The History Of Spain's Famous Bikini Sandwich Is Probably Not What You Think

Ponder the word bikini, and the first thing that comes to mind is likely a scene that involves skimpy swimsuits and tropical beaches — unless you're in Barcelona, where the word conjures images of a crispy grilled ham and cheese sandwich. We know it sounds like a stretch, but bear with us. Back in 1953, a Belgian restaurateur named Jean Paul Heinz decided to open a nightclub in Barcelona. He named it La Sala Bikini, which loosely translates to "The Bikini Room." The inspiration for the club name is lost to history; maybe he was hoping to bring beachy vibes to the club, which was (and still is) located on a landlocked block in the middle of the city.

Heinz's plan involved music, dancing, drinks, and food. Croque Monsieur, the French version of grilled ham and cheese made with gruyere and topped with mornay sauce, seemed like a perfect fit. But, Heinz found himself in a bit of a pickle. At the time, Francisco Franco (a hardline nationalist dictator) was running the country and enforcing an agenda that prohibited the use of any language other than Spanish — not even a word or the proper name of a sandwich. So, instead of ditching his idea, Heinz decided to feature the sandwich as the house specialty, or el bocadillo de la casa. Eventually, patrons started calling it the Bikini bocadillo, and then just the Bikini.

Have it your way

Sala Bikini (or, as it's known now, the Bikini Club) is still there, but today it's better known as a nightclub than a place to grab its namesake sandwich. Not to worry; following its successful debut, the Catalonian specialty took on a life of its own. It's a mainstay at tapas joints around the city, but don't expect to find it beyond Catalonia. The Bikini is unique to Barcelona and its environs. Elsewhere in the country, it's called a mixto.

Award-winning chef José Andrés, who grew up in Catalonia, has a special place in his heart for a classic Bikini. During the first episode of the Discovery+ show "José Andrés & Family in Spain," Andrés raved about the Bikini at Tapas 24 in Barcelona. Classic, with a twist, it featured Jamón Ibérico and San Simon cheese with a touch of truffle butter. Relatively pricey ingredients, but Andrés said opting for less expensive substitutes like Jamón Serrano or smoked gouda wouldn't compromise the overall taste sensation. As for bread, the traditional choice is Spanish molletes de pan, but Andrés said any rustic country bread or ciabatta would fit the bill. While it's unlikely you'll find a Bikini sandwich on Spanish menus beyond Catalonia, we know of two places where you can get one in New York City: Ernesto's on the Lower East Side and Spanish Diner in Midtown offer both nouveau and traditional takes on the Catalonian favorite.