The Barcelona Tavern “Els 4 Gats”
Can you imagine yourself taking a cup of coffee in a small cosy restaurant in the company of, for example, Pablo Picasso? It is not difficult at all. You must only stroll through the by streets of the Gothic Quarter, find in one of them (carer Montsi, 3 bis) an original building in the Gothic style, in which is housed the bar-restaurant under a funny name El Quatre Gats – “Four Cats”. Take a vacant seat at one of the tables, order a cup of coffee, look around and… plunge into the unique atmosphere of this place. Almost nothing has been altered here since the time when Pablo Picasso was its habitué.
Everything started by the end of the 19th century when absolutely a strange man returned from France to Barcelona. In Paris, he worked as a waiter and animator in the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir – “Black Cat”. On returning to his home country, he was eager to found something similar in Barcelona: an establishment for the aristocratic Bohemia in the style of a tavern with cheap food and live music. His name was Pere Romeu.
This idea was enthusiastically approved of by those for whom the establishment was intended – for people from the world of art – artists: Miguel Utrillo, Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusinol. Together with Romeu they began to look for suitable premises. The choice fell on the Marti House. In 1895 the architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, a young but promising architect received an order to reconstruct that house. The architect-modernist reconstructed it in a refined pseudo-Gothic style, decorated it with ceramics and forged iron.
The four friends: Romeu, Rusinol, Casas Utrillo decided to open a tavern in such an unusual building. However, they were a little bit embarrassed by the location of the Marti House, which seemed mislaid among the narrow by streets of the Gothic Quarter. The friends even made fun of it joking that nobody except the black cats would drop in…Why four and, moreover, cats? It is simply a Catalan expression, which is used when they mean that there are few people. Besides the cats were mentioned in the name not incidentally. If you remember, the tavern was intended to be analogical in style to the Parisian “Black Cat”. Secondly, there were four founders of it….
The tavern opened its doors for visitors in 1897.Santiago Rusinol in a humorous tone wrote the following advertisement: “For people with good taste who need food not only for the stomach but for the soul, too…”
The lines written on the wall became an original motto of the tavern: “L’ home que he vulga viure, Bons aliments y molt riure” (“Life needs nourishing food and more merriment”.). The hall was decorated by numerous sketches, drawings and fliers, and for the hired musicians there was placed a concert-piano. To decorate the hall Ramon Casas painted a huge-sized canvas on whichhe depicted himself and Pere Romeu riding a tandem bicycle. On the canvas, the author wrote a witty caption: “When riding a bicycle do not keep your back so straight”, hinting that he had to treadle the pedals and Romeu was only posing. In 1901, this picture was replaced by another one: “Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu in an Automobile”. In the painting Casas depicted himself and his friend in fur coats, but this time they were accompanied by his pet – the dog Ziem seated on the bonnet of the motorcar. The motorcar, in his opinion, corresponded better to the spirit of the new century.
In spite of the organizers’ apprehension the establishment immediately became popular among artists – young and Bohemian. Soon it became both rather an extravagant and magnetic place. In order to attract visitors, there was organized the first exhibition of paintings executed by the artists-habitués of the establishment. After it, they began to give performances in the manner of the Chinese Theatre of Shadows and of the Puppet-Show Theatre. Unexpectedly these very performances began to attract visitors from the bourgeois circles: whole families came to the tavern to regale on hot chocolate and to see the performances. For intellectuals there were organized tertulias – friendly debates. There were many people who wished if not to participate in the debates but, at least, to listen to wise daring speeches. Sometimes violent arguments dragged out until morning.
Soon the fame of the tavern stepped over the bounds of Barcelona. To the meetings with touring celebrities from the world of arts came so many people that the host had to put additional tables and chairs. When the tavern was in its second year there appeared the seventeen-year-old Pablo Picasso. He was listening with admiration to the speeches of the longhaired, bearded, carelessly dressed artists that enthusiastically declared new ideas in art. The Bohemian atmosphere captivated the imagination of the young man so greatly that he even asked for a permission to portray the habitués and the latter agreed with great pleasure.
On February 1, 1900, was held the artist’s first one-man exhibition consisting of 25 paintings: the portraits of artists, actors and other guests of the “Four Cats”. Imitating Tolouse-Lautrec, Picasso decorated the cover of the tavern menu. Since that moment, he became a permanent participant of the “sit-round gatherings”, which unfortunately began to happen more and more seldom. The remonstrating innovators gradually gained popularity and became well-off. They have lost everything that could remind of those revolutionaries that dreamed of demolishing the old dogmatic norms in art. Now they tried to do their best to strengthen themselves in other spheres – in a more refined and fashionable society.
In 1899, Picasso left for Paris. After two years, he returned and again came to the “Four Cats” hoping to plunge into the former atmosphere, but alas… All had been changed in that once unusual establishment. Not a single trace remained from the spirit of freethinking, which earlier had reigned there. The intoxicating period of the tavern’s flowering ended, as it usually happens in such cases, with a long hangover. The financial situation was much to be desired: Casas and Rusinol spent most of their time in Paris and the major part of the visitors did their best to enjoy themselves at the expense of the tavern. Pere Romeu turned out to be a bad manager, spending most of his time speaking with the customers about better ways how to put the world in order. Moreover, he was a poor culinary specialist; the menu of the restaurant was also much to be desired. He was more an artist than a businessman, forbidding, for example, the waiters to sweep off the cobweb from the corners thinking that it (as well as the untidy appearance of the master) increased the Bohemian atmosphere of the establishment. Used to serve actors, artists and stage performances, he began to look like an owner of many other commonplace restaurants. On one fine day (6 years after its opening) Pere decided to close the tavern for good.
That news greatly disappointed the Bohemians. In one of the magazines of those times was placed a drawing showing how before the closed door of the tavern with a plate “To Let” four cats were bitterly crying. The drawing was provided with a quatrain, which may be approximately translated like this: “Pere has made a fool of us. Isn’t there a kind soul that could take us under his patronage?”
The bankrupt businessperson himself set to work with ardour in another sphere: automobile business. Before his death from tuberculosis in 1908, he had worked in a garage and had taken part in motorcar races, which were popular in those days. He died in poverty… “He was accustomed to drink merry wine from a clay jug but gas had killed him, - concluded Santiago Rusinol his passionate article written in memory of his friend, - he had a short experience of enterprise, a short life but a big heart… Remembering you we will miss those times when our dreams easily came true…”
For many years the tavern remained closed, and only relatively recently (in 1993) the doors of Els Quatre Gats (“Four Cats”) were opened for guests again. The new owners of the restaurant tried to do their best to re-create the interior of the well-known restaurant as exactly as it was possible. As it was in old times, it has the same menu, designed by Picasso, the same inscription: “Food and drinks are served round the clock”, live music is played at nights as its founders had dreamed of.
Truly, you will not see cobwebs in the corners, and the food is perfectly cooked. The present owners decided to revive the tradition of the puppet-show performances, having invited the famous in Barcelona company of actors from the Bergues Theatre to give a series of Sunday performances. On the walls, as it was earlier, hang two huge (measuring the originals) copies made from the paintings of Casas. (One of the original paintings showing the friends on a tandem bicycle is kept in the National Museum of Catalan Art. The other one belongs to the descendants of Abadal – the pioneer of the Spanish motorcar construction. The owners of the canvas display it very seldom for general viewing.
At nights the restaurant is always packed. Now, as it was in early times, its atmosphere attracts celebrities from every corner of the globe. The elderly waiter, who has worked here for more than 20 years, finds it difficult to innumerate all the famous people that had been in the “Four Cats”. Among them were consuls from Brazil, Portuguese, China, Japan and even Silvia, Queen of Sweden; the singer Placido Domingo, politicians and footballers. The symbolic restaurant was not disregarded by the famous Hollywood film director Woody Allen who chose it for shooting an episode for his film “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona”, in which in the main hall two young American tourists for the first time in their life are talking to Juan Antonio. During the shooting of the scene, there happened a mild but not quite pleasant incident: a cashier from the restaurant being excited that she had a chance to see the Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson so close, approached her to ask for her autograph. Embarrassed and without an autograph the woman returned to her work place. “An unpleasant lass!” – She pronounced her judgment.
Robert De Niro also noted the restaurant by his visit when he was in Barcelona taking part in the shooting of the film “Red Lights” by the Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes. Once he came to the restaurant to have lunch where the local paparazzi – one of the waiters – photographed him. To the most important guests of the restaurant they refer the ex-president of the USA Jimmy Carter, who on the advice of his children came here to have dinner last summer.
Carrer de Montsió, 3
Tel: (+34) 933 024 140