The action starts with a bank of high-energy chefs at Cal Pep. Picture: Ray Jordan

The queue usually starts to form a good 45 minutes before opening. It quickly grows to 20 or 30, which means some people will have to wait to be seated at the long counter in the narrow room that is Cal Pep, one of the hottest and most popular modern tapas-style bars in Barcelona.

When not pumping out some of the best food in the city, this hidden gem sits behind a nondescript aluminium roller door and shutters that are opened not a second before the scheduled opening, no matter how many people are gathered.

There is little on the street frontage, on Placa des les Olles, to suggest this is consistently among the top 10 tapas bars in Barcelona. If it wasn't for the queue you could walk on by, oblivious to what you had missed.

You can't book at Cal Pep unless with a bigger group that squeezes into the tiny dining room at the back of the restaurant. But the fun is really out the front.

When one of the waiters eventually emerges to open the place, the queue surges forward in a strangely orderly way to sit at the Formica counter. Those who arrived late must wait patiently behind for a seat to become available. No one is in a hurry to move.

And this is when the action starts with a bank of high-energy chefs fronted by waiters who quickly establish you can't speak Spanish and try to suggest what and how much you should order.

The selection is wide and varied, and usually depends on what is available on the day. Seafood, as you would imagine, is a speciality.

I opted for a fino sherry to start with, but one of the many sparkling Catalan cavas or a fragrant lager would be equally good to get things ticking over.

When the food comes, it comes with a rush, straight off one of the hotplates in front of you. And it doesn't take long before voices rise and the place takes on a lively, friendly ambience. The menu changes constantly but I would recommend you ask for the green chillies as a spicy opening and the deep-fried artichoke hearts.

On most nights the owner - Pep himself - will appear just to check on his chefs and waiters and the customers. His attention to detail and quality is obvious.

And how successful is he? Well, anyone who can afford to close on Saturday night and Sunday must have a pretty good business. The rest of the time, the bar is open for lunch at 1pm Tuesday to Saturday and for dinner from 7.30pm Tuesday to Friday.

And if Catalan food the Cal Pep way is your thing, you can register at the restaurant to get regular bulletins and recipes from the man himself via email.

And it doesn't take long before voices rise and the place takes on a lively, friendly ambience.

The West Australian

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