Some bars choose to focus on one thing, stick with it, and excel at it. Church and Marliave come to mind as bars that specialize in cocktails while offering a more limited selection of beer and wine. By contrast, places like Meadhall and Five Horses ply their trade on beer, with an impressive number of taps and even more bottled options, and considerably less attention paid to mixed drinks.
Other places skillfully do it all. Like Scholars, which couples a top-notch beer selection with an extensive, well-conceived menu of craft cocktails (and good food to boot).
Then there’s Tres Gatos – a tapas bar that refuses to simply be a tapas bar. Yes, it serves excellent tapas, along with the solid selection of Spanish wine you’d expect at a tapas bar. But they also have an intriguing beer selection. And, of course, a book store and music shop.
Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain is, first and foremost, a place that serves tapas. Beyond that, it resists any sort of categorization. I’m hesitant to even call it a restaurant or a bar; labels don’t seem to stick very well here. Not when a bar/restaurant has a separate room from which it sells books, CDs, and new and used vinyl.
Tres Gatos is a small, cozy place. Its main room consists of a square bar with a black, wooden top, surrounded by a dozen or so wooden stools. There are only six small tables, but there’s a separate room with one large table, as well as an outdoor patio for the more temperate months. The main room itself is dark, but windows let in shafts of warm sunlight at odd angles (a nightmare if you’re trying to take pictures). Between the worn, hardwood floor that creaks a little when you walk, and the book shelves that surround the interior, Tres Gatos feels more like someone’s home than a restaurant.
I first visited Tres Gatos on a Sunday evening at about 6:30 with Mario, Ivys, Kelly, and Kat (Melissa’s taking a BBH sabbatical, for those who have inquired). We made a reservation, which was a wise move, given this place’s size and popularity. We had the separate room all to ourselves for an evening of refreshing drinks, excellent food, and the pleasant experience of sharing interesting dishes with good friends.
The first order of business, as always, was ordering drinks. Now there’s probably no beverage better suited to a long, leisurely evening of tapas than sangria. Unfortunately, Tres Gatos is only licensed to sell beer and wine, and since the best sangria usually gets a healthy shot of brandy, it’s not available here. But Tres Gatos more than makes up for this licensing gap by serving Tinto de Naranja – a “summer red wine” made with a splash of juice, sparkling water, and finished with an orange.
The result tastes an awful lot like sangria anyway. A little drier, but no less refreshing. If white sangria is your thing, then the Blanca de Naranja, with lemon, is a more than adequate stand-in.
Drinks in hand, we then faced the daunting challenge of not ordering everything on the menu. Nearly every entry looked mouthwatering, and between the five of us, we were able to sample a satisfyingly wide variety. The tapas proceedings began with Patatas Bravas. These fried potatoes were a perfectly light first course. They were served with a spicy salsa brava and a creamy aioli that was so good, I could have eaten it with a spoon, potatoes or no.
We followed that with Lamb Bocadillo, which was probably the hit of the night. Smaller than burgers but a little bigger than sliders, these juicy bad boys were topped with crispy onions and a delicious chimichurri sauce. ¡Ay, dios mio!
At that point, having downed a few drinks and devoured a couple of exquisite courses, we began planning our next move. That’s when the conversation moved to a dish I’d never ordered and never wanted to. A dish that, even presented in its smaller tapas form, challenged my “anything for the blog” mantra.
Just so we’re all on the same page here, tripe is the stomach lining of a cow or other animal. In terms of edible animal products, its popularity is somewhere in the vicinity of pigs’ feet and beef tongue. The only time I even use the word tripe is when I’m expressing disgust. Like if I’m in the car and, say, a Maroon 5 song comes on the radio, I might exclaim, “What is this tripe?” Yet here it was, on the Tres Gatos menu. And lying next to the menu was my notebook and camera, issuing me a silent challenge, reminding me that a good anecdote is sometimes worth an unexpected trip to the restroom.
So, with a level of enthusiasm normally reserved for having blood drawn or doing my taxes, I ordered the tripe, and only Ivys was bold enough to share it (truth be told, she was oddly excited about it). The verdict? Actually not bad! It was charred and served with pasilla negro chilis and aged provolone mandarone. The exterior was crisp, and the peppers and cheese contributed their own rich flavor. Maybe it was just very well prepared, but I couldn’t honestly say the meat had any noticeably unusual taste or texture (OK…maybe it was a little chewy).
The rest of our orders were less daring, but no less interesting. Next up were Albondigas – chorizo meatballs that elicited a rare, high-pitched “Oh my god…oh my god” from Mario. They were spicy and tender and topped with the same delicious chimichurri we’d had earlier, served with a sinfully tasty saffron cream.
We closed out the dinner portion of our evening with Tortilla Española. This Spanish omelet of potato and egg was kicked up with a pimento aioli, but otherwise served as a pleasantly simple conclusion to an evening of so many richly spiced dishes.
I probably could have gone for a siesta at that point, but at Tres Gatos, there’s a much more interesting way to relax and digest.
I’m not exactly sure why there’s a book and music store here, although, if my research is correct, the previous tenants were a music store and a book store, respectively. (This is only one reason why I’ll never be an entrepreneur of any sort. If I opened a bar in a place that used to be, say, a butcher shop, I’d never think “Hey, I’ve got the infrastructure, maybe I should sell raw meat to people when they come in for a beer.” But I bet somebody would. And they’d probably have me sitting in their bar, writing a review, getting tipsy, leaving with pork chops and strip steak, and thinking “Wow, what a great idea!”)
Anyway, it doesn’t matter why Tres Gatos sells book, CDs, and vinyl – it’s just pretty awesome that they do. The book and music shop is just beyond the dining area, and the brightness is a sudden contrast to the dark colors of the restaurant. I was greeted by the warm sounds of soul and R&B when I stepped in.
Like the restaurant, the back room is small, cozy, and deeply interesting. You can’t miss the vinyl selection when you walk in. It’s chock full of new releases, reissued classics, used gems, and as of just this past week, a stack of rarities that were once promotional items issued to radio stations. The clerk excitedly told me about some of their recent acquisitions and offered to play any albums that were already open.
For me, looking at records is pretty much just window shopping. I mean, sometimes I wish I had a turntable (plus an additional turntable, and perhaps a microphone). And I can certainly see the throwback appeal of vinyl – after all, how valuable is the convenience of carrying around 10,000 digitally remastered songs in your pocket compared to getting up to flip a record after the first side is done, being careful not to jostle the player in any way so the record won’t skip, hoping it never gets ruined with a scratch, and knowing that if you really love your LP and listen to it all the time, it will eventually wear out? Yeah, let’s not let that medium die.
I know, heresy. Truth be told, there is something special about vinyl, and I do wish I was cool enough to have a record player at home and a carefully chosen selection of favorites to admire and show off to my friends. Like one of my all-time favorite jazz albums…
If you’re not in the market for vinyl, there’s an excellent CD selection. The selection runs the gamut from new releases to obscure jazz, punk, classic rock, soul, and world music. In other words, pretty much everything. And what I love is that the CDs aren’t separated by genre – they’re just alphabetical. Which, in my opinion, is the way it should be – no boundaries, just music, all part of the same big family. That also seems to be in line with Tres Gatos itself. Sure, we sell tapas, wine, microbrews, books, vinyl, and CDs; what of it? Why should we only stick to one thing?
In the same room are shelves full of books, and the selection is impressive and varied for such a small space.
Fiction, nonfiction, philosophy, bestsellers, classics, Game of Thrones audiobooks, classic editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series…you could easily spend a solid hour or two back here.
And the best part? You can peruse all these gems with a drink in hand. If you’ve ever spent an evening at home, having mixed up a strong cocktail and put on your favorite CD (or LP) and gotten lost in a good book, I don’t think I need to explain the appeal of this to you. And if you haven’t? Please do.
Mario and I emerged from our book-music-drink reverie to find that the ladies had ordered some dessert, which we were totally in the mood for at that point. First up was Roasted Peach Cake with wood sorrel (it’s an edible plant; I had to look that up), sherry, and peach ice cream.
Since tapas is not the kind of meal you’d end with apple pie and vanilla ice cream, this seemed like a wonderfully sweet and well-chosen encore.
But wait, there’s more! What kind of tapas meal would be complete without churros? Served with a hot, spiced chocolate dipping sauce, these little Spanish doughnuts were a decadent way to close out the night.
Mario and I returned one night after work to check out the bar area, where the bossa nova stylings of Jo ão Gilberto provided an appropriate soundtrack for our evening. For all its top-notch dishes and tasty pseudo-sangria, Tres Gatos also sports a pretty respectable beer selection. The focus here is on microbrews, which is probably no surprise. They only have a few beers on draft, but they’ll please any beer lover with above-average taste. Clown Shoes and Jack’s Abby are the local draft selections.
The bottled selection is a little broader, but sticks to craft beer theme. My first choice was Full Sail Session Lager, a great beer that looks like it recycled some old Red Stripe bottles and slapped a new label on them.
Sails full, I switched to a High and Mighty Beer of the Gods. I find it hard to resist ordering this whenever I’m in a bar, mainly because I like saying “I’ll have the High and Mighty Beer of the Gods!” in the best Zeus-like tone I can muster. Thankfully, it’s a pretty good beer, too.
Mario, meanwhile, was completely impressed with a Spanish wine he ordered. Before we left, the awesome and friendly bartender (Myra?) was kind enough to jot down for him the name of the wine, the vineyard, and the year. As we were leaving, two of the six tables were being rearranged to accommodate a “gypsy jazz” band that would be playing later that night. Live music in a space this small would appear to make little sense. But like everything else at Tres Gatos, I have a feeling it works just fine.
I don’t go out for tapas often, so I’m not really in a position to say how Tres Gatos’s food measures up to that of other restaurants, nor can I judge its authenticity. (Maybe at some point I’ll have the opportunity to share with you the tale of the most horrid tapas I ever had, the experience of which constitutes one movement of the epic tragicomedy known as “The Worst Vacation I Ever Took.” Another time, perhaps.) What I can say is that the food was fresh and delicious, and I enjoyed every dish we ordered.
But what truly distinguishes Tres Gatos, of course, is that it offers something broader than just drinks and tapas. It may seem strange to have a section of your restaurant devoted to selling books and music; what’s stranger, though, is that none of it feels out of place. Instead, everything here seems to spring from a singular source – a celebration of good taste, in whatever form it appears.
There’s also a certain consistency to it all. You could describe the food menu the same way you’d describe the beer list and the book and music selection: small, but eclectic; unusual, but not unfamiliar; conceived and executed with great care and a sense of artistry.
Some people, when I’ve told them that the whole books/music thing, say “Oh good idea; they get you drunk, and then you’re more apt to buy something.” Not really. To me, nothing here feels gimmicky or contrived. Just like the experience of sharing interesting dishes with good friends, an evening at Tres Gatos feels like being a guest in the home of a worldly acquaintance who is only too happy to share their passions with you.
Address: 470 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain