Success Stories: Barcelona Finds the Formula
In 1996, partners and restaurant-industry veterans Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer came up with something entirely new for these parts: a sophisticated Spanish wine bar with a tapas menu. Strange as it seems now, many of us had never even heard of tapas back then. But both partners were passionate about Spain and wanted to recreate the feel and look of the high-octane eateries they’d been to on the Ramblas in Barcelona. The novelty factor didn’t hurt one bit—and the combination of authentic Spanish cuisine (“simple, flavorful dishes redolent with olive oil, lemon, smoky paprika”), great Spanish wines and ultra-hip, cutting-edge design was a hit from day one.
That first location in South Norwalk was followed by Barcelonas in Greenwich (’01), Fairfield (’03), West Hartford (’05), New Haven (’06), Stamford (’09) and Atlanta (’11). Not one of them was a cookie-cutter copy of the original. Mahr-Batuz and Pforzheimer have insisted that each Barcelona have its own distinctive design, its own singular vibe. They’ve succeeded magnificently, with each new Barcelona becoming a hot spot in its own sphere.
The guys haven’t rested on their laurels either. Going for excellence as usual, in 2005 they hired a wine and spirits director, Gretchen Thomas, who would oversee all the Barcelona properties. Thomas now manages the largest Spanish wine program in the U.S.—350 labels from 11 countries (60 percent from Spain)—winning many top accolades in the process, most recently as one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants of 2011” from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Now, Pforzheimer and Mahr-Batuz have gone in a new direction, a little closer to home, with bartaco. The idiom is laid-back beach bar (concrete floors, whitewashed plank walls), the cuisine upscale Mexican street food—think exotic-sounding tacos, tamales and gorditas (washed down with lots of cerveza and gorgeous Gretchen Thomas-designed cocktails). The first one opened in Port Chester, N.Y., last January, a second debuted in Stamford in October. Two more will open, in West Hartford and Westport, this spring.