Dining out is a popular social occasion and a source of great pleasure and it’s common for Spaniards to entertain their friends at a restaurant rather than at home. You will often see whole families dining together, perhaps represented by three or four generations, and including children of all ages (children are welcome in all but the most exclusive restaurants in Spain). However, the restaurant trade has been hard hit by live TV football matches, which are usually screened six nights a week in Spain (the most extensive coverage in Europe).
Spain offers a wealth of eating places from luxury international restaurants (with matching prices) to humble bodegas and cantinas serving homely fare at bargain prices. Traditional eating and drinking places include mesónes in urban areas, ventas in the countryside, and merenderos, chiringuitos and chamboas (specialising in sea-food) at the beach. Paradores and refugios specialise in regional cooking. A marisquería is an up-market fish restaurant, cocederos and freidurías de pescado are basic places to enjoy fresh fried fish, while an asador specialises in roast meat, poultry or fish. It’s also possible to ‘dine out at home’ in many towns, where restaurants and caterers provide gourmet take-away meals complete with simple cooking instructions, or a chef and waitress will cook and serve dinner in your home for a moderate charge.
Anyone who says Spanish food is boring or always swimming in garlic and olive oil hasn’t ventured far off the tourist trail. Spanish cuisine is among the most varied and sophisticated in Europe and is greatly influenced by other Mediterranean countries and Arab cooking. Each region serves its own specialities ( platos típicos) based on local produce, meats and fish, and every province and most large towns boast their own culinary delights, even if it’s just a local sausage or cheese. Spanish cooking largely consists of simple, wholesome fare and is noted for its high-quality fresh ingredients. Spices, particularly hot spices, are used sparingly and the best Spanish cooking is a subtle combination of ingredients and sauces intended to enhance (rather than smother) the flavour.
Generally, the further north you go in Spain, the better the food, with the majority of haute cuisine restaurants situated in the Basque Country, Madrid and Barcelona. Basque cuisine is the finest in Spain, where San Sebastian (heavily influenced by France and vice versa) is the gastronomic capital, with around six Michelin-rated restaurants. San Sebastian is also famous for its all-male gastronomic societies ( sociedades populares/cofradías), where members do the cooking in turn. In addition to the Basque Country, Asturias, Catalonia and Galicia are also noted for the excellence of their cuisine.
Spain isn’t noted for its international cuisine, although there’s an abundance of good foreign restaurants in Spanish cities and resort areas. There’s also a plethora of fast food outlets such as hamburger joints ( hamburgueserías) and British ‘restaurants’ that serve ‘full English breakfasts all day’, although you’re unlikely to find any in rural areas. Foreign restaurants cater mostly to foreigners (with menus in Spanish, English or German), as the Spanish generally prefer to stick to Spanish cuisine. Although Spanish food can sometimes be terrible, particularly in some tourist establishments on the costas, it usually offers better value-for-money (and often better quality) than foreign cuisine. In general, it’s best to follow the locals’ example. In resorts, restaurants that open year round may offer better service and value for money than seasonal and beachside restaurants catering primarily to tourists.
Spain’s most famous dishes include gazpacho (cold tomato, cucumber and onion soup from Andalusia, although the recipe varies depending on the region), paella (a seafood saffron rice dish originally from Valencia), and tortilla española (Spanish omelette from Castile), found on tourist menus throughout Spain. However, there’s much more to Spanish cooking than a few stereotypes and the country boasts many other delicacies, including roast suckling pig ( cochinillo asado) and lamb ( cordero asado); superb casseroles and stews such as cocido madrileño made from salt pork, beef and stewing hen; ‘exotic’ dishes such as bull’s tail ( rabo de toro estofado) cooked in a sauce of onions and tomatoes and mouth-watering game such as partridge braised with ham, tomatoes, wine and anchovies ( perdices al torero). Spain also has a wide variety of desserts ( postres), although in budget establishments dessert may consist of fresh fruit or the Spanish ‘flan’ ( créme caramel or crema catalana) only.
The Arab habit of adding fruit and nuts to meat and fish dishes is common in Spain, as are unusual combinations of meat, fish and fowl. Meat is usually excellent throughout Spain, particularly the pork and chicken (often free-range). When ordering steak you should specify how you want it cooked, i.e. very rare ( vuelta y vuelta, literally ‘turned’), rare ( poco hecho), medium ( hecho) or well done ( muy hecho). Vegetarians are endangered species in Spain, where there are few vegetarian restaurants (usually run by foreigners) outside the major cities. However there’s something vegetarian on most menus and many foreign restaurants serve vegetarian dishes. Note that many soups and vegetable dishes in Spain contain bacon, ham or sausage and food is often cooked in pork fat. Your safest bet is salad and eggs, although if you eat fish you will have an abundance of dishes to choose from.
Spain is noted for the quality and variety of its fish ( pescados) and shellfish ( mariscos), and fish lovers will think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Seafood is excellent throughout Spain, even in Madrid and other inland cities, although it’s best in the north (particularly Galicia) and the south-west region of Andalusia. However, fish and seafood is rarely cheap and in up-market restaurants can be expensive (fish is usually priced per 100g). In coastal areas, there are numerous seafood restaurants ( marisquerías) exclusively serving fish and other seafood, and unpretentious open-air, beach restaurants such as merenderos or chiringuitos serving inexpensive fried fish and chips (although some are sophisticated and expensive). Good fish restaurants often keep a variety of live fish and shellfish in tanks from which you can choose your meal.
The most common seafood dish is paella, usually eaten by Spaniards only at lunchtime, and best (and most authentic) in Valencia where it originated. The quality and variety of seafood is unrivalled and includes sea bream, grouper, trout, tuna, salmon, swordfish, turbot, angler fish, sea bass, hake, eels, cod, squid, king crabs, spider crabs, jumbo shrimp, scallops, mussels, lobster, cockles, oysters, prawns, crayfish, octopus, cuttlefish, clams and the most prized of all shellfish, percebes (goose barnacles).
Menus ( el menú or la carta) are usually written in two or three languages in resorts and some cities, e.g. Spanish plus English and/or German, although in Barcelona they may be written only in Catalan, particularly in high-class establishments. All restaurants must offer a menu of the day or house menu ( menú del día, cubierto or menú de la casa) at lunchtime at 80 per cent of the price each course would cost separately. The house menu is usually written on a blackboard outside restaurants and may not be listed on the menu inside. It usually consists of three courses (e.g. starter, main course with vegetables and a sweet) and may include a glass or small carafe of house wine and bread, although these are usually charged extra.
Many restaurants serve a selection of tapas before the first course as part of a set menu. Note that prices, quality and the choice of dishes on a set menu vary enormously. In resort areas and major cities, many establishments offer tourist menus ( menú turístico), with a choice of set meals, including a quarter to half a litre of wine or a beer, service and other charges. Many restaurants, particularly those catering to foreign residents and tourists in resort areas, provide special menus at Christmas and New Year.
Wine ( vino) is inexpensive in Spanish restaurants by northern European standards. However, the price increases rapidly as you go up market, although a good bottle can be purchased in most quality restaurants (the mark up on wines in Spain is usually around 100 per cent of the supermarket price and can be as low as 50 per cent).
Be wary of ordering a bottle of wine in a tourist area unless you’ve checked the price on the wine list, as rip-offs on wine (and food) are common in some places. Wine is sometimes included in set menus, when two people may receive a bottle between them and one person a half bottle ( media botella) or a quarter to half a litre. Most house whites and rosés are drinkable and may be produced locally. However, the quality of house red wine varies considerably from good to terrible.
Buying wine by the glass instead of a bottle can be quite expensive, especially considering it’s usually cheap ‘plonk’. If you drink more than a few glasses you’re better of ordering a bottle. In an inexpensive rural establishment, there may be no choice of wine and you’re served whatever comes out of the barrel. If you just order vino it’s understood to mean red wine, which is often served chilled and drunk with everything from red meat to fish. Spaniards don’t drink a lot of alcohol with their meals and many prefer mineral water ( agua mineral) or lemonade. If you want tap water ask for agua del grifo or agua corriente.
Ratings & Prices
Spanish restaurants are officially rated by their number of forks, from one to five, with five denoting the top grade, although they aren’t necessarily a sign of quality cooking, but facilities, décor, length of menu and price. The best value is often found in inexpensive, unpretentious restaurants, particularly the ‘dining rooms’ ( comedores) of bars, pensiones and fondas, many of which may serve food only at lunchtime.
There are also budget cafeterías (often self-service) in major cities and resort areas graded with one to three cups depending on their facilities. The emphasis is usually on bland ‘international’ fare, although many serve traditional Spanish dishes and they provide unbeatable value for money. Cafeterías also offer set meals called platos combinados (literally ‘combination plates’), which are also available in many bars and inexpensive restaurants, consisting of one-course meals such as egg and chips, steak and/or fish with chips, and squid ( calamares) and salad. There are many excellent pizza places in resort areas (e.g. Telepizza), where scrumptious ‘real’ pizzas are made in proper wood-burning ovens.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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