Will we ever get a decent meal at La Fira?

It is baffling how a city that prides itself on its gastronomy serves such horrendous food at its convention center (Fira 1 & Fira 2). This situation is screaming out for an overhaul. Especially if Barcelona really wants those sought-after “quality tourists”.

Let's start with Fira 1, the old-school complex built for the 1929 Worlds Fair at the foot of Montjuïc Mountain. Quaint. Charming. And until very recently, a cranky old restaurant called La Pérgola had a strangle-hold on all things edible at La Fira. Everything, from the 65 USD executive menus down to the cookies served at the coffee break, was from La Pérgola. The original restaurant, which may have once been Art Deco but is now Art Crapo, was right across the street. Another large cafeteria-type place was inside the main conference hall. Everything about those places, from the urinals to the waiters, was old-timey. While I doff my cap to this "we’ll die before we change " worldview, when it comes to lunch, especially one I’m paying dearly for, I'll take something a shade better than the hospitalesque Perga-meal.

Then, one day, La Pérgola was no more. The storied restaurant had closed its doors. Away went the ill-humored waitrons, the off-white formica tables, the fluorescent lighting, the plastic ficus, the stone-cold roasted chicken in ambiguous sauce, the granitic cookies. No more paunchy guys in tuxedoes pouring joe during coffee breaks. The catering in the conference halls was suddenly being handled by a youngish crew in black uniforms. They served rubbery chocolate-covered mini-doughnuts and coffee in paper cups.

There had been no signature drives, or "Save La Pérgola" rallies. It went out without a peep.

The cafeteria was taken over by a Medas. A big chain, these are the people who run the roadside cafeterias on Catalonia's highways. An improvement, to be sure, but going from 'poor' to 'mediocre' is nothing to write home about. Plus Medas is expensive. It's stupid-expensive. It's 'can you believe what we paid for this crap?' expensive. It is almost 'I'm not coming here ever again' expensive. And the roasted chicken still tastes pretty much like it did when La Pérgola was making it, even if it looks nicer.

In the meantime, across the street, with its antique urinals, the old Pergola lurks. Empty. Silent. And sitting on a piece of property that probably has one of the city's highest footfalls.

Now onto the newborn Fira 2, south of the city in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat. Food service is just one of countless things wrong with this Gargantua. It is a labyrinth too vast and cavernous for a normal person to navigate in a reasonable time. It is poorly communicated with the rest of the world. And it gives the general impression of being hastily and shoddily built. Other than that, it's fantastic. There are several dining alternatives on this site. And all of them suck. Eateries housed in undersized glass enclosures like smokers' lounges line one wall. An upstairs cafeteria so mammoth your food is cold by the time you pay for it and find a seat. Small short-order outposts (these do smashing business) that will sell you anything from a ham sandwich to a Scotch on the rocks in a plastic cup... Some events hold nice sit-down lunches which are alright if you don't mind laying down a bundle to wait in line only to be seated and feel like you're eating on the shop floor of some refurbished auto plant up north. Everywhere you look is cinderblock and concrete. And these luncheons are held in a corner by a loading bay where someone always seems to have left the doors wide open. If there's a draft, lucky diners are going to get plenty of fresh air as gales blow papers, hair and skirts pell-mell.

Droll lampooning aside, I think the problem is serious enough to deserve a radical solution: serve decent food. I've heard celebrity chef Ferran Adrià say that fast food doesn't have to be bad. That means that something tasty, creative and maybe even wholesome could be done quickly and economically. Why not take him up on it? If not him, any of the countless Adrià wanna-be's roaming the planet. Refit one of the short order places to serve unique local fare of the kind dozens of restaurants in this town now serve. Cheap and on the fly, but good. Not enough space? Let 'em cater. Too expensive? I beg to differ. The majority of these people are on expense accounts. Even those who aren't would gladly pay a bit more to eat something other than disintegrating tortilla stuck between two pieces of recently-thawed bread.

The big Fira 1 sites would be a different sort of challenge. The place doesn't open every day, and when it does the schedule's never quite the same two days in a row. That's probably what got those Pérgola people so cantankerous over the years. So how about letting some culinary school students take a crack at it? One of the best meals I've ever had was at the Escola d'Hosteleria de Girona. The kids are alright! At least they couldn't be worse than Medas.

There's a reason for this rant. Authorities and opinion leaders are clamoring for more 'quality tourism', as opposed to the kind we have plenty of right now: the ones that puke on the street corners or amble round the Ramblas in Mexican sombreros. Sounds great to me. Give me one quiet epicurean, one who spends a day or two knocking around wine cellars in the Penedès, travels to the hinterland to snatch up homemade sausage and cheese, and doesn't mind shelling out 3 figures for a sublime seafood dinner when on the coast- for every 20 of those brutes. Or 2,000. This city can and must make the change. Wouldn’t pampering the business guests at our convention facilities be a way to lure some of those high-end visitors back for their family vacation? You bet. There's only one problem. In order to get and retain quality tourism you need to offer them something first: quality.

- PHB - patrick@phbsl.com