Just beyond the corner of 4th and Market, there is a portal. Enter it any evening, and it will transport you halfway across the world to the heart of southern Spain. All you have to do is step inside. Travelers do it for all sorts of reasons. Some go for a romantic meal in a casual courtyard underneath the stars, others grab a drink and a snack at a tapas bar, and still others go to enjoy a flamenco dinner show, take salsa dancing lessons, or dance the night away. You don't need a plane ticket or a passport, just a few hours, some spending money, and an appetite for adventure.
You'll find the entrance to Spain at 555 4th Avenue, under a large sign that reads: Cafe Sevilla. It's been there since 1987, thanks to Rogelio Huidobro, who wanted to bring a bit of Spain's culture and tapas traditions to San Diego. Depending on what you're in the mood for, you can enter through one of three doors. The entrance proper, where a hostess will eagerly greet you, takes you to the charming restaurant's courtyard setting; a second door takes you to a connected tapas bar; and a third, which opens later in the evening and is located down a flight of stairs, takes you to an underground dance club.
We opt for the restaurant proper. Stepping through the main doors, it appears we are in a small courtyard, with clay tiles beneath our feet and stucco walls around us. Low lighting, both from tabletop candles and wall sconces, cast a flickering glow across the space. A mural stretched across one wall depicts happy couples lingering and dancing—it's as if they can hear the Spanish guitar that plays softly from hidden speakers. A painted ceiling reveals stars just beginning to emerge in the evening's sky. Between the stuccoed walls, an interior entrance to the tapas bar affords a glimpse of the lively scene next door. Behind us, an open kitchen sits behind a six-seat bar and glowing red lanterns. Chef Christian Vignes’s team is already in a whirlwind of action.
It's all we can to do sit back, relax, and sigh. We haven't even glanced at the menus when we are greeted by Adam, an amicable, quintessentially professional server who will be our guide on this trip. "Have you been to Cafe Sevilla before?" he inquires, launching with a smile into an explanation of the menu when we reply we have not.
Tapas—the general term for small plates or appetizers—originated in Spanish taverns centuries ago. Small portions of breads, olives, and cheeses launched a tradition that today allows diners the luxury of sampling a broad array of dishes in a single meal. At Cafe Sevilla, the selection includes both traditional tapas plates as well as more modern, fusion creations. Larger, entrée-sized dishes, including enormous portions of paella, are also offered. Café Sevilla’s tapas are both hot and cold, portioned in two sizes. About four small plates or two to three larger plates are recommended per person. Sharing is encouraged.
The most difficult moment of the evening comes when we must narrow down our tapas selection. Anticipating the process, Adam brings drinks while we begin the debate. I'm enamored with the selection of Spanish wines, and opt for a glass of Torres Muscat from the Penedes region. My date scans the list of sangria and specialty drinks and opts for a combination of the two—the Sangritini, an Absolut martini with a splash of red sangria.
We start with the simplest of dishes—bread. Warm from the oven, a small loaf arrives on a simple wood cutting board, accompanied by two dipping sauces. I look to my right for a knife and fork and smile when I realize even the table is set to encourage sharing. Small plates are stacked in the center of the table, next to a large jar holding knives, forks, and spoons. Reaching for plates and utensils from a communal stash offers a symbolic beginning to the meal.
Two dips accompanying the bread suggest the flavors that await us. Andalucian tomato sauce resonates with depth and complexity, showcasing tomato and garlic. Garlic aioli is bright and piquant, offering a sharp, acidic tang that awakens our taste buds. As we settle in for a meal rich in flavor, we switch to Manzanilla Sherry. The traditional aperitif also proves excellent paired with food.
A trio of plates arrive stacked on a iron tower, a presentation that helps save surface space on our soon-to-be crowded table. A second iron sculpture quickly follows: a two-foot tall hook rising from a plate, which allows a steaming skewer of meat—a brocheta—to dangle vertically. It’s hard to exhibit restraint as Adam spreads the remaining small plates over the dark wood table.
I start with Pisto Manchego, a bewitchingly complex vegetable ragout of tomato, eggplant, zucchini, onion, and garlic, topped with a layer of melted Manchego cheese. The vegetables are a mix of textures—the eggplant is a light and airy puree, while the zucchini is diced into thick, hearty pieces. The flavors are complex and elusive—each bite resonates with underlying spice, freshness, and the salty-sweet distinctness of the cheese. We are smitten.
At Adam's recommendation, we simultaneously sample two tapas that are meant to be eaten together—Filet Mignon Chilindron and Manchego Cheese Mashed Potatoes. Bite-sized pieces of tender filet mignon mingle with tiny button mushrooms in a rich stew. While the meat slowly dissolves on the tongue, the mushrooms explode with moistness and flavor. Saffron's unmistakable flavor reveals itself in the creamy sauce, adding a lingering depth to each savory bite. The potatoes are rich and creamy, the salty sweet Manchego cheese lending a clever twist to the ubiquitous dish. The sauce seeps into the potatoes on my plate, and a bite that contains the two is absolutely sublime.
It's a tough call, but we decide the Beef Brocheta wins out over the Filet Mignon. From the large, dangling skewer, we pull large pieces of flat iron steak, portobello mushrooms, and red onions, getting to feel the meat's tenderness before it reaches our plate. Perfectly charred from the grill, the steak is coated with a flavorful Moorish spice rub, adding a salty, addictive flavor to each succulent bite.
The Shrimp Ajillo is full of flavor, thanks to a rich white wine garlic sauce. For every shrimp there is a thick sliver of garlic, which surprisingly lends flavor without being overbearing. The sauce is light but deliciously complex, full of tomato, acidity, and tang. It pairs amazingly with our lingering Sherry.
And then: Paella. The Paella Valencia arrives in a steaming metal pan, a wonderland of tastes and textures. Firm saffron rice is peppered with land and sea—thick rings of stark white calamari, pale pink shrimp, vibrant slices of chorizo, jet black mussles, pale clams, and roasted chicken. A plate of paella offers the same opportunity as a table full of tapas—ripe with potential, it’s an endless array of flavor combinations. Each bite affords a new experience—tender, sweet shrimp, rice bursting with saffron and spice, sausage exploding with bold, unrivaled flavor. Paella and tapas—those Spaniards do it right.
While tapas alone will comprise an amazing meal, Café Sevilla’s entrees are equally stunning. The Grilled Salmon a la Parrilla, one of several fusion-inspired dishes on the menu, has many a devoted fan. A generous portion of bright pink salmon sits atop a bed of diced tomatoes, kalamata olives, and verdant pesto sauce, accompanied by a wedge of a potato pie of sorts. The potato accompaniment is a flavorful surprise—layers of sliced potatoes, spinach, and cheese combine in a Spanish-tortilla-like dish. The salmon, however, steals the show, the moist, flaky meat mingling with lively pesto, tart tomatoes, and savory olives. It is so flavorful, so enjoyable, that I am tempted to eat the entire dish, even after an entire tapas course.
The same holds true for dessert. The Andaulcuan Apple Tart is evidently fresh, a flaky puff pastry delicately supporting a layer of slivered, roasted apples. A lush maple brandy syrup covers both the tart and the rest of the plate, and the aroma of maple and apples that wafts up makes us think it is morning. Each bite is outstanding—buttery, flaky pastry mingling with cooked apples and a sweet, complex sauce. An accompanying scoop of caramel gelato pushes the dish over the top. It is comforting, like French toast, and invigorating, rather than weighty.
Perhaps the lightness of dessert is intentional, as a Cafe Sevilla experience isn't over when the meal ends. Beneath the restaurant, the night club offers live shows, dancing, and music seven days a week. Flamenco guitarists start strolling through the tapas bar around 8:30, and the nightclub has a packed lineup: Sundays plus Tuesday through Thursdays offer free salsa-dancing lessons, Fridays and Saturdays offer Flamenco performance dinner shows, and Mondays feature local Spanish rock bands. After 10:00, the nightclub turns dance club, with live salsa bands during the week, and DJs on the weekends.
Café Sevilla is a tour through the best of Spanish culture. It is the only place in San Diego you’ll find Spain’s outstanding cuisine, alluring music, and captivating dancing under one roof. So what are you waiting for? A Spanish vacation is at your fingertips.