Review: El Tonel / Almerimar

The Southern Spanish tradition of serving a small portion of food with a drink is a bonus for the holidaying Brit and a curious counterpoint to the perennial 3am kebab.

For those of us who live and work in Andalusia, the generosity of this cultural quirk quickly turns quickly into a discerning presumption. Of course, we’ll get tapas, so where shall we go? You don’t just want free food – you want wonders on a plate. You want an interesting atmosphere, engaging hosts a good view and a place to genuinely relax and in these parts, El Tonel (or ‘The Tunnel’ to English speaking locals) is always the de facto choice for solo ventures or  with company.

Now, as a declaration, I’m a regular (the feature image above probably gave the game away). Normally when I write reviews a modicum of objectivity is deployed, but in this instance, I’ll forgo my usual standards and fess up from the outset that I love going. The food really is of an indisputably high quality and the hospitality of this family run business is always welcoming.

The food warrants an article in itself. For the neophyte coming to Spain, the extensive menu and list of tapas and is a confusing blessing. Where do you begin? From a selection of over 50, including a superb collection of beers and ales from around the world, there is no doubt that you will find something to that you love. Trying new things is the fun of the journey, and there is no better selection to acclimatise to. Menus are in Spanish and English, so there is plenty of scope to botch the Spanish-language ordering something as simple as a coke and some callos.

Intricate and beautifully prepared, the menu is easily the most extensive in Almerimar. Length does not counteract quality and each dish, from seafood to meats is beautifully prepared to such a standard as to make you thank the Powers above for the Spanish palette.

For a Scotsman used to paying through the nose for the simplest of appetisers in my native Edinburgh, it is almost obscene just how much value for your pennies you have here. A full steak, of themes succulent meat you’ve ever tried and sourced from nearby producers, is €25 (about £15), and that’s for a more special or hungry occasion. All ingredients are either locally sourced or imported from the best providers of fish and meats and spirits available. Not to sound like a car salesman, but all this for what will normally be no more than €15, and that’s purely for three pints of Mahou.

All of this is matched by the location itself and the sheer feng shui of the place. An awning of deep green, embellished with ornaments and wired furniture hides a converted interior that houses a  kitchen and a huge front of house grill. The delicious barbeque smell swifts and swirls across the area and is a perennial appetiser that warms the taste buds but never overwhelms.

There is a functionally rustic quality to El Tonel that is enjoyable because it is real. Perhaps we’ve become so used to the ostentation of restaurants trying to create a faux age that the shock of seeing a place that uses real open grills, real coal with a feeling of being just a bit too small and packed is sincere.

The seating area is right beside the marina and an idyllic spot to sit and contemplate whats on your mind or to simply regale and enjoy the company of happy friends.The awning over the seating area is open during the warmer months but becomes a closed, cosy seafront view as the winter nights draw in. From a distance, it’s a striking beacon that is always a hub of activity on the water front.

This is not an ostentatious place. I have walked in as many times in a pair of shorts as a smart shirt and never felt out of place on either occasion. I have come here with a few on board ready for a wind-down dinner on a Saturday night and appeared on a Sunday at noon and not left for 4 hours, five articles were written or a plethora of exams corrected. It tailors to everything.

The warmness of this family owned business is difficult to separate from why this place works. It is this that makes it such a favourite destination. This is no exaggeration; this review was neither solicited or asked for and the friendliness of the owner and the waiting staff is real because they take the time to get to know their customers and regulars. Meals are prepared until they are so tender as to literally fall off the bone but none of it would mean anything would and engaging team that it is impossible not to strike up a rapport with, especially when you’re so warmly greeted with a pint and the usual portion of torrenos sent out before having a chance to ask.

On that note, the best until last. Torrenos is crispy bacon fat that is divine and the perfect appetiser. The prawn cocktail is delicious, the steak is wonderfully tender and the callos, a beef tripe, is the greatest thing ever committed to a plate. No words can do them adequate justice.

If a review is done right and does somewhere justice then it should be read in two places: the night before you go, or when you’re sitting there, re-reading the original recommendation.