I am a firm believer that gastronomy is a large part of any culture. Spain has a huge food culture and eating your way through the country is a delightful experience.
Eating out in Spain is a social event that is meant to be savoured and enjoyed, not rushed. So go with the flow—sit back, take your time and relax while enjoying the fantastic cuisine.
Yet, eating in Spain can be a challenge because of their eating times. It seems that when I am dizzy from hunger and close to passing out, the locals are still hours away from the next meal.
Here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of eating your way around Spain.
How to eat like a local
First, you must learn when you can eat.
You can’t just walk into a restaurant any time of the day and expect a meal. Meals are served at their set times, not before and not after.
Breakfast in Spain
Don’t start looking for a breakfast spot until after 9:00 a.m. You won’t find the local bakery welcoming you with a smile at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. Bakers don’t even show up to start their daily baking until then, and they sure don’t open the bakery to the public before 9:00.
While on the topic of breakfast, you will soon realize that breakfast is not a large hearty meal.
Most Spaniards skip breakfast all-together, or just grab a quick cup of coffee. Many bars (yes, you can eat at a bar for breakfast, lunch, dinner and tapas and of course get drinks from early in the morning the wee hours) will offer coffee and a few basic staples: donuts (not fresh made, but packaged hard ones) croissants, toast with either butter and jam or with the famous tomato “tomaca”. Some places will also offer a tortilla de patata—not to be mistaken for a Mexican style tortilla, the Spanish tortilla is better described as a thick omelette.
As I am still very much a breakfast person, I have searched out a few places in Madrid where you can actually get a breakfast that is more than a coffee. If you happen to be in Madrid and want a breakfast to keep you going for the morning check out my article: Where to get an exceptional breakfast in Madrid.
Mid-morning snack in Spain:
As I mentioned, breakfast is either non-existent or just a coffee. To tide them over to lunch most Spaniards grab a snack around 11:00 a.m.
If you ever go into an office building in the morning you will see that at around 11:00 there is a grand exodus of people heading away from their desks to eat their morning snack, have a smoke on the street and take another coffee.
The snack consists of toast with tomato (tostada con tomate), the Spanish tortilla (tortilla de patata) or a sandwich (bocadillo).
If you aren't into coffee, you can always skip right to the beer and tapas which is a perfectly acceptable option at this hour.
Lunch in Spain
After having a sandwich at 11:00 a.m., understandably no one is hungry until 2:00 p.m. which is when lunch is normally served in restaurants. Lunch is a long, drawn-out affair which lasts two hours during the weekday and much longer on weekends. Office workers get two hours off for lunch (they, of course, have to work much later into the day—but the working hours of Spain is a whole different topic that I will get into at another time)
Restaurants are packed from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Service isn’t expected to be quick and no one minds that it takes two hours to get through a meal. No self-respecting Spaniard would ever dream of eating a sandwich at his or her desk or even packing a lunch to take to work. Lunch is a sit-down hot dinner made up of at least two courses served with wine and dessert.
A trick I have learned is to get to the restaurant just as it is opening for lunch around 1:30, you will beat the rush and get served at a much quicker rate, plus the food will be fresher.
Restaurants and bars are technically open (as in you can go into them—although you can't always order food) from lunchtime through until dinner. But they will not serve hot food between lunch and dinner.
You have to follow the rules set by the culture.
You can go into a bar or restaurant at 5 p.m. (it will be empty by the way) and order a beer or even a coffee. If you order a beer most places—which the exception of extremely touristy areas and Cataluna—will give you something to nibble on such as a handful of potato chips or nuts or a few olives.
After 8:00 p.m. you can order tapas with your beer.
The beautiful thing about Spain is that in many bars when you order a beer or wine the tapa is included in the price, usually around 1.50—2.50 Euros. These tapas might be a small brocheta, a piece of tortilla (tortilla is served morning, noon and night) or a piece of bread with either cheese or chorizo or anchovies on top.
Tapas are small bites to tide you over until dinner. Although you can easily turn tapas into dinner.
In the North, the tapas become much more elaborate and really are a meal all on their own.
You can also do the shuffle—which is to have a beer and tapa in one bar and then head to the next for another beer and tapa and so on. Each bar has their own signature tapa so the shuffle becomes an adventurous taste testing experience.
Dinner in Spain:
If you really need dinner after you’ve had a huge lunch and an afternoon of tapas, you head again to a restaurant.
The restaurants open at 9:00 p.m. at the earliest. In some touristy areas on the coast, restaurants will serve dinner starting at 7 p.m., but anyone who enters at that time is showing that they know nothing about Spanish customs (or don’t care).
Really, why go for dinner at 7:00 p.m. when you could go and have a beer or two and THEN go to dinner?
In Andalucia, restaurants don’t open until 10:00 p.m. and don’t start filling up until after 11:00 p.m.
Dinner is another slow, calm process. Normally, you are going out with friends, so the conversation and laughter is as much as the experience as the food.
When I first arrived to Spain I had a difficult time adjusting to the eating times. I learned a couple of tricks that helped me survive. First, I carried snacks around with me in case I got hungry when it was still 4 hours away from the next meal. On vacation, I just bite the bullet and do my best to stick close to the Spanish schedule. I discovered that if I eat a large lunch—usually a bit earlier than the Spaniards, then have a coffee with a snack, I can make do with just a tapa or two in the early evening and skip dinner all together.
Do you have an eating experience in Spain? Either leave a comment or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org