As an introvert, I do have to say that the restaurant culture in Spain is amazing. Others would disagree. It’s really a personal preference more than anything else. But, whether you like it or not, eating out in a Spanish restaurant will absolutely give you good idea of the Spanish lifestyle.
What kind of person eats lunch at noon?
Ah, yes. The most shocking of the culture shock Americans will face when going to Spain, especially if you aren’t already aware. Spaniards live on a very...delayed eating schedule. The Spanish don’t eat lunch at noon, but wait until about 3:00. But hey, even if they start late, they know how to eat, spending a couple hours doing it. This time frame guides the Spanish siesta, as well, so when all the stores are closed and the streets empty from 3-5 PM on a weekday (if they even come back to work at 5, which is honestly a toss-up), they’re all out eating with their families.
And of course nobody’s going to want to eat dinner around 5-7 if they just ate lunch! The Spanish dinner doesn’t start until 9 or 10:00. And then after they eat dinner, they go out for the night until the-sun-is-up-o’clock. Yeah, the Spanish are not known to be early risers.
Oh yeah, and between those hours? You can expect a lot of restaurants to close. When you get closer to the center of more international cities like Madrid, they tend to be open all the time, but as you get to more local areas, they’re closed. Why would they open? Literally nobody is eating!
This bit’s a favorite, too. At a restaurant, Americans have to either a.) do mental Olympics to figure out exactly how much they owe after a meal including the food, tax, and tip; or b.) just hand over some money and hope for the best. In Spain, however, it’s all taken care of already! And it’s wonderful! Taxes are included in the price of the food itself, and there’s no tipping in Spain! Phew!
Now, I think that’s such an amazing thing that I don’t even care that Spanish restaurants generally won’t split bills. While credit cards are acceptable, most Spaniards won’t use them, so the idea of everybody just putting what they owe in a pile of money just kind of makes more sense for them, you know? Always have cash on you!
Also, another thing to note: if you’re going out to eat with a large group, maybe like 10 people, you can expect a 10% group surcharge. Just make sure you’re aware!
Please drink water, it’s so good for you! However, while at a Spanish restaurant, be very clear about what you’re asking for. Now, if you just like water bottles, you’ll be fine and you can pretty much just ignore this part (except to know how to ask for it in Spanish: botella de agua). Now, if you’re like me, water is water is water, so tap water works just dandy. Be warned that you will have to ask for it specifically. And if you ask for it specifically but you still got a bottle of water, speak up.
Now, if you get a bottle of water, you will get charged for it. And if you ask for a glass of water (vaso de agua), and you get a bottle of water, you will get charged for it. It’s only a couple euro, but still. That’s actually kind of expensive in Spain. In some places, you’ll have to be very adamant about the request for a glass of water. They want to charge you, and even if you don’t open it, they can charge you.
Also be aware of where you are. In some cities, they don’t drink the tap water, so they won’t serve it to you. Always find out if the tap water in the city you’re going to is good. I mean, just as a general rule, of course; you don’t want to drink from the tap and get horrifically sick for a reason that could’ve easily been avoided. In a restaurant, believe them if they say they won’t serve tap water. They’re not going to lie to you about that.
Bread and olives and peanuts, oh my!
We all love free things, right? I know I sure do. Just make sure that the things your camarero puts in front of you is in fact free if you’ve never ordered it. Just ask, and they’ll let you know. If it’s anything like bread or olives or peanuts, just ask the question, no big deal.
Especially with the bread. Spain has some really great bread, and it’s sometimes honestly worth the extra charge. Be careful, though, because not all breads are created equal. You may very well get some dry, cracked, gross ol’ bread and be asked to pay a couple euros for it if you don’t ask them to take it away. Yeah, even if you don’t eat it, they’ll still charge you for it if you leave it on the table. Don’t do that!
Menú del día
This one will be your favorite. The menu of the day! This is the little menu that restaurants will have combining an appetizer, a main meal, and either coffee or dessert for one price. It’s a good way to sample the restaurant, have a complete meal, and not pay so much! It’s great!
A menú del día will not be available at night, and look to see if it involves bread, because it probably does. If it does, don’t worry about my last point. Seriously, just enjoy this little cultural quirk.
Raciones and tapas
We all know what tapas are. They’re a pretty generic representation of the Spanish culture. They’re also available at some incredibly overpriced restaurants back in the states! In Spain, a tapa won’t cost more than a couple euros - in some places, like Granada and certain restaurants, they’re free with your drink purchase. They’re tiny itty bitty samples of meals, good for a little noncommittal pickmeup.
Raciones are not tapas. They’re bigger, for one. Raciones are also not meant for just you, but to share with a group of people. You get a couple raciones with your friends and you all dig in. This concept mixed with paying by pooling all your cash gives you a pretty decent idea as to how the Spanish culture works as a whole, yeah? It’s social. Everybody shares everything. It’s honestly a great way to live.
Learn to sit and just be
One of the most important things to realize about Spanish culture is how they live - they’re not in a hurry, they don’t rush from place to place. When they go from place to place, they do so slowly. They relax and take in life. We Americans...kind of do that at restaurants. A little bit. Okay, compared to the Spanish, we absolutely do not.
Remember before how I was talking about 2 hour lunch/siestas? That happens because eating is not just meant to put calories into your body in Spain, it’s a social hour. Spaniards will just sit at a restaurant for hours on end, people-watching and enjoying each other’s company.
As long as you buy something, nobody cares how long you loiter at a restaurant. You don’t even have to keep buying things; just order a beer, sit down, and chillax. Nobody will bother you. Nobody will try to egg you on to get you to go like they will in American restaurants. You’ll have to flag someone down to let you pay, that’s how relaxed the restaurant culture is! Enjoy it!
This is another thing that Spain is pretty well-known for, which means it’s easy to find when you’re at a Spanish restaurant or grocery store. As with all things, there is good wine and there’s bad wine. One difference, though, is that you can expect to get a decent wine for only a few euro. The wine quality is upped a little bit over where they actually make it and don’t have to pay fees to have it imported.
When it comes down to actually ordering it, most people are content with vino tinto or vino blanco (red wine and white wine, respectively). I’m not much of a wine drinker myself, but I’m told that it’s usually pretty good. This makes it pretty easy to order wine while in Spain.
Experience the terrace
I know, we all want the Instagram-worthy feeling of eating lunch on a Spanish terrace on a beautiful summer day, right? I mean hey, go for it! The terrace and the weather mixed with the fact that nobody’s going to bother you is really a wonderful, relaxing experience.
While it’s usually only a couple euro, be warned that Spanish restaurants will charge you extra to eat there. It’s a pretty good business practice - you know that people want to eat there, especially tourists, so why not make a little more money off of it? It’s not a bad idea, and it’s a pretty fair deal. Don’t get scared off from a great experience just because it might cost you a couple euro!
Which do you prefer? Spanish restaurant culture or your own?