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Guide to Going Out in Spain's Bars, Cafes and Restaurants
The cuisine of Spain is one of the most famous parts of Spanish culture. People come to Spain (particularly to San Sebastian and Seville) with food as the main lure.
Over the following pages I'll take you through a day of fine eating and drinking in Spain.
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- When to eat in Spain
- What makes up a typical breakfast in Spain
- What La hora del vermut is all about
- The cheapest way to eat out in Spain
- What is merienda?
- What exactly is tapas?
- How dinner works in Spain
- What to drink with your meal
- Popular digestifs in Spain
- When paying the bill, should you tip?
- The perfect Spanish cocktail - the G&T
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When to Eat and Drink in Spain
The Spanish eat late, at least at dinner time, with a long gap between lunch and dinner that is broken up by merienda, kind of like a second breakfast.
Get on Spanish time to avoid eating in an empty restaurant.
A Day of Eating and Drinking in Spain
Continue to 3 of 12 below.
- 8:30am Start with a light breakfast. Usually a coffee and a pastry or, for those with a sweet tooth, chocolate con churros. In Madrid, bars open at 7am, often earlier, for to accommodate for the hectic lives of city businessmen. A morning coffee is a many Spaniards' morning ritual and coffee and pastries are usually sold throughout the morning (until lunch, usually) but you may find the best pastries have gone by about 9am or 10am!
- 12:30pm You're on vacation! So indulge in La hora del vermut - roughly translated as 'vermouth o'clock', the traditional pre-lunch sipping of a Spanish sweet vermouth which has recently made a comeback.
- 1:30pm For lunch, most people go for a menu del dia, a good value set meal that the majority... of restaurants offer. As with breakfast, the good stuff will probably peter out by about 3pm but you may still get something as late as 4pm. To avoid arriving too early or too late, I'd recommend arriving as close to 1.30pm or 2pm as possible.
- 5pm If lunch wasn't big enough, stop for merienda.
- 9pm Time for tapas! Learn to do tapas the proper way...
- 10pm Though tapas can be a meal in itself, you might prefer a proper sit-down dinner. But there are things you ought to know about dinner in Spain...
- 11.15pm There's more! Check out the post-dinner digestif.
- 11:20pm Time to pay the bill. Should you tip?
- 11:30pm Feeling buzzed after your coffee? There's no need to stop - the Gin and Tonic is now the ubiquitous drink that you need to try Spanish style!
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Breakfast in Spain
The Spanish breakfast is short, sharp and to the point: a quick injection of caffeine, sugar and/or alcohol to get your through the misery of life before lunch.
What to Drink for Breakfast in Spain
- Coffee: if you order 'un café', you'll get café con leche, a milky espresso (basically, a latte). For less milk, go for 'un cortado', while 'café solo' is a straight-up espresso.
- Chocolate or Cola Cao Two kinds of chocolate drink: chocolate (pronounced 'choh-koh-lah-teh' is thick melted down pure chocolate with a splash of milk, for dunking your churros or eating with a spoon; Cola Cao is the biggest brand of hot chocolate milk, available in any cafe in Spain.
- Orange Juice Always fresh. Even the smallest bar will invariably have an impossibly large orange squeezer. This usually pushes the price of the breakfast up by quite a bit - just your coffee and toast/pastry will usually cost 1.50-1.80€, the juice doubles the price.
- Beer Oh yes. Beer for breakfast is so... common that I've seen 'breakfast specials' that include 'beer and tortilla' as one of the options.
- Brandy For a certain type of elderly gentleman...
What to Eat for Breakfast in Spain
- Croissant or other pastry French-style sweet pastries such as a napolitana (pain au chocolate) are popular throughout Spain.
- Tostada Toast - either boring sliced bread or a nice rustic roll. Usually served with marmelade, jam, ham or cheese, or tomato and olive oil.
- Tortilla With a beer!
- Torrijas Spain's take on bread pudding or French toast. Not as widespread as the above options, but a must if you can find it.
Where to Have Breakfast in Spain
Unless there is a particular coffee roastery or churros maker you want to check out, my advice for breakfast in Spain is always: eat somewhere with a good view.
Usually, a meal on the Ramblas in Barcelona or Plaza Mayor in Madrid will be overpriced and possibly poorly made. If you pay 30€ for a mediocre meal that should have cost 15€, you're wasting a lot of money. But it's pretty hard to ruin coffee and a croissant, and I personally don't mind paying paying 6€ instead of 3€ for the privilege, as the extra 3€ is worth it for a fantastic view of a famous sight.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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La Hora del Vermut is Vermouth O'Clock in Spain!
Before productivity became something people put on charts, a little pre-lunch drink to whet the appetite was an essential part of the Spanish day.
Particularly in Madrid and Barcelona, La hora del vermut ('vermouth hour', which is basically 'vermouth o'clock') was a classic Sunday lunchtime (or any lunchtime) activity that is making a comeback.
Sweet (Italian-style) vermouth is the required drink here. But don't trust a bar that tries to serve you Martini - there are dozens of Spanish brands, both old and new, for you to sample.
Best Place to Drink Vermouth in Spain
Check out the vermuterias in the Gracia district of Barcelona.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Lunch (Menu del Dia)
Your best option for lunch is to go for a menu del dia. This is a three-course meal, split into primer plato, segundo plato and postre (dessert) and usually accompanied with a drink and bread.
A menu del dia will be cheaper than ordering separate dishes and is especially good for the solo traveler.
The Spanish don't tend to do 'meat and two veg' as you might be used to. Your meal will be split into three - a first course, second course and dessert or coffee. The 'primer plato' will usually consist of your carbohydrates or vegetables, and the 'segundo plato' will be your meat and fish. If you prefer, you can usually order two primer platos (but not two segundos).
Don't expect much of your dessert. Plus, very occasionally you might find there is no desert offered at all. You will see 'postre' on the menu if it is included. You can usually choose from either coffee or dessert for your final course, but sometimes the coffee won't be included. Ask,... "¿Esta incluido?" (est-AR in-clue-EE-do?).
As a restaurant's menu del dia tends to change every day, it is unlikely that there will be anyone on hand to translate it into English. Some restaurants then kindly assume that as you are not a Spanish speaker, you couldn't possibly want then menu del dia, even though they probably have one. If you aren't offered a menu del dia, ask "¿Hay menú?" (EYE men-OO?), but remember to bring your phrasebook!
Beware, in touristy places you might find the price of the menu doesn't include tax. It will say "IVA incluido" or "IVA NO incluido" on the menu. Also, frequently (and not just in touristy places) there will be a supplement for sitting outside on the 'terraza'.
See also: Spanish Food Translations
Menús del día tend to only be served at lunchtimes - and usually only on weekdays. Arrange your eating habits around this fact and you'll get the best food in Spain at the best price.
In many restaurants, the standard serving for wine or water is a carafe - whether there are two of you or you are dining alone. Which means that if you both order wine, it will probably be a carafe to share, but if you're very lucky, ordering one wine and one water could get you a full serving of each! Most menus will say 'con pan y vino/agua' (with bread and wine/water), but it is usually possible to order another drink - but not always. If you don't feel like wine, check something else is allowed - beer is usually OK, coca-cola or other soft drinks are often not.
Where the 'meat and two veg' idea does come into play is in 'platos combinados'. These are normally sold at lower quality establishments, and usually consist of a piece of meat, fries and either an egg or a side salad. These are generally speaking of quite poor quality and should generally be avoided.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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Merienda is the fourth Spanish meal. It's a way of bridging the gap between lunch and Spain's infamously late dinner - like the English afternoon tea, but less anachronistic.
In many ways the merienda is like a second breakfast. Coffee is essential and is usually accompanied by a sweet pastry.
In Valencia, make sure you check out Horchata. Unlike the Mexican version (which is made from rice), this local specialty is made from tiger nuts.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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Nothing is more quintessentially Spanish than going for tapas. But there is a lot of confusion about what tapas is. Or are. (Tapas is a plural word - you can get one tapa or two tapas - but in English the word 'tapas' is used like we use the word 'rice' or 'water', so it's best to say 'tapas is' in English, not 'tapas are'.)
See also: The Best Cities in Spain for Tapas
A Quick Guide to Tapas in Spain
- A tapa is a small plate of food. Any food can be a tapa. A big selection of small plates all served at the same time is not tapas. This would be called a 'tabla' or a 'degustación' and is rare.
- Sometimes tapas will come for free with your drink. Other times you'll have to pay. It could be a plate of olives or a little sample of molecular gastronomy.
- The idea of going for tapas (tapear in Spanish) means standing at a bar, taking a bite to eat with a glass of wine, beer or vermouth. Some cities have lots of tapas bars close together... and people will bar hop between them.
- Large portions of food, ordered at once and shared between a group, is not tapas. They're called raciones and are actually the most common way of eating in Spain. Read more on the next page.
Note that at restaurants that serve both tapas and have more formal sit-down meals, the tables will probably be reserved for full meals. Follow what everyone else is doing: if the other patrons are all crammed into the bar eating tapas and the tables are all empty, you should probably do the same.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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If you plan on going for a sit-down meal in Spain, in most cases you'll be going for raciones.
A ración is like a large tapa. To get a full meal of meat, veg and carbs, you'll want to order several raciones. A single racion of, say, cod will likely be just cod. If you want potatoes or vegetables with it, you'll have to order those separately. Eating raciones is not ideal for solo travelers as portions are big and relatively expensive as they are intended to be shared. Though a 'media racion', half portion, may be possible in some locations.
Some restaurants offer a 'menu del noche', a nighttime version of the menu del dia, which will usually be a bit more expensive than the lunchtime offering, but a bit better in quality too.
See also:Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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What to drink with your meal
Wine and beer dominates the dinner table in Spain.
Beer in Spain
Though the craft beer scene in Spain is improving rapidly, you're still unlikely to get much more than a house lager in most bars. Spanish lager tends to be light and highly carbonated and drunk as a lubricant to get you through the sticky, sweltering heat of the summer.
See also: Drinks in Spain
Wine in Spain
Spanish wine is excellent. Very reasonably priced and extremely drinkable.
Wine tends to be red in Spain. Rioja and Ribera del Duero are the most popular varieties of red wine. However, these tend not to be the best value for money. My preferred wine region is Toro: these wines tend to be full bodied with a lingering aftertaste.
But don't ignore some of the excellent white wines. Txakoli from the Basque Country, Rueda from central Spain and Ribeiros from Galicia are all worth looking for. Young Txakolis are particularly interesting, high in acidity and reminiscent of Portuguese Vinho Verdes.
But whatever you do, don...'t order sangria.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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After your dinner, your waiter may offer a chupito (a shot) on the house.
These digestifs tend to be one of the following:
- Orujo Similar to grappa
- Orujo de Hierbas or Licor de Hierbas Though these are different things, (one is herb-flavored grappa, the other is any herbal liqueur), usually when you offered Licor de hierbas it is actually orujo.
- Patxaran A Basque liqueur but offered throughout the country.
- Cuarenta y Tres A very sweet orange-cinammon (and apparently 41 other flavors) liqueur.
By the way, this was after a meal I had with a Spanish friend. The bill came to around 43 euros - see that solitary euro tip for an idea of how big tippers the Spanish are...Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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Paying the bill (and tipping)
The Spanish for 'the bill' is 'la cuenta' and simply asking for that (with a 'por favor' after it) is all you need to do to ask for the bill. In situations where asking for 'the bill' sounds a bit odd, like when paying for a single beer or coffee, the Spanish will ask '¿Me cobras, por favor?', literally 'Will you charge me, please?'.
In Spain it's not common to split the bill, so pay it all at once and sort out who owes what later. And unless you're in a classier establishment, chances are you won't be able to pay by card.
Added Extras in Spain
Usually the price you see is what you pay in Spain. However, occasionally you may see the following added to your bill:
- IVA (Impuesto sobre el Valor Añadido) This is VAT (value added tax) or sales tax. Usually this is included, but restaurants in touristy places sometimes put '+ IVA' on their menus, which means you'll be charged an extra 10% at the end of your meal. Some... items may be charged at a slightly lower rate.
- Suplemento en terraza Sometimes a bar or restaurant will charge a little more for sitting outside. And some places even have three prices: 'barra' (at the bar), 'mesa' (at a table (inside)) and 'terraza'. Sometimes a restaurant may have a special offer that is 'solo barra', only available at the bar.
- Cubierto/Pan + Servicio In touristy or more high-class places, there may be a small cover charge (sometimes described as to cover the bread and/or service). This is becoming especially common in Seville. Sometimes if you don't eat the bread you might not be charged, but you probably will be.
Tipping in Spain
Tipping in Spain is rare and, when people do leave a tip, the amount left is pretty low.
People very rarely leave a tip for a drink. For a cheap meal, tipping is not common. At best, if the bill comes to, say, 10.70€, you might leave 30c.
In the previous picture in this gallery, our meal came to just under 45 euros. And my friend left a euro tip.
I've heard Americans come to Spain and say 'I don't care if it's not traditional to tip in Spain, I'm going to tip like I would at home, I'm sure they'll appreciate it'.
To that I would say - would you tip your subway driver? Or the cashier at your supermarket? No, because it would be weird, right? And that's how inappropriate tipping can be in Spain. I've even heard of waiters chasing customers down the street to return what they thought was money mistakenly left on the bar.
Making a Complaint in Spain
Sometimes you might not get good service in Spain. Luckily, there is an official avenue of complaint that works well.
Every business in Spain has a legal requirement to keep complaints forms ('hojas de reclamación') or a complaints book ('libro de reclamación') and to offer you one if you ask for it.
The forms are bilingual (Spanish and English where there is no nationalistic squabbling going on, otherwise in Spanish and the local language) and complaints are followed up by a government body.
Usually, you won't see the complaints form, as the establishment will try to resolve the issue before it gets that far.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Gin and Tonics in Spain
The Spanish have taken the humble gin and tonic to a whole new level. It's now common in Spain to be offered one of dozens of gins, with a choice of tonic water, served in an oversized wine glass, super chilled (some bars, like Gin-Tonic in Malaga, have a CO2 machine to cool the glass) with ice to the top, garnished with something unusual like juniper berries, coriander or pink grapefruit peel.
Where to Get a Good Gin and Tonic in Spain
My favorite bar is the aforementioned Gin-Tonic in Malaga, but you can get a good Gin and Tonic all over Spain.
See also: How to Make a Spanish Gin and Tonic