Bar after bar
August 2007 - José Sentis is a quiet and unassuming man. The kind of person who might be seen hanging out in a bar in Gràcia, drinking a beer and chatting with his mates. The only difference between Sentis, 31, and the rest of us is that if he’s sitting at a bar he probably owns it. Gràcia seems to have no end of bars, but the fact is some of its most popular bars are owned by the same man. Sentis opened his first bar there in 2002, and over the past five years he has opened four others.
Barcelona-born, Sentis went to university here, and when he finished he decided to travel. He thought he heard London calling, but stopped off in Paris for what was planned to be a brief stay and ended up being years. He found work in a Hard Rock Cafe-style bar washing dishes. At 23, he not only learnt the meaning of elbow grease, but began speaking French and English on a regular basis. In short order, he was promoted to bus boy, barman and then bar manager.
He settled into the work-hard, play-hard routine familiar to many young people working late-night hours. After some years, Sentis said, he woke up one day to find that not only had he outgrown his staff emotionally, he was many years older than most of them. He decided to return home to try to emulate his own piece of Paris bar culture in Barcelona. With no particular area in mind, Sentis came across a property on Gràcia’s Carrer Torrijos.
He bought the property, and in August 2002 the Chatelet was born. Within months the bar was more than breaking even, with a solid crowd most nights of the week. Seven months later, a friend told Sentis about a property around the corner from Chatelet where the incumbent was desperate for a quick sale. St. Germain was opened in April 2003. Both venues were named after Sentis’ favourite neighbourhoods in Paris.
Then he came across an extremely run-down property in Carrer Francisco which required extensive internal work. After replacing all the wiring, Sentis decided that, instead of re-plastering walls, he would cover them with newspapers—literally. Sentis says the property was perfect for creating an ‘‘intimate, underground venue, dark, like a cave’’; and so, in June 2004, Le Journal [The Newspaper] opened its doors.
Just over a year later, another opportunity presented itself and Sentis and a business partner opened La Fourmi. Months later, a property some 15 metres from La Fourmi came up for sale, and Sentis said he could not say turn down the opportunity to buy it. Sentis named the bar La Cigale, after the French fable, ‘La Cigale et La Fourmi’ (The Grasshopper and the Ant).
When asked why he thinks his bars are so successful, Sentis replied that he tries to create an atmosphere he would feel comfortable in. ‘‘If I feel good, I can make others feel good.’’ He said he has learned to trust his taste and that it is important to design a space in which he would want to spend time, without worrying about what it is other people might want.
Sentis said his clientele has always been international, and that he has tried to create an ‘‘inclusive atmosphere’’ where ‘‘everybody feels welcome”. This is reflected in the many inter-cambio language exchanges that are organised at his venues, and also in the multilingual, multinational staff that he hires.
Wallpaper’s City Guide to Barcelona says that Gràcia is ‘‘often ignored by tourists en route to Parc Güell”. However, at least one bar owner has found that Gràcia, and in particular the bars he has opened there, are attracting more and more foreigners to one of Barcelona's most interesting neighbourhoods.