If you are touring Spain, Spanish cuisine has a dazzling variety of both regional and national dishes and, as you know, makes liberal use of olive oil and red wine.
For the Spaniards, lunch (comida) is still the biggest meal of the day. The set lunch, menú del dia, has always been a great bargain in Spain. When looking for a menú del dia, explore a block or two beyond the main streets for more authentic – and cheaper – restaurant full of locals.
Even with the proliferation of fast food chains and the disappearance of the siesta, a Spanish lunch is still leisurely. Spaniards eat later than North Americans and most restaurants won’t even be open before 1:00 pm.
If you see “tortilla” on the menu, it is not a Mexican dish. Tortilla in Spain means an omelette and is not considered a breakfast dish.
Some typical lunch dishes are gazpacho (cold tomato soup), tortilla de patata (potato omlette), washed down with sangria (red wine with fruit juice and and carbonated beverage).
Beware – Spaniards don’t have dinner before 9 pm, and it is expensive. A full meal in the evening in Spain is likely to cost quite a bit more than it would at lunch time, when the economical menu del día is offered. In the evening you will be forced to order de la carta and will pay three times the price.
A few tapas should be enough for dinner. Tapas bars will be full of people having a few light bites to eat in the evening.
Anything can be tapas – paella, croquettes, ham and cheese on toast, truly anything. As long as it is small and served with your drink, it is tapas. Tapas are served on small plates, like canapés or finger food. They may be warm or cold dishes, and vary greatly from region to region – season to season.
Tapas is not a starter. If you start eating tapas, you finish eating tapas, and you don’t stop until you’re full.
Ración (ra SYON), Media Ración or ‘Para picar’
A racion is approximately the equivalent to four to six tapas, while a ‘media racion’ is equivalent to a little over two tapas. Para picar means “to pick at” (and is probably equivalent to a ración). These dishes are intended for a group to eat together.
Raciones are always a plate of a single item – ham, cheese, calamares, etc and are too monotonous to eat on their own. . Locals only ever order two or three dishes at a time at most, then see how they feel. If eating alone, go for a couple of media racions.
Don’t let the waiter talk you into ordering jamón (Spanish ham), seafood or cheese if you don’t want it, as these things can be surprisingly expensive, particularly if you are given a ración rather than a tapa.
All restaurants serve wine by the glass, even though this is not always stated on the menu. If you only want a glass each, just ask for una copa de vino tinto (a glass of red wine) or una copa de vino blanco (a glass of white wine). If you’re going to have two each, however, it is probably cheaper to get a bottle.
There is no problem with ordering a glass or a jug of tap water – un vaso or una jarra de agua del grifo – in a bar or restaurant. Tap water is safe to drink, but does not always taste great. Bottled water is common everywhere, and you’ll be asked “con gas?” (bubbly?) or “sin gas?” (still).
Paying The Bill
There is usually a 15-25 per cent surcharge for food and drinks at outdoor tables, but it may be worth paying a bit extra to sit down comfortably and indulge in some people-watching for a while.
There is no need to leave big tips in restaurants. Just rounding up to the next euro is fine for coffees, beers, taxis and bills under €10 (ten euros) – but a lot of locals give nothing.