Earlier I wrote briefly about Spanish culture, and touched on eating; TLDR, the Spanish restaurants are a big different than their American counterparts. But what I didn’t mention was how wildly different the Spanish restaurant culture is.
Opening hours in a Spanish restaurant
As I mentioned before, Spaniards eat lunch from 3-5 and dinner at 9 or 10. This, of course, affects Spanish restaurant hours. In Madrid Centro, or the center of the city, restaurants are generally always open as they serve a more international populous: Erasmus students, those teaching abroad like myself, and tourists. However, step a bit too far outside the city and you won’t be able to eat outside the culture’s time frame. Fortunately, there is a grey area of restaurants that will just look at you weird if you specify that you’re there to eat at 6 in the evening. For the most part, though, expect to not be able to order anything more than a café con leche or cerveza (beer) unless you’re there at the right time.
In a Spanish restaurant, you’ll generally pay for everything with cash. Restaurants usually won’t split the bill for you, so don’t even try. It’s not a thing here. When going out to eat with friends, I’ve found that even splitting the bill with cash helps maintain the social world that the Spanish culture is all about. This cultural quirk means solo dining in Spain is not the most popular, and pooling your money together with all your friends is. Though my American friends and I are slow because we don’t know the money as well as we could, it would still take a Spaniard a moment to add and subtract change until they have just enough to pay the bill!
Tipping and taxes
Nope, there’s no tipping in a Spanish restaurant! When you look at a menu and read the advertised prices, that price is exactly what you’ll pay. Taxes? Already accounted for! When you get la cuenta (the bill) at the end of the night, you usually won’t find yourself with any surprise charges. Some restaurants, especially if you’re eating with a large group, will charge a 10% service fee. Other than that, however, you get exactly what you order!
On ordering water
This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. When I go out to eat, I’ll usually order water (no matter what the country): it’s free, it’s healthy, and I like it! But be careful in a Spanish restaurant! Unless you specify vaso de agua (glass of water) or agua de grifo (tap water), an order of agua (water) will get you a botella de agua (bottle of water) and a 2 euro charge on your cuenta. Always be aware! Even if you order a vaso de agua, and your camarero (server) repeats vaso de agua, but then brings you a botella de agua, you’ll get charged! Also, be aware of the quality of water in the city you’re in: while Madrid has good, drinkable water, Barcelona will not serve you tap water.
Tapas and raciones
Spanish food is delicious. Patatas bravas, croquetas, jamón… it’s all great. However, the culture of the Spanish restaurant biz is the one thing that always reminds me that I’m not in my own culture. While restaurants in the US will serve you a single plate, with maybe a salad, bread, or an appetizer, the culture of the Spanish restaurant is a tad different. Get used to raciones! Because Spain is such a social culture, many restaurants are geared towards social time and sharing; in other words, order a couple dishes and share with everyone.
Another mistake I made: raciones are not to be confused with tapas! They’re similar concepts, but the main difference is that while raciones are meant to be a true meal, tapas are the free teasers of food you’ll receive with a sangria or cerveza. Raciones are a meal in itself; tapas will suffice two or three bites to complement your drink.
Menú del día
Besides raciones and tapas, there’s one more type of meal in a Spanish restauruant. The Menú del Día, or Menu of the Day, offers you a lot of bang for your buck. You get to choose from four or five options of appetizer, meal, and postre(dessert) or coffee. You will also get a bottle of water or glass of wine with your meal. The Menú del Día has its own quirks as well – you can only order it during the day. At night, expect to pay full price for everything on that menu!
The Spanish love their pan (bread), and for good reason! Spanish bread is really something else. American bread is, at least for me, just something you eat with a sandwich or because it comes free at the restaurant. Spanish bread, however, is delicious. It’s an absolute work of art. You will eat a lot of pan, and you will absolutely love it. Don’t like eating all the carbs? Don’t worry, Europe is generally a walking culture, so you’ll work it all off anyway!
Why don’t you stay a while?
The slow, relaxing culture of Spain mixed with the luxury of not having to tip means a much more relaxing restaurant culture than you will ever find outside of Europe. While American restaurants will put your bill on your table sometimes just after receiving your meal, a Spanish restaurant will let you sit. And sit. And sit. And sit. Need la cuenta? Better flag down your camarero, because he won’t notice you otherwise!
Don’t forget to read part 2!