Spain is composed of many regions with strong local identities, so it's no surprise that its cuisine is very variable too. The Catalonia region in particular is known for having a high concentration of celebrity chefs, and fine dining restaurants that are ranked among the top in the world. Like other Mediterranean cuisines, it has influences from Roman times, but unlike most of the northern rim of the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula also was part of the Islamic world for centuries (introducing ingredients such as rice). Afterwards Spain was one of the very first European powers to establish colonies in the Americas and elsewhere in the world, therefore many exotic products reached Spain before the rest of Europe.
Compared to most other countries, people in Spain tend to eat late. Lunch is eaten at 14:00 or later in the afternoon, in former times this was followed by a siesta but this is not as common as it used to be (many businesses still close for an hour or more in the afternoon). Dinner is had at 21:00 or later; a few Spaniards even have dinner at midnight. Between lunch and dinner restaurants are often closed and you may need to go to a fast food place, café or tapa bar for a light meal if you're hungry then. The exception is restaurants at more touristy destinations such as on the Costa del Sol but even there they might have a limited menu and the restaurant is often nearly empty.
One specialty of Spanish cuisine is tapas, small bites of meat, seafood, cheese or vegetables that are traditionally eaten as bar snacks. Some common tapas are olives, jamón serrano, manchego cheese, sardines and chorizo but almost everything the Spanish cuisine has to offer is available as tapas (depending on where in the country you are), so a visit to a tapas bar is a fantastic way to sample Spanish food. Whereas the drinks are the main thing in bars in most parts of the world and snacks are only a decoration, in a tapas bar it's the other way around. You can actually combine tapas to have a full meal.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner times
Spaniards have a different eating timetable than many people are used to.
The key thing to remember for a traveller is:
- breakfast (desayuno) for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (like a graham cracker) or magdalena (sweet muffin-like bread). Later, some will go to a cafe for a pastry midmorning, but not too close to lunchtime.
- "el aperitivo" is a light snack eaten around 12:00. However, this could include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a "pincho de tortilla".
- lunch (comida) starts at 13:30-14:30 (though often not until 15:00) and was once typically followed by a short siesta, usually at summer when temperatures can be quite hot in the afternoon. This is the main meal of the day with two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 16:00 at the latest. However, since life has become busier, there is no opportunity for a siesta.
- dinner (cena) starts at 20:30 or 21:00, with most clientèle coming after 21:00. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 21:00 and most customers do not appear before 23:00.
- there is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called merienda. It is similar to a tea time in England and is taken around 18:00 or so.
- between the lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes are closed, and it takes extra effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time. Despite this, you can always look for a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches, which can be filled with ham, cheese or any kind of embutido, and bocadillos calientes, hot sandwiches, filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and similar options with cheese. This can be a really cheap and tasty option if you find a good place.
Normally, restaurants in big cities don't close until midnight during the week and 02:00-03:00 during the weekend.
Breakfast is eaten by most Spaniards. Traditional Spanish breakfast includes coffee or orange juice, and pastries or a small sandwich. In Madrid, it is also common to have hot chocolate with "churros" or "porras". In cafes, you can expect varieties of tortilla de patatas (see the Spanish dishes section), sometimes tapas (either breakfast variety or same kind as served in the evenings with alcohol).
The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars as tapas, which are a bit like "starters" or "appetizers", but are instead considered side orders to accompany your drink; in some parts of Spain, a drink is still accompanied automatically by a free tapa, but in places where it's not, ask for tapa y caña to order a beer and a tapa. Some bars will offer a wide variety of different tapas; others specialize on a specific kind (like seafood-based). A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink at a bar, then go to the next bar and do the same. A group of two or more individuals may order two or more tapas or order raciones instead, which are a bit larger in order to share.
World-famous restaurants: There are several restaurants in Spain which are destinations in itself, becoming a sole reason to travel to a specific city. One of them is El Bulli in Roses.
Service charges and VAT
No service charges are included in the bill. A little extra tip is common and you are free to increase that if you are very pleased. Obviously you don’t have to tip a lousy waiter. You would typically leave the small change after paying with a note.
Menú del día
Many restaurants offer a complete lunch meal for a fixed price – menú del día – and this often works out as a bargain. Water or wine is commonly included in the price.
Things like schnitzel, full English breakfast, pizza, döner, and frozen fish are largely available in tourist destinations. In most cities you can also find international cuisine such as Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, and Argentinian. The bigger the city, the more variety you can find.
There has been a surge in the number of Irish pubs and Japanese restaurants to be found in most cities.
Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and Burger King only in bigger towns in the usual places. That said, Madrid and other large Spanish cities are often the first place for north American chains to dip their toe into the European market and you'll find Taco Bell, TGI Friday's or Five Guys there but not or only rarely in central European cities. The menu can be a surprise since it has been customized to appeal to the locals and beer, salads, yogurt (primarily Danone), and wine are prominent. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns but it can be their own homegrown franchises, such as TelePizza. In spite of beer and wine on the menu, fast food is often seen as "kiddie food." American franchises generally charge higher prices than in the United States, and fast food is not necessarily the cheapest alternative for eating out.
Spanish cuisine includes a wide variety of vegetables, meat and seafood. Dishes are light and not overly spicy.
Seafood (mariscos): on the coast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. In the inner regions, frozen (and poor quality) seafood can be frequently encountered outside few highly reputed (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially on the north Atlantic coast.
Quality seafood in Spain comes from Spain's northwestern region of Galicia. So restaurants with the words Gallego (Galician) will generally specialize in seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you might want to try the Galician regional specialty Pulpo a la Gallega, which is boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is Sepia which is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of Calamares (squid) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that isn't your style you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present Paella dishes.
Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain has maintained quite a high percentage of free range animals.
Ordering beef steaks is highly recommended, since most comes from free range cows from the mountains north of the city.
Pork cuts which are also highly coveted are those known as presa ibérica and secreto ibérico, an absolute must if found in the menu of any restaurant.
Soups: choice of soups beyond gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
Appetizers such as bread, cheese, and other items may be brought to your table even if you didn't order them. You will may still be charged for them. If you do not want these appetizers, politely inform the waiter that you do not want them.
Specialties to buy
- Cheese: Spain offers a wide variety of regional cheeses.
- Queso manchego is the most famous one.
- Cabrales,tetilla and mahón are also popular.
- Chorizo: Spain's most popular sausage is spice cured, made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper and is produced in multitude of varieties, in different sizes, shapes, short and long, spicy, in all different shades of red, soft, air dried and hard or smoked. Frequently contains emulgators and conservatives, so check ingredients if you feel sensitive.
- Jamón (air dried ham): Jamón serrano (Serrano ham): obtained from the salt meat of the back legs of the pig and air dried. This same product is given the name of paletilla ("trowel") when it is obtained from the front legs. Other names to look out for are jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) and jamón de bellota (acorn-fed ham). There are famous jamones that are made in Huelva, in Guijuelo (Salamanca province), in the Pedroches (Cordova province) and in Trevélez (province of Granada). jamón ibérico is made from free range pigs. One well known chain in Spain is Mesón Cinco Jotas, which is known by locals for their expensive, but good quality ham.
- Visiting Spain without trying jamon ibérico would be considered a crime by most Spaniards. Spaniards treat their ham very seriously and types and qualities of ham vary in a similar way to wine. Quality ham is generally expensive but has little to do with the many cheaper versions available. The diet of the pig is the most important factor in determining the quality of the ham. The least expensive ham comes from pigs fed on normal grains whereas medium grade pigs are raised on a combination of acorns and grains. The top tier pigs are fed exclusively on acorns and their hams are not considered to be the best grade without an "acorn fed" stamp. These top grade hams have a rich flavor and an oily texture but to non-connoisseurs, glossiness and the presence of white lines of fat crisscrossing a slice of ham is generally a good indicator of its quality.
- Morcilla: black sausages made from pig blood, generally made with rice or onion. Sometimes flavoured with anise, it comes as a fresh, smoked or air dried variety.
Typical Spanish dishes include:
- Paella — originally from Valencia, there's an infinite number of different paella variants. It's a rice dish with different vegetables, often seafood (fish, shrimp, mussels, calamari...) and/or meat (often chicken or rabbit). In restaurants, you often need to be more than one person ordering a pan of paella although at some places they serve paella to lone patrons as well.
- Aceitunas / olivas – olives, often served for nibbling.
- Bocadillo de calamares – fried battered squid served in a ciabatta sandwich with lemon juice.
- Boquerones en vinagre – anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley.
- Caracoles – snails in a hot sauce.
- Calamares en su tinta – squid in its ink.
- Chipirones a la plancha – grilled little squids.
- Churros – a fried horn-shaped snack, sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut. Typical for a Spanish breakfast or for tea time. Served with hot chocolate drink.
- Cod Fritters — typical tapa from Catalonia.
- Empanadas gallegas – meat or tuna pies are also very popular in Madrid. Originally from region of Galicia.
- Ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad) – this potato salad dish of Russian origin, widely consumed in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is also extremely popular in Spain.
- Fabada asturiana – bean stew from Asturias.
- Gambas al ajillo – prawns with garlic and chili. Fantastic hot stuff.
- Gazpacho andaluz – cold tomato soup. Best during the hot weather.
- Lentejas – a dish made from lentils with chorizo sausage and/or serrano ham.
- Mariscos – shellfish
- Merluza a la vizcaina – the Spanish are not very fond of sauces. One of the few exceptions is merluza a la Vasca. The dish contains hake (fish of the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
- Potajes or pucheros – garbanzo bean stew at its best
- Paella or paella valenciana – This is a rice dish from Valencia. Rice is grown locally in what look like wheat fields, and this is the variety used in paella. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron (el azafran). Nowadays varieties of paella can be found all over Spain, many containing seafood. Locals suggest to find true paella in large parties like a wedding in a village, but few restaurants still can compete with it.
- Patatas bravas – Fried potatoes which have been boiled, served with a patented spicy sauce. They are potatoes cut in form of dices or prism, of one to two centimeters of size approximately and that they are fried in oil and accompanied by a sharp sauce that spills on potatoes using hot spices. The name of this plate comes from its sharp flavor, indicating that it has fire or temperament, recalling the first operation of I goad in which a goad nails to him so that he is brave in the bullfight.
- Pescaíto frito – Delicious fried fish that can be found mainly in southern Spain
- Pimientos rellenos – Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. The peppers in Spain taste different than all other peppers in Europe.
- Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos – Chick pea stew with spinach. Typical of Seville.
- Revuelto de ajetes con setas – Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic sprouts and wild mushrooms. Also commonly contains shrimps.
- Setas al ajillo / gambas al ajillo – Shrimps or wild mushrooms fried in garlic.
- Sepia con alioli – Fried cuttlefish with garlic mayonnaise. Very popular among tourists.
- Tortilla de patatas – Spanish egg omelette with fried potato. Probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily assess how good a restaurant is by having a small piece of its potato tortillas. Frequently it is made also with onion, depending on the zone or the pleasure. The potatoes must be fried in oil (preferably of olive), and they are left soaking with the scrambled egg for more than 10 minutes, although better if it is average hour so that they are soaked and they acquire the suitable consistency.
- Churros — long deep-fried donuts, often eaten for breakfast and with chocolate dip (churros con chocolate)
- Crema catalana — a traditional recipe, similar to the French crème brûlée, where the top is caramelised by using a hot iron.
Water is frequently served without a specific request, and is normally charged for--unless it's included in your menu del dia. If you would like free tap water instead of bottled water, request "agua del grifo" (water from the tap). However, not all restaurants will offer this and you may be forced to order bottled water.
Tea and coffee
Spanish people are very passionate about the quality, intensity and taste of their coffee and good freshly brewed coffee is available almost everywhere.
The usual choices are solo, the milk-less espresso version; cortado, solo with a dash of milk; con leche, solo with milk added; and manchado, coffee with lots of milk (sort of like the French cafe au lait). Asking for caffee latte will likely result in less milk than you are used to--it's always OK to ask for extra milk.
Regional variants can be found, such as bombón in Eastern Spain, solo with condensed milk.
Starbucks is the only national chain operating in Spain. Locals argue that it cannot compete with small local cafes in quality of coffee and visited only by tourists. It is not present in smaller cities.
If you eat for €20 per dinner, you will never be served a good tea; expect Pompadour or Lipton. It takes some effort to find a good tea if you spend most time of the day in touristy places.
The drinking age in Spain is 18. People under this age are forbidden to drink and buy alcoholic drinks, although enforcement in tourist and clubbing areas is lax. Drinking in the streets has been banned (although it is still a common practice in most nightlife areas). A "dry law" bans supermarkets from selling alcohol after 22:00
Try an absinthe cocktail (the fabled liquor was never outlawed here, but it is not a popular drink in Spain).
Probably one of the best places to meet people in Spain is in bars. Everyone visits them and they are always busy and sometimes bursting with people. There is no age restriction imposed to enter these premises. but children and teenagers often will not be served alcoholic drinks. Age restrictions for the consumption of alcohol are clearly posted at bars but are enforced only intermittently. It is common to see an entire family at a bar.
It's important to know the difference between a pub (which closes at 03-03:30) and a club (which opens until 06:00-08:00 but is usually deserted early in the night).
On weekends, the time to go out for copas (drinks) usually starts at about 23:00-01:00 which is somewhat later than in North and Central Europe. Before that, people usually do any number of things, have some tapas (raciones, algo para picar), eat a "real" dinner in a restaurant, stay at home with family, or go to cultural events. If you want to go dancing, you will find that most of the clubs in Madrid are relatively empty before midnight (some do not even open until 01:00) and most won't get crowded until 03:00. People usually go to pubs, then go to the clubs until 06:00-08:00.
For a true Spanish experience, after a night of dancing and drinking it is common to have a breakfast of chocolate con churros with your friends before going home. (CcC is a small cup of thick, melted chocolate served with freshly fried sweet fritters used for dipping in the chocolate and should be tried, if only for the great taste.)
Bars are mainly to have drink and a small tapa while socializing and decompressing from work or studies. Usually Spaniards can control their alcohol consumption better than their northern European neighbors and drunken locals are rarely seen at bars or on the streets. A drink, if ordered without an accompanying tapa, is often served with a "minor" or inexpensive tapa as a courtesy.
Size and price of tapas changes a lot throughout Spain. For instance, it's almost impossible to get free tapas in big cities like Valencia or Barcelona, excluding Madrid where there are several Tapa Bars although some are a bit expensive. You can eat for free (just paying for the drinks), with huge tapas and cheap prices at cities like Granada, Badajoz or Salamanca.
The tapa, and the related pincho, trace their existence in Spain to both acting as a cover ("Tapa") on top of a cup of wine to prevent flies from accessing it, and as a requirement of law when serving wine at an establishment during the Middle Ages.
The Spanish beer (cerveza) is well worth a try. Most popular local brands include San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Ámbar, Estrella Galicia (brewed in La Coruña), the unrelated Estrella Damm (brewed in Barcelona), Keller and many others, including local brands at most cities; import beers are also available. A great beer is 'Mezquita' (Cervezas Alhambra), try to find it! Also "Legado de Yuste" is one of the best beer made in Spain, and is quite extended, but more expensive than a normal 'caña'. In Spain, beer is often served from a tap in 25 cl ("caña") or 33 cl ("tubo") tube glasses. Bigger servings are rare, but you can also ask for a "corto", "zurito" (round the Basque country) or simply "una cerveza" or "tanque" (south of the country) to get a half size beer, perfect to drink in one go and get quickly to the next bar while having tapas.
If you're in Zaragoza (or Aragon, in general), the Pilsner-type Ambar (5.2% alc.) and the stronger Export (double malt, 7.0% alc.) are available. Ambar 1900: Its production began in 1996. The system of fermentation to room temperature is used. Marlen is a beer of traditional manufacture using malted barley and hops.
Spaniards often add lemon juice (Fanta limón, or lemon Fanta) to their beer. Particularly on hot summer days people will drink a refreshing "clara" which is a light beer mixed with lemon/lemonade.
Cava is Spanish sparkling wine. The name was changed from Spanish Champagne to Cava after a long dispute with the French. The Spanish called it for a long time champan, but the French argued that champagne can only be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France. Nevertheless, Cava is a quite successful sparkling wine and 99% of the production comes from the area around Barcelona.
A milky non-alcoholic drink made of tiger nuts and sugar, and very different from drinks of the same name found in Latin America. Alboraia, a small town close to Valencia, is regarded as the best place where horchata is produced.
Sangria is drink made of wine and fruits and usually is made from simple wines. You will find sangria in areas frequented by tourists. Spanish prepare sangria for fiestas and hot summer, and not every day as seen in touristic regions like Mallorca.
Sangria in restaurants aimed for foreigners are best avoided, but it is a very good drink to try if a Spaniard prepares it for a fiesta!
The pale sherry wine around Jerez called "fino" is fortified with alcohol to 15 percent. If you would like to have one in a bar you have to order a fino. Manzanilla is bit salty, good as an appetizer. Amontillado and Oloroso are a different types of sherry where the oxidative aging process has taken the lead.
Spain is a country with great wine-making and drinking traditions: 22% of Europe's wine growing area is in Spain, however the production is about half of what the French produce.
Regions: most famous wines come from Rioja region, less known but also important come from Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro and Jumilla . The latter are becoming more and more popular and are slightly less expensive than Rioja wines. White, rose and red wines are produced, but the red wines are certainly the most important ones.
Grapes: main red grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell and Mencia. Primary white grape used is Albarino, and the grapes used in Jerez are: 'Pedro Ximenez and Palomino.
Specific names: Valdepenas is good value for money. Whites: Belondrade Y Lurton is regarded as greatest white wine in Spain. Vina Sol is good as a mass product, with fruity taste.
Grades: Spanish quality wines are produced using an aging process and they have been in an oak barrel for at least one year before they can be labeled Crianza and then spend another two years in a bottle before been sold. Reservas are aged for five years and Gran Reservas are aged for 10 years.
Prices: Spain has seen a tremendous rise in wine prices over the last decade and Spanish wines are not as much of a bargain as they used to be. However you will still find 5-, 10- and 20-year-old wines at affordable prices especially when compared with similar quality wines from Australia, Chile, France, and the US.
Wine bars: they are more and more popular. In short, a wine bar is a sophisticated tapas bar where you can order wine by the glass. You will immediately see a blackboard with the wines that are available and the price per glass.
In a bar: for red wine in a bar, ask "un tinto por favor", for white wine "un blanco por favor", for rose: "un rosado por favor".
Wine-based drinks: young people in Spain have developed their own way to have wine. When having botellones (big outdoor parties with drink and lots of people), most of them mix some red wine with Coke and drink it straight from the Coke bottle. The name of this drink is calimocho or kalimotxo (in the Basque Country and Navarre) and is really very popular. But don't ask for it while in an upper class bar or among adults, since they will most certainly not approve of the idea! As a general rule, any wine that comes in a glass bottle is considered "too good" to make kalimotxo. Another wine based drink is "Tinto de Verano" which can be bought pre mixed in supermarkets for cheap prices.