Dining in Spain
Helpful hints to visitors for dining in Spain
Food and dining might be described as a passion for many Spaniards. For the visitor, some aspects of the local cuisine and customs may be a bit confusing, specially on that first trip to Spain. Our idea is to provide a few helpful hints to speed up the enjoyment process.
The eating schedules in Spain leave many perplexed. Fact is the timing of meals is quite different from America, and a bit of a variation on dining customs in most of Europe:
- Breakfast is generally simple and spare - a cup of coffee and a roll, croissant or toast. Many take only coffee and then grab a midmorning snack at 11:30 or 12:00.
- Lunch generally starts at 13:30 or 14:00 and runs until 15:30 or even 16:00. It is typically a large 3-course meal, and for many Spaniards it's the day's main meal.
- Dinner is often taken at a very late hour. Most restaurants don't even open until 20:30 or 21:00 and tend to stay open until 24:00 or so.
Apart from the timing, there are several aspects of the local approach to meals and dining that you might want to know:
- 3 courses is normal for both lunch and dinner. Typical starters include: soups, vegetables, salads, lentil stew, or even an omelette. A second course is generally either meat of fish, served with little (if any) potatos, vegetable, etc. The dessert course could be fruit, sweet or perhaps cheese.
- Sharing a starter or two may be frowned upon in the better restaurants, but it's standard practice - and a nice way to try new things.
- Tips are normally included in the bill, but a 5-10% extra is often left [but not required].
- Coffee (expresso-style) is usual after dessert, often taken with a glass of brandy and a cigar. De-caf expresso is usually available.
What to eat
Spanish cuisine is as varied as the country itself. There's really no such thing as a "typical Spanish dish" - but varies depending on the region in which you find yourself. Local specialties run from the bean stews of the north coast to the lightly fried fish typical of the south. It's really hard to say where to start, but here are a couple of basic guidelines:
- Fish tends to be superb in most places - Madrid, for example, is famous for spectacular fish restaurants, as are Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Santiago de Compostela.
- Lamb, particularly in the northern half of the peninsula, tends to be incredibly good. When in doubt, try the lamb.
- Fried food is another specialty - no meal is complete without a few fries on the side, and there's an infinite variety of battered and breaded delights: squid, fish, eggplant, veal cutlets, and so on.
- Shellfish is abundant and beautifully prepared. One word of caution: shrimp, prawns, lobster, etc. tend to be rather pricy!
- Menu of the day (Menú del día) is a good way to lunch (and try new culinary adventures) at low prices. Restaurants are required to offer a fixed-price menu - typically 3 courses with wine and bread included.
- Spanish wine is not to be missed. Again, the supply will vary according to the region. The least expensive alternative is "vino de la casa" (house wine), which can be "tinto" (red), "blanco" (white) or "rosado" (rosé).
- Cheese is another great Spanish unknown. Try the "manchego" cheese made from sheep's milk and the potent "cabrales" blue cheese made from cow's milk.
- Cured meats are another gourmet treat: "chorizo" sausage and cured "serrano" ham are not to be missed.
For the adventurous
For those who enjoy new and different cuisine, you'll find some great fare around Spain. Here are a few examples:
- "Pulpo" (octopus) is boiled and usually served "a la gallega" with paprika, salt and olive oil. A real treat.
- "Calamares" (squid) are served in many forms: battered and fried, grilled, or cooked in a strange (and delicious) black sauce made from tomato, onion and squid ink! You'll also find "chopitos" (baby squid), "chipirones" (young squid), and "sepia" (cuttlefish).
- Offal, otherwise known as the odd bits are very much a part of Spanish cusine. The list includes: "callos" (tripe), "mollejas" (sweetbreads), "sesos" (brains), "riñones" (kidneys) and "criadillas" (testicles).
That's it, enjoy!
Information Links for Dining in Spain
Barcelona Restaurant Guide
From the Timeout Guide to Barcelona, with a good restaurant list plus dining customs and other helpful information.
Eating Out in Madrid
From the Softguide to Madrid - includes dining customs, food dictionary and restaurant guide.