Bar San Juan has long been at the top of TripAdvisor’s best Manchester restaurants list, however, I do not normally trust TripAdvisor, least of all when trying to find some good, cheap food. Aside from its chart-topping ability, Bar San Juan has frequently been mentioned in my ear by my trustworthy housemates: “When are you going to try the best tapas there is?” they’d ask. So, on Tuesday, I did.
Beech Road in Chorlton is full of bars and restaurants that are bustling any night of the week, hence when I heard you could not book at Bar San Juan, I was a little bit apprehensive. Despite my better instincts, my dining partner Dylan and I made the trip to this trendy part of South Manchester and were met by this tiny, absolutely packed tapas bar. Its painted exterior—canary yellow and red—was brash and somewhat in-your-face, but it really worked, and immediately, I just wanted to get inside.
When we opened the door and apologetically let a gust of the winter wind blow inside, that almost froze the nearest table, we were pleased to find out we could wait at their ‘bar’ and a table would likely become free within the next half an hour. We were ushered to the back of the restaurant, perched on some small wooden stools, and ordered two pints of San Miguel. I couldn’t help but compare the interior to a classic tapas bar I went to in Barcelona and almost thanked the waiter with an overenthusiastic ‘Gracias’ (Check out El Xampanyet if you are ever in Barcelona!)
By the time we had finished our drinks, we were beckoned over to a newly emptied table and presented with a traditional-looking menu. By looking around at some fellow diners tables, we had already spotted a few tapas dishes we were certain on getting. I wished it was socially acceptable to ask tables next to you what it is they have ordered, but I reigned myself in as I knew Dylan would be totally embarrassed. Instead we guessed, and did a pretty decent job of it.
Before we knew it, our lovely waiter filled our table with little plates of goodness. First, we dived into Saquitos Cordero: filo parcels packed full with slow cooked lamb, and were taken by the textures of the crisp pastry mixing with the soft succulent meat. We knew from then onwards that Bar San Juan was going to the top of our ‘favourite restaurants list’. Next, we fought over the Pisto Manchego: a small dish full of a vegetable sauce made up of tomatoes, aubergine, and onions, topped with delicious, earthy cheese, a hands-down winner in our eyes. We went on to order, Calamari, Gambas Pil-Pil—our favourite Spanish prawn dish—Albondigas: lamb and pork meatballs, and then, Solomillo: garlicky potatoes topped with steak and Padron peppers, and Conjundo Murciano: chorizo with quail’s eggs.
When we had finished our multiple outstanding dishes, we realised we were sticking out from the crowd like sore thumbs. Everyone else in the restaurant had decided to take a classic Spanish approach and eat slowly, savouring every bite of each expertly executed plate. We laughed at our overt Englishness but did not for one minute regret our eating style, and even if we had, we wouldn’t have been able to stop ourselves from demolishing our food in what must have been record time.
We stayed for a while, sipping on our drinks and continuing to soak up the warming atmosphere for as long we possibly could before we reluctantly realised the other eager customers waiting at the bar for a table just as we had been doing a while before. We were waved off by the kindly staff and set off on our journey back to the now less appealing Fallowfield to ask our other friends: “When are you going to go to try the best tapas there is?”