A guide to ordering (and eating) tapas like a local in Spain
In Spain, the foodie vibe is eclectic and relaxed. Even fine dining here is focused on simple dishes, like oily, spicy chunks of chorizo and blistered peppers doused with sea salt. Sharing food with friends and family is an integral part of the culture.
So, want to try the local munch? You need only hang out in a bar or cafe and in some parts of Spain, the tapas comes FREE! That’s not to say there isn’t an art to ordering and trying the amazing variety of tasty and traditional dishes. But not to worry – here, we ask actor and Madrid local Joe Manjon for his advice on how to order tapas and embrace the Spanish foodie culture like a local…
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Why is food such a big deal to the Spanish?
“Since living in Madrid, I’ve learned that food in Spain is central to both family and social life. Whether it’s out with your friends or having a traditional dinner with family, the ritual of eating is really important to the Spanish,” says Joe.
One of the most popular ways to eat is to order lots of small plates or ‘tapas’ for everyone to taste and try. “When ordering tapas, there’s no real ‘etiquette’ – it depends on where you are in Spain. But sharing is paramount!”
So, what are tapas?
Good question. “In Madrid and most places in Andalucía and Castilla, you’ll get some sort of ‘tapa’ when you order a drink,” says Joe. “This can range from just a bowl of crisps to a mini ‘ración de jamón serrano’, maybe some olives or potatoes, like an ‘ensaladilla rusa’.” The size can vary, and there are no rules for their shape or food type either – sometimes you can share them and other times they come as little bites.
What’s the art of ordering (and eating) tapas?
“My advice is if you don’t know the place, order a drink, see what kind of tapas you get and then maybe just order more drinks or separate tapas depending on what you like the taste of,” says Joe.
If there’s a list or a tapas menu, you can always order from there. Or, if you see the tapas being served at the bar, you can basically just point at the ones you want to eat. Always play it safe and talk to a waiter before just taking food from the bar like a buffet – this could annoy the hell out of the staff and diners!
When it comes to paying, the waiter will usually keep track of what you’ve eaten and will tell you how much you owe. Or, if you’re in a bar and the tapas have come with your drink, this is the sign that they’re complimentary.
Okay, so what’s the difference between tapas and pintxos?
“You always have to order and pay for pintxos. They’re the munch on sticks usually, or little pieces of toast. The Spanish pintxos culture is more in the north of Spain or Basque Country. Tapas are something small that in theory comes free – but it’s also the name given to the idea of sharing, ordering different plates (or ‘raciones’) and all tucking in together.”
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And what do I do with the pintxos sticks after?
“Again it depends on the bar – some places happily let you throw sticks on the floor or leave them on the plate to be counted up. Try and see what everyone else is doing before you start littering in random restaurants!”
When’s the best time for tapas?
You’ll find free tapa served any time of day, but if you want a specific lunch or dinner ‘de tapas’ remember that the Spanish tend to eat late. Lunch usually kicks off after 2pm-3.30pm while dinner usually starts around 8.30pm and can go on until midnight! This means that planning a night out can be super late – we recommend a long lie-in or schedule in an afternoon siesta.
Which are the best tapas dishes to try?
“My favourite tapas include fried chorizo, ‘pimientos del padrón’ (small, green peppers fried with salt and oil) and ‘pescaito frito’ – literally ‘little fried fishes’ in Andalucía.” On top of these, some of the most delicious tapas include:
- Tortilla española – a Spanish omelette made with potatoes, onions, and eggs. It’s one of the most iconic dishes in Spain.
- Croquetas – crispy little fritters filled with a thick bechamel sauce and another tasty ingredient like ham, cheese or seafood.
- Patatas bravas – this little side plate shouldn’t be underestimated, the mix of fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce goes with EVERYTHING.
- Pulpo á feira – a traditional Galician dish made by cooking octopus, potatoes, and sweet paprika in a big cauldron. Pure bliss.
- Gambas pil pil – very popular in southern Spain, these are sizzling prawns cooked in hot oil, garlic and chilli.
If you’re ever worried about ordering too much or too little, don’t be scared of asking your waiter for their advice.
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What should I drink alongside tapas?
Whatever you want! Although locals tend to opt for lighter drinks with their sharing plates. In pintxo bars in Barcelona for example, you could choose a cold cider, beer or white wine. Feeling fancy? Try sipping on cava (the Spanish equivalent of Champagne). Keep it light so you can keep refreshing your palate between dishes.
Where can I find the best tapas?
When it comes to tapas or pintxos, you can pretty much eat your way across all regions of Spain. Here, we’ve picked out some of the best places in the tapas foodie capitals…
1. El Tigre
“El Tigre is a classic place in Madrid. Though it is hugely popular, you can expect hearty patatas bravas, ‘jamón serrano’ and Spanish omelette served alongside your beer,” says Joe.
2. Mercado de San Miguel
If you love variety, head to Mercado de San Miguel. In the heart of Madrid, this is where food lovers come to try everything from delicious Iberian ham and fresh shellfish to local beers, and cheeses.
3. Entre Cáceres y Badajoz
Here, you can simply order a beer, enjoy a selection of high-quality tapas – from steak to padron peppers – and watch the world go by.
Image source:Alex Vasey / Unsplash
1. La Cova Fumada
This is the best place to try a ‘bomba’ – similar to a croqueta, they’re deep-fried, meat-filled potato balls. This is a no frills, typically local spot.
2. Morro Fi
In this garage-turned bar, you can sip local vermouth and munch on salty snacks like anchovy-stuffed olives and thick-cut chips.
2. Bodega La Puntual
Authentic food, plenty of history and amazing wine – what more could you want. Check out the oyster bar by the entrance if that’s your thing.
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Feeling really hungry? “Granada is especially well-known for serving HUGE tapas,” says Joe. “In one bar, I ordered a beer and they gave me a burger, and the whole thing cost me about €3. Madness.” For the best tapas in this southern region, try Bodegas Castañeda to try the variety of jamons, Casa Julio for amazing fish and prawns or Los Manueles for more upmarket dishes.
Image source:Sergio R de Juan / Unsplash
So you see, there isn’t really an art to ordering and tapas. Just relax and try as many bites as your wallet and stomach can handle. And remember, Spanish food is always best shared with friends or family…
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