There are many ways in which you can enjoy tasting the wide variety of Spainish cuisine on offer in Spain although there are basically two ways to eat out in a casual, semi formal or more formal manner. You can either go to a restaurant or comedor (dining room) and have a full meal, or you can have a succession of tapas (small snacks) or raciones (larger ones) at one of the many Tapas bars which exist in every village, town or city.
At the bottom line a comedor - where you'll get a basic, filling, three-course meal with a drink, the menu del dia - is the cheapest option, but they're often tricky to find, however explore the off beaten touristpath or follow the locals and you will find many good comedors, small cafeterias and family run establishments.
For some culinary inspiration please check out my famous Spanish recipes section.
Breakfast Snacks and Sandwiches
For breakfast you're best off in a bar or cafe, though some hostales and fondas will serve the "Continental" basics. The traditional Spanish breakfast is chocolate con churros - long tubular doughnuts (not for the weak of stomach) with thick drinking chocolate. But most places also serve tostadas (toast) with oil ( con aceite ) or butter ( con mantequilla ) - and jam ( y mermelada ), or more substantial egg dishes such as huevos fritos (fried eggs), which are not a typical Spanish breakfast but do tend to be on offer in tourist areas. Tortilla (potato omelette) also makes an excellent breakfast.
Coffee and pastries ( pasteles or bollos ) or doughnuts are available at most cafés, too, though for a wider selection of cakes you should head for one of the many excellent pastelerías or confiterías . In larger towns, especially in Catalunya, there will often be a panadería or croissantería serving quite an array of appetizing baked goods besides the obvious bread, croissants and pizza.
Some bars specialize in bocadillos - hearty French bread-style sandwiches with a choice of fillings. If you want them wrapped to take away with you, ask for them para llevar . Incidentally, be careful not to use the word "sandwich" to order a bocadillo , as an Iberian sandwich is usually on sad, processed white bread - often with ham and cheese or something with a lot of mayonnaise.
Tapas and Raciones
One of the advantages of eating in bars is that you are able to experiment. Many places have food laid out on the counter, so you can see what's available and order by pointing without necessarily knowing the names; others have blackboards or " lista de las tapas ". Tapas (often called pinchos or pintxos in northern Spain) are small portions, three or four small chunks of fish or meat, or a dollop of salad, which traditionally used to be served up free with a drink. These days you often have to pay for anything more than a few olives, but a single helping rarely costs more than 1.20 to 2.40 Euros unless you're somewhere very flashy. Raciones costing around 6.50 to 9.0 Euros which are simply bigger plates of the same intended for sharing among a couple of people, and can be enough in themselves for a light meal. The more people you're with, of course, the better; half a dozen tapas or pinchos and three raciones can make a varied and quite filling meal for three or four people.
Tascas, bodegas, cervecerías and tabernas are all types of bar where you'll find tapas and raciones . Most of them have different sets of prices depending on whether you stand at the bar to eat (the basic charge) or sit at tables (up to fifty percent more expensive - and even more if you sit out on a terrace).
Wherever you have tapas, it is important to find out what the local special is and order it. Spaniards will commonly move from bar to bar, having just the one dish that they consider each bar does well. A bar's "non-standard" dishes, these days, can all too often be microwaved - which is not a good way to cook squid.
Meals and Restaurants
Once again, there's a multitude of distinctions. You can sit down and have a full meal in a comedor , a cafetería , a restaurante or a marisquería - all in addition to the more food-oriented bars.
Comedores are the places to seek out if your main criteria are price and quantity. Sometimes you will see them attached to a bar (often in a room behind), or as the dining room of a hostal or pensión , but as often as not they're virtually unmarked and discovered only if you pass an open door. Since they're essentially workers' cafés they tend to serve more substantial meals at lunchtime than in the evenings (when they may be closed altogether). When you can find them - the tradition, with its family-run business and marginal wages, is on the way out - you'll probably pay around 4.50 to 8.00 Euros for a menú del día, cubierto or menú de la casa , all of which mean the same - a complete meal of three courses, usually with bread, wine and dessert included.
The highway equivalent of comedores are ventas which you'll be extremely glad of if you're doing much travelling by road. These roadside inns dotted along the highways between towns and cities have been serving Spanish wayfarers for hundreds of years - many of them quite literally - and the best ventas are wonderful places to get tasty country cooking at bargain prices. Again the menú del día is the one to go for and the best places usually have quite a gathering of lorries in their car park, shrewd long-distance truck drivers being among the best customers.
Replacing comedores to some extent are cafeterías , which the local authorities grade from one to three cups (the ratings, as with restaurants, seem to be based on facilities offered rather than the quality of the food). These can be good value, too, especially the self-service places, but their emphasis is more northern European and the light snack-meals served tend to be dull. Food here often comes in the form of a plato combinado - literally a combined plate - which will be something like egg and chips or calamares and salad (or occasionally a weird combination like steak and a piece of fish), often with bread and a drink included. This will generally cost in the region of 4.50 to 6.00 Euros Cafeterias often serve some kind of menu del dia as well. You may prefer to get your plato combinado at a bar, which in small towns with no comedores may be the only way to eat inexpensively.
Moving up the scale there are restaurantes (designated by one to five forks) and marisquerías , the latter serving exclusively fish and seafood. Restaurantes at the bottom of the scale are often not much different in price from comedores , and will also generally have platos combinados available. A fixed-price menú del día is often better value though: generally three courses plus wine and bread for around 6.50 to 12 Euros. Chinese restaurants - increasingly popular in Spain - generally have the cheapest menús del día : 4.50 to 6 Euros is the norm. Move above two forks, however, or find yourself in one of the more fancy marisquerías (as opposed to a basic seafront fish-fry place ), and prices can escalate rapidly. However, even here most of the top restaurants offer an upmarket menú called a menú de degustación (a sampler meal, usually including wine) which is often excellent value and allows you to try out some of the country's finest cooking for 20 to 30 Euros.
To avoid receiving confused stares from waiters in restaurants, you should always ask for la carta when you want a menu; menú in Spanish refers only to fixed-price meal. In addition, in all but the most rock-bottom establishments it is customary to leave a small tip ( propina ): Spaniards are judicious tippers, so only do so if the service merits it: the amount is up to you, though 5 to 10 percent of the bill in a restaurant is quite sufficient. Service is normally included in a menuú del dia . The other thing to take account of in medium- and top-price restaurants is the addition of IVA , a seven percent tax on your bill. It should say on the menu if you have to pay this.
You'll find numerous recommendations, in all price ranges, in the guide. Spaniards generally eat very late, so most of these places serve food from around 1 until 4pm and from 8pm to midnight. Many restaurants close on Sunday or Monday evening . Outside these times, generally the only places open are the fast-food joints; Pans & Co and Bocatta serve suprisingly good bocadillos and often have special offers.
WINES For a full report on fine wines from Spain. Please see our A Guide to Spanish Wines .
Cerveza , lager-type beer, is generally pretty good wherever it may be served. It comes in 300-ml bottles ( botellines ) or, for about the same price, on tap - a caña of draught beer is a small glass, a caña doble larger, and asking for un tubo (a tubular glass) gets you about half a pint. Many bartenders will assume you want a doble or un tubo , so if you don't, say so. Mahou, Cruz Campo, San Miguel, and Victoria are all decent beers and good local brands too are worth trying, such as Estrella de Galicia or Alhambra.
Equally refreshing, though often deceptively strong, is sangría , a wine-and-fruit punch which you'll come across at fiestas and in tourist bars. Tinto de verano is a similar red wine and soda or lemonade combination which is a great refresher in high temperatures; variations on this include tinto de verano con naranja (red wine with orangeade) or con limón (mixed with a Fanta lemon juice).
In mid-afternoon - or even at breakfast - many Spaniards take a copa of liqueur with their coffee. The best are anís (like Pernod) or coñac , excellent local brandy with a distinct vanilla flavour; try Magno, Soberano, or Carlos III ("tercero") to get an idea of the variety, or Carlos I ("primero"), Lepanto, or Gran Duque de Alba for a measure of the quality. Most brandies are produced by the great sherry houses in Jerez, but one equally good one that isn't is Mascaró, produced in Catalunya and resembling an armagnac.
In bars spirits are ordered by brand name, since there are generally less expensive Spanish equivalents for standard imports. Larios gin from Málaga, for instance, is about half the price of Gordon's. Specify nacional to avoid getting an expensive foreign brand. Spirits can be very expensive at the trendier bars; however, wherever they are served, they tend to be staggeringly generous - the bar staff pouring from the bottle until you suggest they stop.
Mixed drinks are universally known as copa or Cubata , though strictly speaking the latter is rum and Coke. Juice is zumo ; orange, naranja ; lemon, limón ; and tonic tónica .
Soft and Hot Drinks
Soft drinks are much the same as anywhere in the world, but try in particular granizado (and icey slush) or horchata (a milky drink made from tiger nuts or almonds) from one of the street stalls that spring up everywhere in summer. You can also get these drinks from horchaterías and from heladerías ( ice cream - helados - parlours ), or in Catalunya from the wonderful milk bars known as granjas . Although you can drink the water almost everywhere it usually tastes better out of the bottle - inexpensive agua mineral comes either sparkling ( con gas ) or still ( sin gas ).
Cafe (coffee) - served in cafés, heladerías and bars - is invariably espresso, slightly bitter and, unless you specify otherwise, served black ( cafe solo ). If you want it white ask for café cortado (small cup with a drop of milk) or café con leche (made with lots of hot milk). For a large cup of weaker coffee ask for an americano . Coffee is also frequently mixed with brandy, cognac or whisky, all such concoctions being called carajillo . Iced coffee is café con hielo , another great high summer refresher: a cafe solo is served with a glass of ice cubes. Pour the coffee onto the cubes - it cools instantly.
Té (tea) is also available at most bars, although bear in mind that Spaniards usually drink it black. If you want milk it's safest to ask for it afterwards, since ordering té con leche might well get you a glass of milk with a tea bag floating on top. Perhaps a better bet would be herbal teas and most bars keep these: manzanilla (camomile, not to be confused with the sherry of the same name), poleomenta (mint tea) and hierba luisa (lemon verbena) are all popular herbal infusions.
Chocolate (hot chocolate) is incredibly thick and sweet, and is a popular early-morning drink after a long night on the town. If you'd prefer a thinner cocoa-style drink ask for a brand name, like Cola Cao.