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Spanish cuisine has come a long way in recent years, and Spanish chefs are currently at the forefront of contemporary European cooking. You know a power-shift has taken place when Restaurant magazine’s annual “World 50 Best Restaurants” list regularly cites three or four Spanish eateries in the top ten, and when there are more gourmet places in the Basque Country worth making a special trip for than in Paris. There’s some fantastic food to be had in every region, and not just the fancy new-wave stuff either – the tapas, gazpacho, tortilla and paella that you may know from home are simply in a different league when made with the correct ingredients in their natural surroundings.

Of course, not every restaurant is a gourmet experience and not every dish is a classic of its kind. Tourist resorts – after all, where many people go – can be disappointing, especially those aimed at a foreign clientele, and a week on one of the costas can just as easily convince you that the Spanish national diet is egg and chips, sangría, pizza and Guinness. However, you’ll always find a good restaurant where the locals eat, and few places in Europe are still as good value, especially if you have the menú del día, the bargain fixed-price lunch that’s a fixture across the country.

Breakfast, snacks and sandwiches

The traditional Spanish breakfast (desayuno) is chocolate con churros – long, extruded tubular doughnuts served with thick drinking chocolate or coffee. Some places specialize in these but most bars and cafés also serve cakes and pastries (bollos or pasteles), croissants and toast (tostadas), or crusty sandwiches (bocadillos) with a choice of fillings (try one with omelette, tortilla). A “sandwich”, incidentally, is usually a less-appetizing ham or cheese sandwich in white processed bread. Other good places for snacks are cake shops (pastelerías or confiterías) or the local bakery (panadería), where they might also have savoury pasties and turnovers.

Bars, tapas and raciones

One of Spain’s glories is the phenomenon of tapas – the little portions of food that traditionally used to be served up free with a drink in a bar. (The origins are disputed but the word is from tapar, “to cover”, suggesting a cover for drinks’ glasses, perhaps to keep the flies off in the baking sun.) Tapas can be anything – a handful of olives, a slice or two of cured ham, a little dish of meatballs or chorizo, spicy fried potatoes or battered squid. They will often be laid out on the counter, so you can see what’s available, or there might be a blackboard menu. Most bars have a speciality; indeed, Spaniards will commonly move from bar to bar, having just the one dish that they consider each bar does well. Conversely, if you’re in a bar with just some pre-fried potatoes and day-old Russian salad on display, and a prominent microwave, go somewhere else to eat.

Aside from a few olives or crisps sometimes handed out with a drink, you pay for tapas these days (the cities of Granada and León are honourable exceptions), usually around €1.50–4 a portion. Raciones (around €6–12) are simply bigger plates of tapas, perfect for sharing or enough for a meal – you’re sometimes asked if you want a tapa or a ración of whatever it is you’ve chosen.

There are big regional variations in tapas. They are often called pinchos (or pintxos) in northern Spain, especially in the Basque provinces, where typically tapas come served on a slice of baguette, held together with a cocktail stick. When you’ve finished eating, the sticks are counted up to arrive at your bill. This kind of tapas can be as simple as a cheese cube on bread or a far more elaborately sculpted concoction; they are also known as montaditos (basically, canapés). Famously good places across Spain for tapas-tasting include Madrid, León, Logroño, San Sebastián, Granada, Seville and Cádiz.

Most cafés and bars have some kind of tapas available, while you’ll also find a decent display in tascas, bodegas and tabernas (kinds of taverns) and cervecerías (beer-houses). It’s always cheapest to stand at the bar to eat; you’ll pay more to sit at tables and more again to sit outside on a terrace.

Restaurants

The simplest kind of restaurant is the comedor (dining room), often a room at the back of a bar or the dining room of a hostal or pensión. Traditionally, they are family-run places aimed at lunching workers, usually offering a straightforward set meal at budget prices. The highway equivalent are known as ventas or mesones (inns), dotted along the main roads between towns and cities. These have been serving Spanish wayfarers for centuries – some of them quite literally – and the best places are immediately picked out by the line of cars and trucks outside. Proper restaurants, restaurantes, come in a myriad of guises, from rustic village restaurants to stylish Michelin-starred eateries; asadores specialize in grilled meats, marisquerías in fish and seafood.

Almost every restaurant serves a weekday, fixed-price lunchtime meal, the menú del día, generally three courses including wine for €8–15, occasionally even cheaper, depending on where you are in Spain. This is obviously a terrific deal; the menú del día is only sporadically available at night, and sometimes prices are slightly higher (and the menu slightly fancier) at weekends. The very cheapest places are unlikely to have a written menu, and the waiter will tell you what the day’s dishes are. In smarter restaurants in bigger cities and resorts, there will still be a menú del día, though it might be a shadow of the usual à la carte menu, and drinks may be excluded. Even so, it’s a way of eating at a restaurant that might normally cost you three or four times as much. Top city restaurants often also feature an upmarket menú called a menú de degustación (tasting menu), which again can be excellent value, allowing you to try out some of the country’s finest cooking for anything from €50 to €100 a head.

Otherwise, in bars and so-called cafeterías, meals often come in the form of a plato combinado – literally a combined dish – which will be a one-plate meal of something like steak, egg and chips, or calamares and salad, often with bread and a drink included. This will generally cost in the region of €5–9.

If you want a menu in a restaurant, ask for la carta; menú refers only to the fixed-price meal. In all but the most rock-bottom establishments it is customary to leave a small tip, though five percent of the bill is considered sufficient and service is normally included in a menú del día. IVA, the eight-percent tax, is also charged, but it should say on the menu if this is included in the price or not.

Spaniards generally eat very late, with lunch served from around 1pm (you’ll be the first person there at this time) until 4pm, and dinner from 8.30pm or 9pm to midnight. Obviously, rural areas are slightly earlier to dine, but making a dinner reservation for 10.30pm or even later is considered perfectly normal in many cities in Spain. Most restaurants close one day a week, usually Sunday or Monday.

Vegetarians

Vegetarians generally have a fairly hard time of it in Spain, though there’s an increasing number of veggie restaurants in the bigger cities (including some really good ones in Madrid and Barcelona). In more rural areas, there’s usually something to eat, but you may get weary of fried eggs and omelettes. However, many tapas favourites, especially in the south, are veggie (like fried aubergine, or spinach-and-chickpeas in Seville), while superb fresh fruit and veg, and excellent cheese, is always available in the markets and shops.

In restaurants, you’re faced with the extra problem that pieces of meat – especially ham, which the Spanish don’t regard as real meat – and tuna are often added to vegetable dishes and salads. You’ll also find chunks of chorizo and sausage turning up in otherwise veg-friendly soups or bean stews. The phrases to get to know are Soy vegetariano/a. Como sólo verduras. Hay algo sin carne? (“I’m a vegetarian. I only eat vegetables. Is there anything without meat?”); you may have to add y sin marisco (“and without seafood”) and y sin jamón (“and without ham”) to be really safe.

Some salads and vegetable dishes are strictly vegan, but they’re few and far between. Fruit and nuts are widely available, nuts being sold by street vendors everywhere.

Coffee, tea and soft drinks

Café (coffee) is invariably an espresso (café solo); for a large cup of weaker, black coffee, ask for an americano. A café cortado is a café solo with a drop of milk; a café con leche is made with lots of hot milk. Coffee is also frequently mixed with brandy, cognac or whisky, all such concoctions being called carajillo. Iced coffee is café con hielo. Chocolate (hot chocolate) is a popular breakfast drink, or for after a long night on the town, but it’s usually incredibly thick and sweet. For a thinner, cocoa-style drink, ask for a brand name, like Cola Cao.

Spaniards usually drink (tea) black, so if you want milk it’s safest to ask for it afterwards, since ordering té con leche might well get you a glass of warm milk with a tea bag floating on top. Herbal teas (infusions) are widely available, like manzanilla (camomile), poleo (mint tea) and hierba luisa (lemon verbena).

Local soft drinks include granizado (crushed-ice) or horchata (a milky drink made from tiger nuts or almonds), available from summer street stalls, and from milk bars (horchaterías, also known as granjas in Catalunya) and ice-cream parlours (heladerías). Although you can drink the water almost everywhere, it tastes revolting in some cities and coastal areas – inexpensive agua mineral comes either sparkling (con gas) or still (sin gas).

Wine

One of the great pleasures of eating out in Spain is the chance to sample some of the country’s excellent wines. Over fifty percent of the European Union’s vineyards lie in Spain and vino is the invariable accompaniment to every meal. At lunchtime, a glass or small pitcher of the house wine – often served straight from the barrel – is usually included in the menú del día; otherwise, restaurant wine starts at around €5–10 a bottle, although the sky’s the limit for the really good stuff. And there’s plenty of that, since in recent years Spanish wine has enjoyed an amazing renaissance, led largely by the international success of famous wine-producing regions like La Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Other regions – not perhaps so well-known abroad – are also well worth investigating, like Galicia or the Priorat in Catalunya, and every wine-producing area is set up for bodega (winery) visits, tastings and tours. In Andalucía, meanwhile, the classic wine is sherryvino de jerez – while champagne in Spain means the Catalan sparkling wine, cava.

The festival and tourist drink is, famously, sangría, a wine-and-fruit punch that’s often deceptively strong; a variation in Catalunya is sangría de cava. Tinto de verano is a similar red-wine-and-soda or -lemonade combination; variations on this include tinto de verano con naranja (red wine with orangeade) or con limón (lemonade).

Beer

Beer (cerveza) is nearly always lager, though some Spanish breweries also now make stout-style brews, wheat beers and other types. It comes in 300ml 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. Mahou, Cruz Campo, San Miguel, Damm, Estrella de Galicia and Alhambra are all decent beers. A shandy is a clara, either with fizzy lemon (con limón) or lemonade (con casera or con blanca).

Spirits and shots

In mid-afternoon – or, let’s face it, even at breakfast – Spaniards take a copa of liqueur with their coffee, such as anís (similar to Pernod) or coñac, the local brandy, which has a distinct vanilla flavour. Most brandies are produced by the great sherry houses in Jerez (like Lepanto, Carlos I and Cardinal Mendoza), but two good ones that aren’t are the Armagnac-like Mascaró and Torres, both from Catalunya. Instead of brandy, at the end of a meal many places serve chupitos – little shot glasses of flavoured schnapps or local fire-water, such as Patxarán in Navarra and the Basque Country, Ratafía in Catalunya or Orujo in Galicia. One much-loved Galego custom is the queimada, when a large bowl of aguardiente (a herb-flavoured fiery liqueur) with fruit, sugar and coffee-grains is set alight and then drunk hot.

You should order spirits by brand name, since there are generally less expensive Spanish equivalents for standard imports, or simply specify nacional. Larios gin from Málaga, for instance, is about half the price of Gordon’s. Measures are staggeringly generous – bar staff generally pour from the bottle until you suggest they stop. Long drinks include the universal Gin-Tónic and the Cuba Libre (rum and Coke), and there are often Spanish Caribbean rums (ron) such as Cacique from Venezuela or Havana Club from Cuba.

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