THERE is something about the province of Cadiz that brings out the best in restaurateurs.
A combination of style, creativity and, above all, positive vibes has created some of my favourite places to eat in Spain.
Much of it to do with the ingredients, there are so many delicacies that can be sourced around the definitive coast with the most.
Be it bluefin tuna, retinto steak or incredible seafood, foodies are spoilt for choice in the restaurants dotted along the Costa de la Luz.
The one thing you have to try is the tuna, which is caught twice a year via the ancient Almadraba method at half a dozen specific spots, with very strict quotas and, of which, 90% is exported.
It is like no other tuna you will every have eaten and what is left can be eaten at a handful of fabulous joints, including Antonio, in Zahara and El Campero, in Barbate.
This pair have been consistently competing to become the best places to eat Cadiz’s most famous export for the last few decades and both have recently undertaken remarkable transformations in terms of decor and style.
Antonio (www.restauranteantoniozahara.com) has one of the most amazing beach locations in Spain to go alongside its fabulous self-contained tuna menu, which is a stunning trawl of the very best of this wonderful local fish.
It also has some great value tapas dishes, such as the amazing tuna tartare on toast at just five euros, or the ‘mollete’ bun of squid with mayonnaise.
Up the road in the genuine fishing port town of Barbate you must not miss what is probably Andalucia’s best fish restaurant, El Campero (www.restauranteelcampero.es).
Run by the stalwart chef Jose Melero, he stands at the pass with a dozen chefs on one side and a dozen waiters on the other.
Directing his team with Zen-like calm, it is perhaps not surprising that this seasoned chef turned down a career in the air force to run his restaurant.
And military precision is what he needs with his team serving up to 400 people in a busy summer sitting… and over the three months of summer up to 20,000 meals.
In terms of tuna dishes there are around 30 different guises, including tuna lasagna and cuts almost unheard of, such as Facera, Galera and Parpatana.
There is also a tapas menu, with such delights as tuna tartare with shavings of truffle on toast and an unusual looking ‘monton crocante’, or mini towers of crunchy maize with spicy tuna inside.
In terms of up-and-coming culinary hotspots, Tarifa currently takes the biscuit with around half a dozen new places opening this year alone.
Quickly catching up on long-standing leader Vejer, there is a distinct buzz about the style and quality of places to eat here.
Much of this is thanks to a group of hip young couples, who have opened their own joints, including chef Hernan at Mic Moc, Patricia and Inaki at Raizes and Inga and Heber, with their trio of eateries.
I was particularly taken this year with the food at Raizes, which was a tour of fresh, creative dishes and an obvious labour of love by the owners, who are uniquely both chefs.
And proper chefs they are too, both classically taught, with Patricia Cordon having trained for over a year at one of Spain’s top restaurants Azurmendi and Inaki Garcia, having done his time with famous chef Martin Berasategui and Sergi Arola in Madrid.
Feeling a bit like a pop up, the decor was quirky, while the music was original and leftfield, while the food was distinctly fusion in feel and, best of all, often came in various half rations.
I loved the crujiente de carrillera, which won the second prize in this year’s tapas competition, while the smoked squid in tempura and a crust of its ink was not only wonderful-looking but perfectly cooked with a Mexican chipotle sauce.
Another really carefully considered dish was the sea anemones with algas and citrus fruit, while a pudding ‘te moruno’ had excellent textures to balance its taste.
Another exciting new opening in the town is from the Delgado brothers, behind the Morillo restaurant and hotel La Torre for years.
Called Siglo 19, it sits in the heart of the old town in a charming old building, divided into various sections and with a hostel upstairs.
Employing the services of talented Sanlucar chef Miguel Mesa Blanco, under the watchful eye of owner Jesus and son Miguel, this is a place to watch over the next year.
I was especially taken by the excellent trio of tuna tapas dishes, particularly the ventresca, served in a sesame crust and with a Pedro Ximenez sauce.
It also serves fabulous retinto beef steak from the nearby area, while the fresh urta fish in a lobster sauce was richness personified.
Another great spot run by expats is El Gecko, where Italians Angi, from Bolonia and Patti, from Milan, knock out some marvellously fresh mediterranean dishes every day.
While a simple menu there are six specials of the day, including wonderful dishes like gnocchi, beef tataki, red tuna with quinoa, and langoustines in ‘panko’.
It is also open for an excellent breakfast.
Also still doing great guns nearby on Calle Alameda are Lola Mora and la Ternera Mimosa, run by father and son team of Daniel and Xavier Lasagabaster, a former professional snowboarder.
Both have excellent outdoor dining terraces, with Lola Mora (www.lolamoratarifa.wixsite.com) tipping more towards classical food, while La Ternera Mimosa specialises on steaks, with a big bbq section.
I particularly liked his amazing tuna burger, while there is also a good choice of salads and starters, including some superb fresh tomatoes.
Other well known favourites include Trattoria (www.latrattoriatarifa.com), run by ambitious Italian magnate Luciano Fabricio, 46, from Naples, also on Calle Alameda.
With a fondness for his country’s top ingredients – not to mention the excellent Slow Food Movement – his restaurant just gets better and better.
After undertaking a course with Spanish masterchef Joan Roca, he has just introduced a ‘bano thermostat’, where he is able to slow cook a leg of lamb or duck breast for up to 24 hours at a low temperature.
He has another excellent, simpler spot Pizzeria con Cucina nearby, as well as recently taking over the famous Pacha Mama restaurant and beach club (www.pachamamatarifa.com) on the road out of Tarifa towards Vejer.
In a wonderful sheltered garden, with plenty of shade and an excellent pool for the kids to play in, you will be spoilt for choice, with excellent wood-fired bbq treats and a wood oven pizzas, not to mention the amazing homemade Italian ice creams.
Nearby, right on the beach, you will find the wonderful Italian, Osteria del Sole, which is a beautiful place and has some incredible fresh pasta, not to mention an amazing Italian wine list.
Also along this stretch of coast look out for the famous Hurricane Hotel and its superb lunch buffet, as well as the recently opened El Jardin restaurant at the Punta Sur hotel, which is an amazing place to chill out and eat incredibly well.
Heading towards Bolonia, overlooking rows of vines and a sea of undulating umbrella pines, Tesoro – or Treasure – is one pot of gold that really is worth seeking out.
Aside from the fabulous food – including fresh langoustines and a classic ‘retinto’ steak
typical of the region – the views over the Gibraltar straits to Africa are impossible to improve.
But the highlight of any culinary journey to the Costa de la Luz, must be Vejer, which is a true foodie Mecca and one of the best in Andalucia.
Over the last two decades the place has become more and more famous in Spain and abroad as a place to eat well.
Its history goes back to the late 1990s when two Madrilenos Pedro and Javier took the plunge to open the elegant restaurant Trafalgar on the main square in town.
It was the perfect foil to the other two key restaurants of reference in the area, El Campero in Barbate and Cadiz’s most famous meat restaurant Castilleria, in nearby Santa Lucia, which both opened in 1994.
“Trafalgar really started the food revolution here,” explains local hotelier James Stuart, who opened his own restaurant La Califa a few years later in 2002.
“Pretty soon we were all starting to raise the bar in quality making the town quite a few levels above anywhere else around,” he adds.
So it is no surprise that into this melting pot of talent should march female tour de force Ellie Cormie, a few years ago.
Having run a series of restaurants in Scotland – some with Michelin stars – she is now at the helm of the fabulous Corredera 55 (www.califavejer.com), where she has brought a unique sprinkling of magic, much of it learnt via four years in Asturias en route.
Alongside owner James Stuart, the fabulous, good value menu, heavy on vegetables and fish, keeps getting better and better.
The menu changes regularly and is always fresh and healthy with wonderful dishes such as the the cauliflower fritters, with turmeric and coriander, as well as an amazing mint and pea gazpacho, with wild basil.
A tuna sashimi with wakame salad and prawns was superb, while for theatre go for a ‘salad jar’ shaken on the spot. The fruits of the forest summer crumble with whisky mascarpone, cream and toasted oats, says it all. Amazing.
Also consistently good – and essential to book – is El Jardin del Califa (www.califavejer.com) reached through the labyrinthine corridors of the 16th century Califa hotel.
Its exquisite palm courtyard is enclosed by ancient walls and is lit with Moroccan lamps after dark.
If you aren’t hypnotised by the scent of frangipani, jasmine and incense, wait until you try the menu, a heavenly harem of authentic flavours from north Africa and the Middle East: delights such as baba ganoush, shish taouk, pastela filled with chicken, almonds and cinnamon and tempting tagines.
Meanwhile, their new spot Califa Tapas, just up the road on Calle Corredera, is getting more and more popular, with its special mix of dishes and amazing views to match.
Restaurant Trafalgar itself goes from strength to strength. Now run by a new chef Karlos, it has a traditional Spanish menu with plenty of modern touches.
Well installed in the Michelin guide for the last decade, you eat either in the charming square below or in the elegant restaurant above, which has some fantastic paintings on the wall, linking to the famous Trafalgar battle, which was fought nearby.
If it views you are after, La Torre 2.0, is impossible to beat, sitting as it does overlooking one of the best views in Christendom, overlooking the beautiful Janda landscape.
The recently opened sister restaurant of the La Torre, in El Palmar, is one of the most exciting new places in Vejer.
I particularly liked the fresh plate of thinly sliced courgette carpaccio with salted sardines and with shavings of payoya goats cheese on a bed of local sliced tomatoes and onions.
Meanwhile a ceviche of corvina with fresh avocado and creamy seafood sauce was a fresh and a delicious squid tail cooked in three cycles with mash was a surefire winner.
Around the corner, with easily the best wines on offer, is Vina y Mar, run by Ramon for the last decade. It’s a great spot to hang out at and the tapas get better by the year, while there are loads of wines by the glass, including dozens of sherries.
Outside of the town you are also spoilt for choice with some genuine dining secrets, including Castilleria (www.restaurantecastilleria.com), sitting in the idyllic hamlet of Santa Lucia.
A charming spot in the extreme, you sit in a leafy garden and eat the best steaks available in Spain. Broken down into the different types of meat, the steak menu is broken into 8 to 12 months, 4 to 6 years and even 9 to 11 years.
The place just gets better and better and is definitively where the wealthy and privileged go for lunch and dinner. You will need to book. It is very popular.
If you cannot get a table then you may just be in luck by visiting Venta el Toro, just down the street, which has been picked by the Guardian newspaper as one of the most charming restaurants in Spain.
And if it is charm you are looking for, few places beat Restaurant Patria (www.restaurantepatria.com), in the hills near Vejer, where Danes Thomas and wife Ase consistently serve up some of the tastiest dishes on the coast.
This incredibly creative couple, who have recently launched their own juice business Patria Pura, run this stunning dining secret, surrounded by vines, oleander and olive trees.
The stone terrace is always beautifully candlelit at night and your hosts do not disappoint when it comes to the food, which is almost all locally sourced.
As Thomas explains: “The joy of cooking is about what’s in peak season. There is no need to import anything from far away.”
He raves, quite rightfully about the quality of the local produce, and adds: “We work around what our suppliers can provide us locally be it wild asparagus, rabbit or bulls’ heart tomatoes.
“It is all about being able to adjust, change and create.”
Also worth looking out for in El Palmar is La Torre restaurant, which is the only one that sits right on the beach, with amazing views in both directions.
Set up by a local vegetable growing family, that sells its produce around Spain, it is based in the old Guardia Civil barracks.
Son Rafa is in charge of the restaurant and has done a good job with the menu, making it increasingly fresh and vibrant.
Try the plate of local tomatoes in salsa Mery, made from their own parsley, garlic and olive oil, or the fresh tuna tataki salad with mesclun and alfalfa.
In Zahara de los Atunes, you must look out for the hippest new restaurant on the coast, Restaurante 21 (www.21restaurante.com), run by Australian Ali and Madrilena girlfriend Marina.
A true slice of London cool, this is some of the most original and best created food on the coast.
The menu changes regularly and you will be eating everything from cod to scallops and smoked sardines to fresh organic foie.
Last, but very much not least, you finally have an excellent place to eat in Canos de Meca.
Sitting in a charming garden close to the famous beach, La Laja (www.la-laja.es), is a joy to visit.
Set up by long time cookery teacher Yolanda Roman – who has taught many of Spain’s best chefs, including twice Bocuse d’or winning Juanma Salgado – it specialises in traditional Spanish cuisine with various modern touches, but particularly featuring fresh, local produce.
In particular try the tuna belly and couscous salad, that come highly rated.
For more detailed reviews, background and other Cadiz food articles visit www.diningsecretsofandalucia.com