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Eating and Drinking in Spain

Shannon Essa (Shannon)

If you are going to be visiting Spain, and if you love to eat and drink, you are going to be very happy. Spain is the number one travel destination for US chefs right now, and for good reason. You can start eating early in the day and continue to eat into the wee hours of the morning. You can eat very cheaply, or spend lots of money at temples of haute cuisine.

When to Eat

The Spanish start their day with desayuno (breakfast) of coffee and bread or pastries, usually served in bars and cafes from around 7:00am to 10:00am. Almuerzo (lunch) is usually served from 2:00pm to 4:00pm and is a long and drawn out affair, involving several courses and plenty of wine. Cena (dinner) is served from 8:30pm or so until very late, and most Spaniards eat at 10:00pm or later. You'll be hard pressed to find a restaurant that is open earlier and if you do, you'll be eating alone, or with a lot of other tourists. Reservations are advised, especially on weekends.

Thankfully, for those of us who can't wait to eat, and those of us who don't always want to eat a large meal, there are tapas. Tapas are finger foods, served in bars and cafes in a range of styles and prices. You can find bars serving tapas all day long, and these bars are often crowded with Spaniards eating before they go out to lunch or dinner!

When looking for tapas bars, look for cervecerias (bars specializing in beer) tabernas, tascas, mesons, or bodegas. In Barcelona, look for Xampanyerie - these are tapas bars specializing in cava, the sparkling wine of the region.

Some tips on tipping, smoking, language

Most restaurants take Visa and Mastercard. Most bars and cafes do not. American Express is not commonly accepted in Spain. Most restaurants add a service charge and a tip and this should be reflected on the bill. You can leave a bit extra if you are happy with the service. If it is unclear if the tip is included, ask, and if it is not, leave 10-15%. Always leave a cash tip. It is not necessary to tip in bars and cafes, but you can leave the small change if you want.

Smoking is allowed in most bars and restaurants and is common. You might choose to eat outside, or as early as you can, to avoid smoke. (You'll stand out as a tourist if you eat early, but at least you'll be able to breathe.)

If you don't speak Spanish, or even if you do, invest in a dictionary of food terms. I use "Eating and Drinking in Spain" (see Resources below). It's compact, it's cheap, and it will make your life a lot easier.

What to Eat in Spain

Spain is a large country and has influences from many different cultures, with the Moors and Arabs leaving the greatest mark. You'll find fresh seafood even in the heart of interior Spain, and lamb and sausage are also very common. Jamon (ham) is everywhere, hanging from hooks in many bars and restaurants. Beans, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and lots of olive oil are other common ingredients. Here is a list of some specialties of Spain:

  • Paella was invented in Valencia and was originally prepared with meat and no seafood. Paella always includes rice and saffron, and is cooked with various other ingredients such as seafood, sausage, beans, and vegetables. Everything is prepared and served in a special, flat pan. Generally, it is prepared for two or more people.
  • Gazpacho is a cold soup of blended tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Salmarejo is a version of gazpacho that includes bread.
  • Empanadas are small turnovers made from meat or fish.
  • Pimentos de Padron are small green peppers, deep fried or fried in oil, that you will see everywhere. They are a bit spicy.
  • Albondigas are meatballs, served everywhere and ranging from large and bacon wrapped to small and in a sauce. Albondigas are often served as a tapa.
  • Queso Manchego is a sheep's milk cheese and is served in various degrees of aged-ness.
  • Flan is a caramel custard dessert.
  • Tortilla is a baked cake of potato and egg, usually served as a tapa. It ranges from awesome to sitting-around-too-long. When fresh, tortilla makes a delicious lunch or light dinner. This is a good one for the vegetarians in the family.

For lunch or dinner, you might start with a green salad or a bowl of gazpacho, then move on to some grilled meats, then end with flan. All restaurants offer a menu del dia (menu of the day) at a fixed price; this is a great way to enjoy three courses at a much lower price that ordering a la carte.

Eating Tapas

Existing on tapas alone is my favorite way to eat in Spain. Madrid and Barcelona have a place serving tapas on what seems like every corner. There are lots of tapas stops in Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada. Some places offer a free tapa with a drink.

Tapas will be cheaper if you eat them standing at the bar. Look for places that are crowded with locals, and muscle your way in. The various tapas usually are displayed on or in the bar; just point to what you want, and it will be served to you. Everything is on the honor system. Some establishments have a tapa menu that you order from. Tapas range from a piece of toasted bread rubbed with garlic to clams steamed in garlic broth. Large plates of thinly sliced jamon (ham) are very popular, as are albondigas (meatballs), stuffed peppers, and shrimp.

When ordering a sit-down tapas meal, you can order in three sized - a porcion (small serving), media racion (medium serving) or a racion (large serving.)

Tapas are usually washed down with wine or beer.

Drinking in Spain

Coffee is served black and strong, like espresso (cafe solo) or with steamed milk (cafe con leche.) Tea is known as T. Bottled water is everywhere with gas (agua con gas) or without (agua sin gas.) Beer is popular all over Spain or you might try a glass of sidra, hard apple cider.

Spanish wine is plentiful and reasonable. Most red wines come from the North. Probably the best known Spanish red wine is Rioja, but look also for Ribera del Duero and Valdepenas (there are white wines from these regions too.)

A trip to Spain would not be complete without sampling some of their fine sherries. Jerez (sherry) ranges from very dry sherry served as an aperitif, to rich, sweet sherry served as a dessert wine. When in the south of Spain, a request for a glass of white wine is often filled with a glass of cold, bone-dry sherry. It is an acquired taste, but once you've acquired it, you'll be hooked.

Cava is Spain's sparkling wine. It is served everywhere, but is most prevalent in Barcelona and Catalonia.

Some Favorite Eating and Drinking Spots


Head to the Cava Baja, about 10 minutes from Plaza Mayor. This street is filled with tapas bars. I love Tempranillo (Cava Baja #38), a wine bar that has a great selection of wines by the glass and some good looking tapas. It gets very crowded, but you can score a table by getting there right when they open at 8:00pm. From there, go to La Taberna de los 100 Vinos (Nuncio #17), very near Cava Baja. They have fantastic, gourmet, sit-down tapas.

Under the Plaza Mayor, there are a bunch of mesons, each serving it's own specialty. There is the meson of the mushroom, the meson of the tortilla, and so on. Most have live music on the weekends. Do some Mayor-Meson hopping on a Friday night and you won't be bored, or leave hungry.

Seville (Sevilla)

My favorite tapas were standing at the bar at Modesto (Cano y Cueto #5) in the Barrio Santa Cruz. Wonderful clams, great marinated peppers. They have a restaurant that is much pricier, but I am sure it is excellent. The Barrio Santa Cruz has scads of romantic, lovely restaurants in courtyards filled with jasmine trees. Even these tourist restaurants seem to be pretty good.


Cordoba is a great town for eating. For tapas, look for a branch of the Sociedad de Plateros (there are several in the city, and in the old quarter one on Calle Deanes and one across from the Hotel Maestre. Cordoba is small - you will find one. These tapas bars have tapas with a bit of creativity. The Cafe Bar Juda Levi has excellent tapas and a lovely outdoor setting. There are numerous restaurants offering well-priced menu del dias. In Cordoba, order fino sherry with your tapas.


Head straight for the Plaza Nueva, where there are a number of restaurants and bars. Keep going down Carrera del Darro, a trendy, charming road along the river. Soon you will come to an area lined with outdoor cafes serving tapas, paella, and sandwiches. You can sip wine and look up at the Alhambra.


Barcelona is heaven for foodies. Make sure to check out the La Boqueria Market, the most incredible market I have ever seen. There are tapas bars everywhere, but you'll spend a bit more here on tapas than in other cities. Montcada Street is lined with Xampanyerie that are always crowded with locals. Barcelona is a city with many ethnic restaurants as well.

99.9% Origins (Vidreria 6 in the El Born district), serves Catalonian historical dishes, in a sit-down tapas style. Make sure to try the Canelons, pasta stuffed with meat and topped with Bechamel sauce. Down the street is the famous Cal Pep (Placa de les Olles #8). Get there early, wait in line, sit at the bar, and eat what Pep gives you.


Enjoy Eating and Drinking in Spain!


egullet.com/?pg=ARTICLE-campsherry: An excellent article on the different types of sherry.

Food Guidebooks

Eating & Drinking in Spain: Spanish Menu Reader and Restaurant Guide, Andy Herbach, Michael Dillon, Open Road, 2002

Order from Amazon

Shannon Essa is a traveler through life who resides in San Diego. She co-wrote the guidebook Chow! Venice about eating and drinking in Venice, Italy. Shannon also leads tours to Venice, Galicia Spain and Piedmont through her company GrapeHops. Read Shannon's blog Poptarticus and see her SlowTrav Member Page.

© Shannon Essa, 2004

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