Epelde, the art gallery that hides a secret restaurant in a flat in Bilbao

There is no sign on the door, sign on their balconies or signage on the intercom announcing their existence. But whoever goes to the third left of number 10 Calle Jardines, in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo, knows that he is going to eat in an extraordinary place. This is Epelde, a space of more than 200 meters in which a contemporary art gallery specialized in Basque painters coexists, a restaurant with private rooms where happiness can lead to ending a dinner dancing and the home of Emilia Epelde herself.

Emilia says that she never thought of being a cook. She trained and practiced as a psychologist, opened an exhibition hall together with Mikel Mardaras in 1992 called La Brocha, she moved to this stately home, transformed it into the current art gallery and began to eat there. “We set up exhibitions with the work of a painter. The day of the inauguration we invited more than 100 people to eat and, at the end of the day, the closest ones stayed to have dinner in the kitchen”, she recalls. In 2009, the sale of art began to fall and Epelde had to rethink her activity. “Faced with the crude panorama that was approaching, an event called Pintxos & Arts to attract foreigners”, he recalls. The idea was to offer a snack to those who visited his gallery. “It was never carried out, but a month after launching it I received a call from a journalist interested in writing a report on the menus that she gave. I didn’t give menus, but I couldn’t miss an advertising opportunity like that. If I stopped selling art, I would have to sell sirloin steaks,” she says.

That journalist asked him about what type of food he offered and for how many guests. “Without thinking too much about it, I answered that traditional Basque cuisine, because that was what I knew how to do, and for 50 people,” she recalls. Without anticipating it, that interview shaped her current business. “The report was published, the first clients came and I had an incredible rush. I called a cook friend for advice on how to do it and he told me to buy more crockery, that since it was my house, I would cook whatever I wanted and that I should always do it on reservation, ”she says. Therefore, to live the experience in Epelde you have to call 656 70 17 29 in advance, notify of allergies and intolerances and then send a guasap to confirm attendance. “In case I forget to write it down,” she says.

One of Epelde's private rooms prepared for a table of four.
One of Epelde’s private rooms prepared for a table of four.Almudena Avalos

The daughter of fishmongers from Erandio and the granddaughter of a Basque cook who taught her to cook, Emilia recognizes the best gender like no one else. “I select it every morning at the Mercado de la Ribera, where everyone calls me by my name. The good thing about working on demand is that I don’t keep anything in the fridge. I hate the freezer,” she assures. “If he makes eyes at me an Armintza sea bass or a wonderful hake I take them and make them. From February to April I buy skrei Norwegian [bacalao] and now that the bonito season from the north begins, I will prepare ventresca, marmitako or bonito with tomato and peppers”, he says. Always faithful to his line of traditional gastronomy, he cooks what amuses him. On their menu there is usually a salad, a starter such as cod cheeks with pepper jam, their essential fish soup made for hours with monkfish, clams and prawns, a second to choose between meat or fish, depending on the season, and a dessert made by his son Antxon, also a cook.

In the five private rooms that make up the gallery-restaurant, he never mixes groups. “Each room is for a reservation and it doesn’t matter if there are 12 or a couple,” she says. Feeling like a guest in someone else’s house is part of the charm of the Epelde experience, even if you pay the bill later —and in cash—. The price of the menu is 55 euros. “The glasses or shots are separate. And if someone asks me in advance to cook, for example, a seafood platter, the price goes up”, she points out.

Fish such as hake are one of the specialties of Epelde.
Fish such as hake are one of the specialties of Epelde.Almudena Avalos

Before leaving the house, it is inevitable to take a look inside the kitchen that overlooks the main hallway. Its walls are decorated with murals by Mardaras and inside you can see Emilia and her son working on a beautiful old kitchen. “I have tuned it to use it with gas, but if I fed it with wood or coal it would work too,” she says.

In his spare time, he finishes another project that will soon see the light of day in the place where he had his first gallery (Conde Mirasol, 1). “It will be called Container and I will put on sale clothes that I make myself, the paintings that I hang on the walls, special objects and there will also be food,” she explains. In her life, art and gastronomy always walk hand in hand.

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