the story. It’s hilarious.
Another hip local restaurant is Kutral where chef Martin Abramzon is doing exciting things.
This talent has cooked for Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and trained with Michelin starred geniuses including Martin Berasategui and Dani Garcia.
It’s a super-cool spot in Ronda’s industrial estate and while focusing on great cuts of meat cooked on an open parilla-style Argentinian BBQ, there is a lot more besides, with a burrata salad with sun dried tomatoes a top pick and the lemon curd pudding a total winner.
The top culinary star of Ronda is, without a doubt, Benito Gomez, whose two Michelin starred Bardal, has been on the up and up since opening four years ago.
While shut for most of 2020 it has maintained its two Michelin stars and is set to reopen in March 2021 for lovers of fine dining and adventure.
Gomez is a true local character, and while actually from Catalunya, he has been in Andalucia for over two decades, first cutting his teeth with legendary El Bulli maestro Ferran Adria at Hacienda Benazuza, near Sevilla.
I first met him there, where I ate possibly the best meal of my life – a 25-course four-hour masterclass, for just 99 euros – that literally blew my mind.
He moved from there to celebrated Michelin-starred Tragabuches in Ronda, working under Dani Garcia, before setting up his own restaurant Tragata in the town, first known as Tragatapas, nearly a decade ago.
Having married a local Rondenan he is certainly here to stay… and as he notches up the stars in elegant Bardal he is more than cementing his place in the town’s folklore.
For history lovers take a ride to the town’s grandest restaurant Pedro Romero sitting opposite the bullring, with wonderful bullfighting photos and posters, as you might expect.
Run by brothers Carlos and Tomas, a top sommelier, you should try the fantastic rabo de toro and let him select the wine.
A total contrast is the buzz of El Almacen, run by Javier Pimentel, a local Rondenan, who travelled the world before opening his restaurant three years ago.
It’s a stylish spot, with a great selection of music, including a huge pile of records. But you are here for the food and Javier doesn’t disappoint, after training at San Sebastian’s three-Michelin cathedral of cuisine Akelarre, and in Ireland, and two years in London.
Soulful Almocabar meanwhile, has been consistently one of the town’s finest places to eat for well over a decade, with a superb wine list and atmosphere personified, particularly if eating in the square outdoors at summer time.
It has long been one of the town’s most reliable local places to dine and there is a major doffing of the hat to local ingredients and the concept of slow food. His wine list is also second to none.
In the same square in Barrio San Francisco is an exciting new addition, Cerveceria Bandolero, which really could be the friendliest place to eat in Andalucia.
It’s very much service with a smile from these two cousins, who run backwards and forwards charming guests and plying you with excellent simple and local fare, with a bent towards Carnes a la Brasa.
For wine lovers you mustn’t miss Entre Vinos, which has over 100 wines from Ronda, with more than a dozen wines available by the glass. There are some excellent tapas and its a charming place to while away a few hours.
Just up the hill is Siempre Igual, which is exactly that ‘Always the same’, its a bloody excellent place to enjoy tapas and some excellent wine with friends. Run by a friendly family team (below left), they always have some experimental new dishes, worth a try and in a great location, just up from the bullring.
For those up in the heart of Ronda, authentic Porton – an institution run by Javier for the last 40 years – has wonderful old photos on the wall and a guaranteed feel good factor. Here, you will find my favourite Ronda tapa, the wonderful quails egg with ham on toast.
Venturing out of Ronda there are so many amazing country escapes for lunch or supper.
My favourite is easily El Muelle, in Arriate, which boasts hundreds of regulars who drive all the way from the coast – and even Sevilla – for lunch.
It’s no surprise that this old railway storeroom is extremely atmospheric and boasts excellent local authentic fares to boot.
Run by friendly Dutchman Frank Rottgering, alongside talented local chef Isa, there are plenty of new dishes each month and the menu is full of their colourful creations.
The wine list is simple but inspired and the food is always amazing, fresh and beautifully served… Even better are the prices.
Another superb spot is Molino del Santo, by a raging stream, just outside the stunning mountain village of Benaojan.
This emblematic place – alongside one of Andalucia’s first rural boutique hotels – has turned itself into one of the true destination restaurants in the province.
It’s shut in winter, but once open in March expats from around the region flock here for its consistently reliable menu.
In good weather you dine on a shady terrace with amazing mountain views and the constant sound of the river flowing, while when rainy the warm dining room is cozy and comfortable.
My advice, book a room for the night, take a nice stroll before lunch or supper and make a weekend of it.
Finally for great coffee, and the best place to watch the footie and grab a snack, Buenos Aires in the heart of Ronda’s Calle la Bola cannot be beaten.