There are so many hidden restaurants tucked away up in the hills around the Costa de la Luz in Cadiz. The key is knowing how to find them.
In a dusty pot-holed lane leading down one of the Costa de la Luz’s least known beaches, sits one of its true dining secrets.
La Traina, in the hamlet of Zahora, is one of those places you pass in the blink of an eye, but you miss at your peril.
Set in a leafy garden behind a high wall, the only real giveaway is the amount of vehicles fighting for a hueco in its car park across the road.
Even on a Tuesday lunchtime in June the place is packed and it is easily one of the coolest on the coast… and that’s not just for its deep shade and clever channeling of the area’s famous local breeze.
La Traina is the brainchild of house DJ, Antonio, and his brother Alex, a chef, who both have an intimate knowledge and passion for the local seafood, hence naming the place after a type of trawler.
Set in its verdant, shady garden, it is a veritable breath of fresh air at lunchtime and charming at night with candles.
Want to try the famous blue fin tuna? This is one of the best places on the coast, in particular as its supplier of the world’s most prized fish is Spain’s most respected, based up the road in Barbate… but best of all its prices have stayed down, compared to its nearby rivals, such as Campero.
The tartare is unbelievably good although I also love the sashimi of ventresca and, in particular, the tartaki, which comes with no less thanb 12 generous slices of delicious tuna belly, served with various garnishes and edible flowers.
You might also try the ‘tarantelo’, one of the more unusual cuts served with cep mushrooms, braised in sweet Pedro Ximenez wine.
Up the road in Zahara de los Atunes, a town named after its famous fish, you will find a number of excellent places to find it.
The best place – indeed something of a cathedral to tuna lovers – is Antonio, a hotel and restaurant I first found two decades ago.
With the sort of swagger you’d only expect to find in somewhere like Barcelona or Ibiza, it is no surprise it is now booked up until mid-September, according to boss, Alejandro, who brings out the reservations book to prove it.
It helps if you’ve booked a room in the hotel next door, but otherwise just jump on the waiting list and keep your fingers crossed.
If you can’t get a table, luckily you have a hipper, more informal rival in the heart of town called Mezcla.
Run by Jose Maria Marques and wife Silvia, also from Barbate, it certainly has pedigree with Jose’s dad being a tuna fisherman… and a former executive chef at the Melia group.
Opened in 2020 during the pandemic as a ‘hole in the wall’ for takeaway sushi lovers, it has now expanded to three local units and a series of tables in the alleyway outside.
You can’t miss the giant tuna and squid arms that stretch out of a wall and the menu is exactly as its name says ‘mezcla’ – or mix.
This is all thanks to the young, well travelled owners, who have picked a mix of dishes from their journeys to Mexico, France, Italy and the UK.
“We just picked things up on the way,” explains Silvia, who is grafting away on a Thursday evening, despite have a four-month baby at home.
My favourite picks are the tuna saam with fig, pine nut jam and sorbet, while the cold ajo blanco soup with coconut and spicy tuna and ‘apple cream’ is splendid.
The ‘nido of mezcla’, basically a nest of goodies, came out with a special type of pasta, a free range egg, tuna tartare and shaved truffle from Soria on top. The waiter kindly did the splitting up and prep to eat.
Still looking for more tuna? Head up the road to Barbate and try the famous El Campero, run by the stalwart chef Jose ‘Pepe’ Melero, who directs his team with Zen-like calm.
An unbelievable success story, he can easily serve up to 500 diners per session and has tuna dishes in around 30 different guises, including tuna lasagna and Facera, Galera and Parpatana.
From Barbate the road naturally takes you towards Vejer, but you would be mad not to stop at Venta Pinto that first served up its loin in lard roll dish in 1910.
Served warm, normally with a snifter of sherry, it’s still on offer today and literally oozes with the feel-good factor, if not exactly a road to good health.
Thankfully, the menu at this family-owned restaurant is as light or rich as you want it to be, with plenty of salads and gallons of seafood to boot.
No surprise the tuna is good and my morillo cut is one of the best, but if it’s on offer definitely go for the creative tuna ‘tostada’ served on wafer-thin toast, spread with mayo, wasabi, black salt and onion. A surefire winner.
If not for lunch, definitely stop for a coffee, to admire the centuries-old tavern still run by the Pinto family, under the watchful eye of Cristina, a livewire, who buzzes from the bar to the restaurant and the terrace to the shop, usually with a big smile.
For something completely different, look out for Patria on the other side of Vejer in the hamlet of La Muela.
This amazing place manages to tick just about every box in my book, combining theatre with romance and creativity with quality, not to mention exceptional prices.
Danes Ase and Thomas have turned this candle-lit flagstone terrace into the sort of place you might find in the Pyrenees or the south of France with its vine-clad veranda framing its views towards the coastline below.
Inside, it’s all cool jazz and colours and the joy of gourmet food, provided by the fiery (actually pretty chilled) Viking Thomas, who drives his team forward in their bijoux kitchen.
A purveyor of local ingredients, his baby fennels from nearby Conil, poached in an escabeche with goat cheese cream, were delicious. As was his pan brioche with beef steak marinated overnight, with gherkins, chives and dill and served on a baby lettuce.
A carpaccio of local Barbate prawns were carefully sliced and served with salicornia and a kimchi sauce, with some cherry tomatoes.
The tuna belly, salted for two days and then smoked for three hours, is one of the best tuna dishes around. And that is saying something.
Dining capital – Vejer
Up in Vejer itself you are completely spoilt for choice for restaurants.
Cadiz’ definitive dining capital, its highlights include 4 Estaciones where owner Alberto is constantly refining and changing his menu, as others ‘keep copying it’.
This year, he is extremely keen for me to try the saam with a tail of king prawn, guacamole, trout roe, spring onion and kimchi, before anyone else steals it.
It turns out to be a lovely variation on the dish made famous at three Michelin star Diverxo, in Madrid, and is, in fact, better. I’ve eaten there and this is even fresher, in fact a bomb in the mouth, so to speak.
The range of ‘fresh summer dishes’ also improve by the year (it is now year six), and Alberto’s gazpacho sorbet with olive oil ice cream, prawns, ham and free range egg and black pepper was better than I first tried it in 2017.
It needs to be stated that Alberto, from Vejer, is a massive supporter of local Cadiz wines, with no less than seven whites and nine reds coming from the province. Oh and his choice of sherries by the glass is the best in town. “One has to support one’s region,” he insists, pouring me a glass of Sancha Perez, a pleasant flinty white made just outside Vejer using Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes.
Next up is the grandfather of restaurants, the Jardin de Califa, which has become a genuine foodie pilgrimage over the last decade.
The highlight of any culinary journey to the Costa de la Luz, its history goes back to the late 1990s when Scottish expat, James Stuart, decided to open a hotel and eventually rival to the hip restaurant Trafalgar just across the main square
Reached through the labyrinthine corridors of his 16th century Califa hotel, its romantic palm courtyard is enclosed by ancient walls and is lit with Moroccan lamps after dark.
If you aren’t hypnotized by the scent of frangipani, jasmine and incense, the heavenly menu is crammed full of flavours from the Middle East and north Africa.
Created by a multicultural kitchen, the freshest dishes imaginable include pastela filled with chicken, almonds and cinnamon, baba ganoush and shish taouk.
Service is always second to none, and the ambience is very much part of the set up.
If you can’t get a table here, try the excellent Garimba across the square.
One of the most charming places to eat in southern Spain, Plaza de Espana is always a hive of activity, so you might expect the food to be a little flat.
Not at all, the excellent range of dishes including prawn pil pil and partridge salad, are fresh and excellent plates to share.
Run by father and daughter team of Javier and Claudia, both from Madrid, the place is organised, friendly and usually busy.
Califa Tapas, just up the road on Calle Corredera, is another good spot to eat with some of the best views in Cadiz. The menu is also good with a special mix of dishes.
Next door, you must also definitely try Corredera 55, which is the highly-rated and constantly evolving restaurant of Stuart’s wife Ellie Cormie.
Having run a series of restaurants in Asturias and Scotland – some with Michelin stars – she has created a true gem with this joint, that also counts on lovely views.
The menu changes regularly and it is easily in the top 3 best in the town.
Another brilliant choice is Taperia Sumia, which also has a great outdoor terrace on Calle Corredera.
Moroccan Anne Soumia has done an excellent job bringing this place back to life serving up an excellent north African inspired menu, including delicious cuttlefish croquettes and excellent lemon chicken, with potatoes and an olive tagine.
The inside cave dining room is a wonderful choice for hot or rainy days.
Staying with a Moroccan flavour, you might want to check out Fez, the latest restaurant opened by the Califa group, also up in the heart of the old town.
A simple joint with an easy philosophy, it combines a clear love of the country
Last but not least, meat lovers must certainly look out for the fabulous Castilleria, in the idyllic hamlet of Santa Lucia.
This wonderful restaurant sits in a leafy garden offering up the best steaks available in Spain. Broken down into the different types of meat, there are literally dozens of cuts from 8 months to 11 years old.
The most up-and-coming place to eat on the Costa de la Luz though is Tarifa, which is finally developing a competitive food scene.
There has been a real improvement in quality over the last few years as the town edges closer to competing with Vejer.
There are some excellent new places here, in particular, Merkado 27, which has just opened up on the main drag Calle Santisima Trinidad in the heart of town.
A great menu with a nice mix of starters, salads and mains, I particularly like the croquettes of ‘cecina’ with pesto, while the tosta of roast beef was delicious served with rocket on top.
Other exciting places are MicMoc, Silos 19 and La Morena, which has a sister joint in Madrid and recently opened in a hidden square in the heart of the old town.
I also love Almacen, where Georgina leads her kitchen team with an iron fist, pushing out some of the freshest dishes in the town.
Overlooking the port it has a lovely feel to it and the staff are excellent, very attentive and friendly.
Looking for a good Italian? Trattoria on Calle Santisima Trinidad, gets better by the year.
Run by sharp-eyed Napolitano Luciano Fabricio, a genuine foodie, who has a number of restaurants, his pizzeria has recently won an award from the Verace Pizza Napoletana quality mark – the only one in Cadiz province.
No surprises, he brought in a team from Napoli to build his pizza oven and he only uses soft homemade dough with slow fermentation.
Up the road check out Lima, which has a wonderful leafy terrace and describes its food as ‘multicultural comida’, that’s to say a mix of everything good.
“We’ve got dishes from all around Europe and South America,” explains Xavi, a former snowboard champion, who’s been cooking in Tarifa for years.
Heading out of Tarifa up the coast road, look out for Pacha Mama, which is an institution that can feed up to 1000 people a day in the heart of summer.
And not just churning it out. Owner Luciano (who also owns Trattoria) is a big fan of Italy’s Slow Food Movement and he insists on the best free range meats, from top breeds, including Simental, Holstein and Galician Blonde.
“All our steaks come from cows at least five years old and fed naturally with grass from the field,” he tells me. “This is the only way to impregnate the fat with that characteristic aroma of grass and milk.”
The restaurant sits in a wonderful sheltered garden, with plenty of shade and an excellent pool for the kids to play in.
Also along this stretch of coast look out for the famous Hurricane Hotel and its superb lunch buffet and now romantic restaurant set up in the garden.
An institution that has gone up and down in quality over the years, right now it is heading to another peak, with its herb and vegetable garden full to burst and with a team of keen chefs at the helm.
You must also look out for the El Jardin restaurant at the Punta Sur hotel, which is an amazing place to chill out and eat incredibly well.
Incidentally . . .
THE only part of the world that can compete with the Costa de la Luz when it comes to tuna fish is Japan for its fanaticism and quality.
This is, after all, a stretch of coast, where a town (Zahara de los Atunes) is named after the record breaking fish, which is consistently the most expensive in the world.
To be exact it is the bluefin tuna that is so sought after and so endangered that a couple of decades global fishing quotas were introduced to save the species.
These days the Spanish are only legally allowed to catch it for two periods of the year, in Spring and Autumn, when the fish go in and out of the Straits.
And almost all of it is landed in Barbate, with a small amount in the nearby towns, including Conil and Tarifa.
But there is nowhere better to try it than in Zahara, where the resort created a tuna tapa competition 12 years ago that gets stronger and stronger by the year.
The brainchild of Eduardo at Hotel Pozo del Duque, up to 50 restaurants compete to create the most exciting tuna dish during the week-long festival in May.