The diversity of the Andalusian kitchen reflects the many different peoples who have lived in this strategic region at the entrance to the Mediterranean. For example, the Phoenicians, the ancient seafaring people originally based in current-day Lebanon, invented mojama, the key ingredient in one of Andalusia’s most popular tapas. Mojama is made by curing slices of tuna in salt for two days and then hanging it to dry in the wind and the sun, which creates its distinctive umami flavor. The Phoenicians also introduced olive trees to Spain, which eventually provided the superb oil that is used in so many Andalusian dishes today. The most enduring imprint on Andalusian cuisine came from the Moorish period, which lasted from 711 to 1492. The Moors brought rice, sugar cane, almonds and apricots across the Straits of Gibraltar, and introduced pastry making and (among other things) the preservation of food with vinegar, such as lightly pickled boquerones (anchovies), which are another popular tapas. Later, the discovery of the Americas resulted in the introduction of tomatoes and corn.
Today, cities in Andalusia have their signature dishes. Jamón Jabugo — ham from free-range black pigs that graze on acorns in the countryside north of Huelva — is popular everywhere, but in Málaga and Marbella, specialties include skewers of grilled sardines, bream or shrimp and fritura Malagueña, a mix of lightly floured seafood fried in hot oil that usually includes anchovies, squid, whitebait and shrimp. Ensalada Malagueña, made with salt cod, potatoes, green olives and oranges, is a refreshing salad seen year-round on menus in Málaga. Pipirrana, a salad made with finely chopped tomato, green and red peppers, onions and olives garnished with tuna, mussels or other seafood, is also popular. Most often eaten during the winter, another Málagan classic is gazpachuelo Malagueño, a hearty soup of fish and potatoes cooked in vinegar and water and garnished with mayonnaise.
While traditional Andalusian cooking remains popular in both Málaga and Marbella, the reliable presence of an international clientele, along with food-loving locals and vacationing Spaniards from other parts of the country, has encouraged the emergence of one of the most interesting restaurant scenes in Spain. Here are some of our favorite tables on the Costa del Sol.
The stylish restaurant by chef José Carlos García, Málaga’s most inventive and innovative chef, is an ideal spot for lunch after a visit to the nearby Centre Pompidou. Try the ajo blanco, a cold soup made with ground almonds and garlic (and here topped with a red-wine granita), grilled sardines on smoked-eggplant cream, and hake with asparagus and artichokes.
Café de París
Calle Vélez Málaga 8, Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-225-043
This old-fashioned tavern with white-washed floorboards is a great place for Andalusian comfort food in the heart of the city. Try chef Dani Carnero’s signature Don José sandwich, which is filled with grilled octopus, sweet roasted peppers and slices of roast veal. Other dishes not to miss from the regularly changing menu include the cured beef croquettes with almond mayonnaise, butter beans with clams, and crab omelet in sherry sauce. There is also a terrace for dining alfresco.
Calle José Denis Belgrano 3, Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-215-827
José Carlos García, Málaga’s most prominent chef (see Café de Paris above), serves modern Mediterranean and Andalusian tasting menus at this fashionable Michelin one-star restaurant on the waterfront. Diners can sit on a large outdoor terrace or opt for a view of the open kitchen. Look for dishes such as shrimp with dill and juice of roasted peppers, squid stuffed with blood sausage served with a hollandaise sauce, and hake with uni in a saffron broth.
Restaurante José Carlos García
Plaza de la Capilla 1, Puerto de Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-003-588
This hospitable family-run restaurant has a handsome dining room with Andalusian tile wainscoting and white tablecloths on well-spaced tables. It’s a local favorite serving Andalusian specialties like veal croquettes; scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms, shrimp and ham; hake with garlic-and-vinegar sauce; grilled red tuna; and roasted Iberian pork shoulder.
Figón de Juan
Pasaje Esperanto 1, Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-287-547
This busy tapas bar is one of the most popular places in Málaga for a small-plates meal, maybe fried squid, stuffed mushrooms, ham croquettes, sautéed shrimp and deep-fried whitebait. It also offers a great-value menú del día, or prix fixe daily menu, which includes bread, a starter, a main course, a dessert and a drink. This changes regularly but might typically include a mushroom mille-feuille, pork tenderloin cooked in wine, and flan (crème caramel).
Calle San Lorenzo 27, Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-603-290
Perched on top of the Gibralfaro hill opposite the Alcazaba, this attractive restaurant in a hotel of the same name has an open-air terrace with the best views in Málaga. The menu showcases Andalusian dishes like cold tomato-and-peach soup with cured tuna, Jabugo ham with chopped tomato on toast, grilled octopus with aioli and paprika potatoes, and chicken stuffed with dried fruit in a Muscatel wine sauce.
Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro
Castillo de Gibralfaro, Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-221-902
This Argentine steakhouse serves delicious empanadas and salads to start, and then offers a variety of cuts of first-rate Argentine beef. The steak tartare is excellent, too. An impressive wine list leads off with Argentine Malbecs and also features some of the excellent red wines produced in the vineyards surrounding Málaga, notably an all-Syrah Baetica Munda natural wine that teams really well with beef.
Calle Pedro de Toledo 2, Málaga. Tel. (34) 654-901-944
This stylish all-white restaurant, in a convenient location near the waterfront, offers first-rate sushi and sashimi as well as tapas and is a great place for a light lunch. The seafood in Málaga is outstanding, which explains the excellence of the tuna belly sashimi and the horse mackerel ceviche, among other dishes.
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Calle Alemania, Málaga. Tel. (34) 952-219-062
This tiny, casually stylish Michelin two-star restaurant attracts an elegant crowd drawn by the contemporary Andalusian cooking of young chef Marcos Granda. Try the locally landed shrimp sautéed with capers, grouper baked with vegetables and saffron, and the baby lamb shoulder. The seven-course seasonal tasting menu is an excellent way to discover this talented chef’s remarkable cuisine.
Calle Aduar 12, Marbella. Tel. (34) 952-765-277
Chef Fernando Alcalá’s beautiful contemporary restaurant is the talk of Marbella right now. Previously a lawyer in Zurich, Alcalá traveled to over 80 countries before deciding his first love was cooking. His food is light, creative and dramatically presented, including dishes like sea bream with bok choy and curried pumpkin purée, or rib eye and lettuce with anchovies.
Avenida Antonio Belón 4, Marbella. Tel. (34) 952-824-108