When I stepped into Destapas, I was met not by flashy posters of bulls and dancers in red skirts, but by a pop art cityscape sprawled across the wall. Instead of flamenco music, low-fi beats played as servers polished glasses behind the bar. The modern space, adorned with trailing plants and orange pottery and flooded with natural light, was not what I expected from a tapas restaurant.
For owner Raul Aguilera that’s exactly the point. Instead of repeating the same clunky and overused motifs of bulls and flamenco dancers, Aguilera chose to model the restaurant after the bars he enjoyed in his native Madrid.
“Bars in Spain are places where people stand up, order little bits of food … it’s a place to hang out … like Starbucks. If you want to meet somebody, you go to Starbucks. In Spain you go to a bar,” Aguilera said.
When Aguilera moved to San Francisco from Madrid in 2004, he couldn’t find a bar –– or Spanish food, for that matter –– that reminded him of home. “I was miserable here,” Aguilera said. “I didn’t have Spanish food and I didn’t have a lot of money [to spend on eating out].”
So, Aguilera learned to cook from Spanish cookbooks his parents mailed him.
After cooking for friends for a few years, Aguilera started a Spanish catering company called Tip Top Tapas. “[Catering] was really fun, and very festive,” Aguilera remembered, “[but] I never actually had a thought about opening a restaurant because I always thought it was such a complicated operation, and I didn’t really have the background for it.”
In 2011, Aguilera met another Mission resident from Madrid and the two soon realized their potential to open a restaurant.
“There was really no Spanish food or tapas [in the Mission],” Aguilera said. “All kinds of cuisines were represented, but not Spanish.”
So, he secured permits and a lease at 2708 24th St. and began renovating the space. Just as he was ready to open at the beginning of 2020, the pandemic hit. “[We] had to delay the opening, but we were already paying rent,” Aguilera said. “It was very stressful.”
Nevertheless, Destapas opened for take-out only in December 2020. However, this proved to be a challenge in itself. “This concept of Spanish food for to-go sometimes [was] … tricky,” Aguilera explained. “People really want to enjoy these tapas in the space, in a lively environment.”
However, “we had the feeling that this could work, so we struggled to cling onto the idea and kept going,” Aguilera said. Destapas opened outdoor dining on their covered back patio in February 2021 and is now open for indoor dining, catering and private events as well.
Still, life in the restaurant industry is tiring. “It’s been really hard on our families,” Aguilera said. “We’ve dedicated every day, pretty much 18 hours a day [to the restaurant].”
Despite setbacks, Aguilera remains rooted in his desire to bring Spanish cuisine to the Mission. “I wanted [Destapas’ menu] to be really the food that you would eat in a bar in Spain. Nothing fancy,” Aguilera said.
When asked about the core tenets of Spanish food, Aguilera replied, “good quality of ingredients and simplicity.” Many dishes like Destapas’ Spanish tortilla, or omelette, have only three to four ingredients, so each ingredient must be fresh and flavorful.
Produce is sourced from markets on 24th Street. Gulf prawns, squid, white fish, clams and mussels for seafood paella are sourced from local fisheries. Most wines and specific ingredients –– olives, chorizo, meaty white asparagus, lower-sodium anchovies and humanely-raised, cured jamón –– are imported from Spain.
Aguilera explained that some restaurants “mix tabasco with ketchup and that’s their [patatas bravas] sauce.” Destapas blends fresh vegetables to create a sauce that’s smoky, peppery, and subtly sweet to complement the fried potatoes and thick, lemony aioli.
Destapas emphasizes simplicity not only in its menu and atmosphere, but in its price point as well. “We really are interested in having people from the neighborhood come by. That is key for us,” Aguilera said.
Most of Destapas’ kitchen staff are Latinx, not Spanish, which the owners view as an asset. “They know how to cook,” Aguilera said. “They can build that seasoning of the home-cooking.”
“From what I’ve seen,” Aguilera reflected, “people are embracing the cuisine … It’s really special that they’re coming from 24th Street [to Destapas].”
For Spanish visitors, “They finally found a place that reminds them of home,” Aguilera said. For Mission residents, Destapas remains “a place that comes alive … [that] reminds you of the whole Spanish experience.”
If you’re headed to Destapas, don’t miss the croquetas, a cheesy guest favorite, or happy hour (which starts Nov. 9) from 4-6 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday. Aguilera’s favorite is the patatas bravas, but the seafood paella makes for a savory, briny meal if you’re looking for something more substantial. And as you sip sangría from the bar or pop aceitunas from the patio, make sure to, as Aguilera reminded, “honor the whole Spanish bar concept” and befriend a few strangers, too.