We wanted seafood on the last night of our holiday, preferably at student-friendly prices, and it had been favourably reviewed in Time Out: 'Superb seafood, served in a refectory-style fashion...A great - and cheap - experience for anyone who is not too grand to clear away their own plate.' La Paradeta opened at eight in the evening, perfect for a last languid evening on the beach after a day roaming Barcelona's searing July streets. Confident of being first through the door we strolled up off the Barceloneta and rounded the corner of the Antic Mercat del Born at six minutes past, to discover a queue that almost put the Picasso museum to shame. 'Oh, they've only just opened,' I said. 'We'll be through in no time.'
I had no idea what I was talking about. We joined the end of the queue and waited. It inched imperceptibly forward. There was about as much movement at the front as moss growing. Occasionally the door would open and a figure or two would get leached from the queue beyond the darkly reflecting windows of the exterior, like an amoeba sorrowfully splitting off from a tiny portion of itself. My sister and I exchanged nervous glances. Our prospects for an imminent dinner didn't look promising, but the golden rule of foreign dining - eat where the locals eat - was being followed to the letter: on either side of us in the queue stood Spanish families, whose members rotated between standing and perching on the concrete pavement, smoking and talking on their mobile phones.
Time passed and we moved slowly, surely, towards the front. After an hour's solid reading, my sister's phone battery expired. 'This better be worth it,' she said darkly. The queue seamlessly amassed more members behind us, peaceably waiting in the warm, close evening air. We crunched our way through a bag of rice crackers with growing desperation. My blood sugar was about to drop through the floor when - miraculously - the queue shuffled forward and the seafood counter hove into view. The bodies ahead shifted and without warning we found ourselves pressed up against a seafood treasure trove, fruits de mer piled high along an eight-foot counter: clams and razor clams, a long dark hunk of tuna, something that looked suspiciously like the baby shark we'd seen earlier in the Boqueria food market, gleaming white uncut squid, piles of baby octopus, neat lanes of crab, langoustine the size of kittens - and behind in the kitchen, a frenetic bustle of activity and the passing to and fro of trays, plates and veritable vats of San Miguel.
Decisions had to be made rapidly. 'Habla ingles?' I tried, but the smilingly brusque woman with hair caught up behind a hairnet and tongs poised over seafood paradise did not really habla any ingles, so my sister pointed at the crab she wanted and, a bit overwhelmed, I spontaneously asked for atun - of which the woman hacked off an untidy chunk while gazing into the middle distance as if this was not the most exciting choice. She threw it unceremoniously onto a half-visible scale. 'Anything else?' she asked, and in an impulsive fit of genius, my sister pointed at the pile of baby octopuses that sat whitely glistening at the end of the counter.
That was it. They didn't do fries and they didn't do potatoes. We ordered a plate of green salad and two bits of unremarkable bread with spicy romesco sauce and aioli, and moved round to the bar to get on board with the apparently mandatory consumption of barrel-sized glasses of San Miguel, slightly delirious from hunger and quaking in our flip-flops as we waited for the bill to ring through. 'How much will it be?' asked my sister anxiously. I shook my head. I had no idea. By this point my blood sugar and I were past caring. I saw €129 on the till and experienced a mildly hideous lurch somewhere behind my belly button - but it wasn't us, and the matriarch of a family of four elbowed me cheerfully out the way to settle up.
Then it was us.
I repeat: thirty-one euros and nineteen cents.
My sister's general demeanour instantly morphed from trembling to giddily incredulous, as if someone had just injected her with a litre of high fructose corn syrup. 'Seriously? Seriously?' Yes, seriously. Including salad, bottled waters and enough San Miguel to float a roomful of Brits, the bill for piled plates of the freshest seafood in town came to the cost of a couple of London cinema tickets.
Moreover, after waiting for over an hour, our food began to emerge after ten minutes. They called our number each time a plate was ready, so there was some jostling with tables number twenty-eight and thirty-six in between picking up all the plates for thirty-one. After the meditative queue, this was action-stations. First came my sister's crab: it was a whopper and with its claws detached and nestled firmly alongside the shell, the plate must have been a good ten inches across. Em looked at it in consternation. She had in fact never eaten a proper crab before, and it did not come with instructions. After bashing it against the table a few times, the mystery was solved, just in time for a plate of tuna and baby octopuses to appear. The untidy chunk of atun that had been so casually thrown across to the kitchen had morphed, in the intervening fifteen minutes, into the best tuna I had ever eaten. It was sweetly seared on the outside. It was exquisitely medium-rare - all the way across. It was singing in a simple butter sauce. By the time it occurred to me to take a photo for this review, it had half gone, and my sister was too knuckle-deep in crab to oblige.
And then there were the baby octopuses. Oh my, the baby octopuses. They were perfectly cooked and succulent. There was not a whisper of rubbery calamari or that horrible elastic-y squid lining stuff which can instantly ruin one's facial expression when caught lurking in a seafood risotto. These were just beautiful. They came in simple butter and pepper with half a ladleful of green herby sauce. I ate them as-was and dipped more in the romesco sauce and ate them too. Eventually my sister cottoned on to the fact that I was eating all the octopuses and made a fairly decent attempt to get her half, but she never stood a chance.
Twenty minutes later, we were stuffed. We were happy. The cold beer really was wonderful. Looking around, I saw a refectory full of well-fed families and couples, their plates piled high with squid or crab-claws, and the punters still coming in, the lugubrious queue giving way with abandon to rapid and ecstatic consumption. We handed our trays in and headed for the door. Without our noticing, the sky had darkened, and as we left people were still queuing, waiting for their own precious forty-five minutes of culinary delight.
We made our way up the alleyways into the old city. The night was warm and dark and the mopeds blared along the narrow streets, and people clustered around tables in every placa and smoked and drank wine and were merry. I was thinking about the octopuses...the baby octopuses in that buttery herby sauce. I wanted, I realised, to sing about the octopuses. Em was really rather rude about this desire and might have made some disparaging remarks about my capacity for alcohol. She didn't get it. On this marvellous Barcelona evening, I was simply full of the joys of La Paradeta - sun-warmed, transcendently octopus-fed, San Miguel-kissed. Happy as a clam.