El Internacional, the first tapas bar in the U.S.
El Internacional, the first tapas bar in the U.S. Credit: courtesy antoni miralda

About 2,700 copies of the second issue of the Chicago FoodCultura Clarion have been randomly inserted into print issues of this week’s Reader. If you didn’t snag the inaugural issue in November, there’s a small chance to score a copy of this penultimate installment (or download the full PDF). It’s an easy-on-the-eyes journalistic collaboration between artist Antoni Miralda, University of Chicago anthropologist Stephan Palmié, and a posse of food writers dishing out stories on, among other things, Korean-style Chinese food, La Chaparrita, hot dogs, stockyard blood buttons, a racoon feast, and this fishy Chicago food history footnote by me:

Bacalao, reconstituted, was on the menu when Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! opened to innocent but curious Lincoln Park diners on December 26, 1985. But the dried, salted codfish was also, oddly, dangling amid a curtain of jamon, garlic, and dried chilis above the bar at Chicago’s first tapas restaurant. 

“Whole smoked hams and dried salt cod hanging from rafters add a Spanish note,” according to the Tribune in its review of the 21st restaurant in Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’s mighty empire (14 years after Rich Melman and his partners invented the salad bar at R.J. Grunt’s). Like many Lettuce concepts, it was a hugely popular novelty at the time. It was also one of the first tapas restaurants in the U.S., often credited with helping to launch America’s obsession with an adapted form of Spanish drinking food. Along with a now-defunct Las Vegas satellite, it had no small influence on the small plates trend that arose in the aughts and persisted up until the pandemic (for better or worse). 

It’s likely that the majority of mid-80s cool kids—bolstered by nearby DePaul University—who lined up for hours in those early days didn’t think anything of the bacalao bobbing above the bar. But it’s not a common accent in Spanish tapas bars, where the simple act of placing a piece of bread atop a glass of wine to keep the flies out evolved into a galaxy of bar snacks and an enshrined, communal eating culture. 

But Montse Guillén certainly thought it was strange. And she would know—there was codfish hanging at her restaurant too. 

Guillén was a Catalan chef of increasing renown in the early 80s when she and her partner, the multidisciplinary food artist Antoni Miralda, opened El Internacional in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. Not only was it the very first tapas restaurant in the United States, it was an evolving two-floor art installation with a sidewalk mosaic of Coca-Cola cans at the entrance and an enormous replica of Lady Liberty’s crown on the roof (featured for years in an opening credit cameo on Saturday Night Live). Inside, the Columbus Trophy Bar served blue margaritas under four large, hanging bacalao, and in the Marina Room, diners snacked on Guillén’s patatas bravas, orejas de cerdo vinagreta, and buñuelos de bacalao above four whole salted codfish on a bed of blue salt sunk into the floor.

Bacalao is a recurring motif in Miralda’s work. “I’ve always been interested by the codfish itself,” he says. “Not only for the importance it has in nutrition in the world: it was on all the transatlantic voyages. This was about survival. But also because it has an incredible shape like a triangle. A codfish has a presence, really, a holy presence.”

It also has a pronounced olfactory presence: “Their smell is always a trademark!” he says.

El Internacional was part restaurant, part art installation.
El Internacional was part restaurant, part art installation.Credit: courtesy antoni miralda

For this reason, they aren’t a regular presence in Spanish bars—at least in uncooked form. Montse Guillén might have neglected to mention this important piece of advice the evening she was summoned to the table of two men visiting from Chicago who said they were planning to open a tapas bar in their midwestern meat-and-potatoes metropolis. “You need to have somebody from Spain in the kitchen,” she told them.

So she was surprised and flummoxed to encounter the bacalao above the bar about a year later when she dropped by the new Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! on a short visit to Chicago. “This I remember very well,” she says. “I talked with my friend: ‘Look they copied this maybe. They’re thinking in Spain they put codfish in the tapas bars.’”

Guillén and Miralda moved on to other projects not long after that, but Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! has endured, recently celebrating its 35th birthday with a $70 Tapas Tasting Menu for carryout or delivery. And just last week, Lettuce “temporarily closed” its two-year-old River North Spanish wine spot Bar Ramone, replacing it with a new outpost: Lil’ Ba-Ba-Reeba! Its longevity is emblematic of LEYE’s overall success over the decades, with its carefully curated restaurants that present gleaming, easy-to-swallow facsimiles of particular cuisines or environments—restaurants both beloved for their theatrics and criticized for practicing a kind of Disneyfication of culture and cuisine. 

There was, in fact, a Spaniard in the kitchen when Ba-Ba-Reeba! opened in 1985. Chef Gabino Sotelino was born in Vigo, Spain, and began cooking at the age of 14 in kitchens all over the world before joining forces with Melman to revitalize the legendary Pump Room. Together they opened LEYE’s first fine dining restaurant, Ambria, followed by the French bistro Mon Ami Gabi, before Sotelino convinced the boss to open a tapas bar. 

At first Melman thought the chef said “topless bar” (a joke both men still tell). Neither remembers visiting El Internacional during the research and development phase. Nor do they remember whose idea it was to hang bacalao above the bar. But Melman is open to the possibility that they were inspired by it. 

Sotelino and Melman had different visions for the restaurant. The chef wanted a rigorously authentic Spanish experience, and his menu prototype included things like tripe, pigs feet, and “barnacles” (aka percebes). Melman was sure Chicago wasn’t ready for this: “I said ‘Gabi, there’s no way we are opening up. I just don’t feel it. I’m telling you, we’re gonna get killed.’” 

It’s unclear when—or why—the adornments above the bar at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! were retired.
It’s unclear when—or why—the adornments above the bar at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! were retired.Credit: courtesy mark sotelino

Changes were in order. “I’m not interested in the six people who know it’s authentic,” says Melman. “I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know how they dress in Spain but I want to get crazy.’ We changed 80 percent of the menu. We left the paellas, and the hams, and stuff that were good, and then we opened it. And I had a lot of fun.” Servers wore capes. Flamenco dancers stamped and tapped among the tables. Chicago ate it up.

It’s unclear when or why the hams and bacalao above the bar were retired. And it’s undoubtedly a good thing that the restaurants that took their inspiration from Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! and El Internacional didn’t deploy salt fish as a decorative element.

As for Melman, he recognizes that the dangling bacalao was a mistake. “We fucked it up!” he laughs. And El Internacional? “Maybe we did get an inspiration for what was going on there.” After all, he didn’t get where he is today by ignoring inspiration when it strikes. He offers a quote from his unpublished memoir: “Imitators blindly copy an idea. But creative people are often inspired by something they see, or taste, or hear. Take an idea. Make it better. Make it your own. Make it fit your organization and culture.”  v