So it’s been a long day and a long week, and you’re famished in Milwaukee. But where to go on a Friday or Saturday night to eat? For its size, Milwaukee boasts a respectable number of intriguing spots to feast with friends and family. So ditch the cookie-cutter chain restaurants with their uninspired menus and find a locally owned, cozy niche to take care of those hunger pangs.

Interested in breaking out of the standard American fare? No problem. Latin America is covered pretty well on the South Side with places like Botanas, La Isla and Cempazuchi, located on Brady Street. We have a respectable number of Italian restaurants and pizzerias as well. An Irish pub? Oh yeah! Lots of ’em, the clichéd kind, and authentic ones, like County Clare. Three Brothers in Bayview represents Serbia quite well, and always ranks near the top of any gastronome’s list. The recently opened Cafe Bavaria, located in the Tosa Village, aims to give you a taste of Germany. Of course, Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s are reliable and elegant German landmarks in the city. The list goes on. But what if it’s Spanish cuisine you’re after? Well, until recently, you’ve been out of luck. If Milwaukee has had an authentic Spanish restaurant, it usually did not last very long. This is really a shame, because Spanish food is amazing, with flavors that are as diverse as they are enjoyable.

I’ve spent a good deal of time in Spain (Madrid and Salamanca, to be exact) and sampled lots of local dishes, and I remember an exceptional Spanish restaurant in the Eternal City, just off Piazza Navona, that I frequented for its out-of-this-world seafood paella and ice-cold sangria. You see, it’s virtually impossible not to thoroughly enjoy yourself at authentic Spanish restaurants, which are perfectly tailored for groups of friends. Few people on the planet know how to enjoy a night out like the Spanish. A typical evening in any Spanish town starts pretty late and revolves around going from one bar to another with fashionably dressed friends into the early morning hours. But it’s not to slam cheap beer while clustered around an enormous glowing flatscreen. You’re here to socialize and, of course, to eat a lot over the course of the next four or five hours. Each bar specializes in different types of tapas, freshly prepared finger food, in a sense. Tapas vary of course, depending on the region, and include heavier meats and cheese to lighter seafood and greens. Usually, you stand around in a crowded, intimate setting and enjoy what each place has to offer. Or, if you’re lucky, snag a few stools and create a little circle with your friends and pass around some excellent tapas with glasses of red wine. When you’re done, move on. Repeat. And so the evening goes. It’s a blast.

Here in Milwaukee, we can’t exactly replicate the late-night tapas and cobble stone scene in Madrid and Pamplona. Such experiences are reserved to Spain. That’s what makes being there so much fun. But don’t give up hope, Milwaukee, because, with the arrival of Movida, we can at least get an idea of the Spanish culinary experience. As Jake mentioned in a previous post, he and I hit up this trendy restaurant in Walker’s Point the other night. I had read about it in JS Online and was eager to see if finally, finally, Milwaukee could do a Spanish restaurant the right way. In other words, avoid giving the impression that you’re trying too hard and becoming a caricature of a “Spanish” restaurant, you know, the garish Barbie la Española flamenco dolls and dated pictures of bull fighters everywhere you look. I am happy to report that Movida passes the test. The interior is very cool. Its walls are made of warm Cream City brick, and rustic wood tables fill the dining room. The bar has an industrial look to it, something you’re noticing more and more in new, A-list Milwaukee restaurants, many of which are cropping up in old and recently renovated warehouses. In terms of space, Movida is intimate (many restaurants in Europe are) so you might find yourself sitting only a foot away from other patrons. But hey, it’s neighborly and all part of the authentic feel.

To get things started, I ordered croquetas from the tapas menu and seafood paella for the main course. Both were excellent. The paella had shrimp, squid, spinach and aioli, and the flavors were exceptional. The spinach, so simple, was a great touch to this plate. When ordering, you can ask for socarrat, the caramelized crust of rice at the bottom of the paella pan that will require a special utensil to scrape off. It’s crispy, sweet and delicious. Some like it, some don’t. A couple negatives: while there was a lot of shrimp, the squid was sparse and the overall serving size was a bit underwhelming. I ordered a single serving, which I expected to be just a bit bigger, considering the price. In describing their style, the owners of Movida have discussed this single serving approach to paella as a positive thing, but at least be a little more generous with the portions! Now, much larger paella is available for groups of six or seven. I recommend this route if you’re with a group of friends, or just really hungry. I probably could have eaten twice the quantity of what I actually received. This was the only negative I experienced. Oh, and the sangria, with Spanish Brandy and peach brown sugar, was amazing. Order it.

I was also happy to see that the patrons were all dressed extremely well. Whether young and old, everyone was dressed for the occasion. At Movida, everyone looked the part. They were stylish and, well, very Spanish.

With so much left to try, I look forward to returning to Movida soon and ordering an array of amazing tapas. Check it out! ¡Buen provecho!