Barteca Restaurant Group gives the dynamic dining and drinks cultures of Spain and South America new life at its 28 restaurants in the Eastern United States. The Connecticut-based company operates Barcelona Wine Bar and Bartaco, concepts that have differing food and drinks themes but share similar commitments to authenticity. Founded over 20 years ago, Barteca Restaurant Group has evolved with the changing on-premise landscape, creating a niche for itself in the polished-casual dining segment. The company has bold growth plans, including moves into the southern and western United States.
The drinks business is an integral part of the experience at all of Barteca’s venues, comprising as much as 45 percent of total company revenues. Wine is a huge focus at Barcelona Wine Bar, while spirits and canned beer dominate at Bartaco. The restaurants attract a varied clientele, from millennials to families with young children to baby boomers, and they boast lively atmospheres enhanced by their shareable dining format and varied drinks menus.
“Our company has evolved in a casual and approachable way,” says Barteca Restaurant Group CEO Jeff Carcara. “Twenty years ago, there was no polished-casual segment in the restaurant business, but that’s where we’ve found our home in the last seven to 10 years. Our restaurants are very approachable. We want to give our guests a great experience.”
Barteca Restaurant Group launched in 1996 with the opening of the first Barcelona Wine Bar in Norwalk, Connecticut. The concept, created by company founder Sasa Mahr-Batuz, aimed to provide a unique dining option that wasn’t available in Connecticut at that time. From its humble beginnings, Barcelona Wine Bar has grown to include 13 units in Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C., with openings planned for Pennsylvania this year and Colorado in the future.
Barcelona Wine Bar locations are designed for their individual markets and only a small percentage of their menus are the same across locations. Chefs are given a lot of room to create new menu items specific to their restaurant. “We don’t build cookie-cutter restaurants—we design them for their neighborhoods,” Carcara says. “At Barcelona, the chefs have a lot of influence every day. There’s always something new, creative and fun on the menu. We like to stick to the roots of the brand but give guests the ability to get adventurous.”
The venues have an intimate vibe, with darker interiors that incorporate heavy elements like iron, wood and brick. The concept’s bars are often crafted from marble or maple wood, and chalkboards throughout the space highlight food and drink specials. The restaurants feature massive wine lists with between 400 and 500 labels, depending on location. The wines trend toward small producers and organic, biodynamic and sustainable or natural products. Many of the labels are also exclusive to the concept. Up to 60 percent of Barcelona’s wines hail from Spain, while 15 to 20 percent come from South America, and the rest are scattered around the globe.
“Our focus and love is Spain and South American,” says Barteca wine and spirits director Gretchen Thomas, who has been with the company for 11 years. “Barcelona’s wine program has increased incredibly. When I took on the menu, I inherited a list that was about 80-percent California wine. I took out a lot of the wines that belonged at an American steakhouse and created something new. When I first got going on the list, it was so exciting to find Spanish wines in the United States because there weren’t many. Today, I have much more ability to truly curate my list and still have a big Spanish and South American offering.”
The wine list for the Barcelona locations in Connecticut includes labels from the popular Spanish regions Rioja, Rías Baixas and Ribera del Duero, as well as offerings from lesser-known areas like Mallorca, Toro, Jumilla and Yecla. The restaurants pour roughly 50 wines by the glass ($6 to $14), ranging from the 2012 Bodegues Sumarroca Brut Nature Gran Reserva Cava to the 2013 Avinyó Petillant Vi d’Agulla to the 2009 Bodegas Olarra Nucerro Reserva Rioja. A few wine flights are also available ($12.50 to $17.50 for three 3-ounce pours), along with a lengthy roster of craft and European beers ($3 to $7 a draft pour; $4.50 to $42 a bottle or can), flavored sangrias ($7.50 to $9 a glass; $26.50 to $52 a carafe or pitcher) and specialty cocktails (7.50 to $12).
Signature cocktails include the Barcelona Gintonic, made with Martin Miller’s gin, Fever-Tree tonic, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon slices, and a rosemary garnish. The venues also offer Latin spirits in a variety of drinks, and mezcal is doing particularly well. The bars’ Henry’s Alibi cocktail comprises Fidencio Clásico mezcal, Cappelletti Americano aperitif, Dow’s Late-Bottled Vintage Port and Angostura Aromatic bitters.
Barcelona is European in style, and one of our most popular drinks is the Gin and Tonic,” Thomas says. “You’ll find some element or influence of an aperitivo, Sherry or Port in most of our drinks. It’s the backbone of the drinks because it goes with the concept and the tapas lifestyle. Wine is our focus at Barcelona, but we have a full offering of cocktails made from scratch with a European sensibility.”
The tapas menu at Barcelona changes daily and varies by location. A recent menu from the Norwalk, Connecticut, locale featured charcuterie like jamón Serrano and chorizo picante ($6.50 each) alongside such cooked meat and fish tapas as black sea bass, Spanish octopus, smoked pork belly and Ibérico presa ($7.50 to $13.50). The venue also offers classics like chicken pimientos and paella mariscos ($19.50 to $26.50), along with such specialties as jamón and manchego croquettes, spinach and chickpea cazuela, and hanger steak in a truffle sauce ($4.50 to $11.50). “We try to find chefs who understand the market from within each market,” Carcara explains. “Our chefs have the ability to play with their menus on a daily basis. They do some incredible things.”
Barteca’s other concept, Bartaco, has a very different feel. Rooted more in South American and Latin cultures, the restaurant emphasizes tacos, offering a fresh menu with myriad takes on the classic dish, alongside rice bowls and other food items like pork tamales, mahi mahi ceviche and rotisserie chicken (tacos are $2.50 to $3.50 each; rice bowls are $8; other dishes are $4 to $9.50). Bartaco aims to evoke a beachy, coastal atmosphere, with a clean, bright and airy interior that incorporates large patios and garage doors that open during warm weather. The company operates 12 Bartaco locations in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia and has plans to add units in Colorado, Alabama and Texas later this year.
“Cocktails are our drinks focus at Bartaco,” Thomas explains. The restaurants use fresh juices squeezed to order for each drink, as well as large Kold-Draft ice cubes and premium spirits and mixers. “We want to make really incredible and refreshing drinks at Bartaco,” Thomas says. “It’s more of a beach-themed cocktail program with some tiki and Mexican classics. The Margarita is pretty important here, and when we were putting the program together we wanted to make the best Margarita in the world.”
To further that goal, Thomas launched her own Tequila last year, in partnership with Cadre Noir Imports. The Libélula Tequila brand—made in the joven style by blending 100-percent agave blanco and reposado Tequilas—is available in every Bartaco restaurant and sold in select retail stores nationwide ($20 a 1-liter). Bartaco’s Margarita mixes Libélula Tequila with Cadre Noir’s Combier Liqueur d’Orange, agave syrup and lime juice ($9.75 in Connecticut). Other signature drinks include a seasonally driven Caipirinha, an updated Manhattan incorporating thyme and citrus juices, and the Oaxaca Spritz, comprising Banhez mezcal, Cappelletti Americano, and fresh guava and lemon juices (cocktails are $7.50 to $12 in Connecticut). In addition, the restaurants offer Tequila and mezcal in flights ($16 to $23 for three 1-ounce pours) and for sipping neat or on the rocks ($7 to $56 a 1 1/2-ounce pour).
Beer is a significant player at Bartaco as well, and the restaurants highlight canned offerings and local and regional craft labels, along with Mexican brews ($5 to $12 a can or bottle). The concept also lists a small selection of wines, focusing on screwcap-topped selections available by the glass ($7.50 to $11 a glass; $30 to $89 a 750-ml.).
“For both concepts, the bar is a big part of what we do,” Thomas says. “We make the bar a focal point in the restaurants, and it’s a fun and comfortable place to hang out. We make a huge commitment to the whole beverage program. The people who work for us embrace it.”
At Barcelona Wine Bar, many of the concept’s employees are restaurant and bar industry professionals and people who have wine knowledge or are on the path to sommelier certification. Meanwhile, Bartaco often attracts a younger staff. Thomas, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a certified sommelier, puts a big emphasis on employee training and travels regularly to visit the venues and conduct educational seminars. She makes sure to visit each Bartaco monthly to host a beverage class and each Barcelona every six to eight weeks for a wine lecture and tasting. In addition, Thomas goes to Spain several times a year and organizes employee trips to the country to make sure the staff at Barcelona Wine Bar fully understands the culture they’re celebrating within the restaurants.
While the company’s core business is restaurants, Barteca Restaurant Group also operates a single-unit wine retail shop in Atlanta’s Inman Park. The store, called Barcelona VinoTeca and located within walking distance of a Barcelona Wine Bar and a Bartaco, is a side project for Thomas and a former wine bar employee who now manages the space. The 1,700-square-foot retail outlet stocks nearly 600 wines and has a similar focus to the company’s other ventures, emphasizing Spanish and South American labels. Carcara says the store has been successful, but notes that the company has no plans to expand on it or open more units in the near future.
Barteca’s upcoming growth will come from its addition of Barcelona Wine Bar and Bartaco locations. Carcara estimates the company will add six restaurants in the second half of this year and says he hopes to debut another six to eight new locations next year. “Our brands are very different,” Carcara says. “You can use our restaurants for a lot of different dining occasions, and that’s important to me. We’re very nimble for the size of our company. We don’t mind changing something today and changing it back tomorrow if it’s wrong. Barcelona Wine Bar and Bartaco are both viable concepts for a lot of different markets and they both have room to grow.”