Dining in Spain is connected with the overall pace of daily life. Breakfast is coffee, fruit juice, and a light pastry or a bocadillo (sandwich) of cured ham on a small baguette. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and it is served between 2 and 4 pm. After lunch, most shops and restaurants close for the siesta (afternoon rest). Restaurants reopen at about 7:30 or so. Around 6 pm, people begin to come out for the pasejo (stroll), where they walk the streets and socialize. An early dinner would be around 8, with the restaurants filling up again after 9. After dinner people linger in bars and restaurants until late into the evening. Many bars remain open until 2 or 3 am. We had no difficulty adjusting to this rhythm.
In Spain, the ubiquitous culinary offerings are tapas (small plates), which are meant to be shared and enjoyed with drinks. Tapas can be hot or cold—fish, meat, or vegetables. Tapas are available anytime, and a tapa is usually included when you order drinks.
In restaurants, you are expected to linger after the meal. Nobody eats and runs. No matter how long you sit there, they will not present you with the bill until you ask for it by saying: la cuenta, por favor. By the way, there is no tipping in Spain. Apparently people who work in service positions receive a decent wage. If you pay with a credit card, there is no line on the receipt for a tip. When paying cash, it is customary to round up to the nearest euro, but that is all.
What about the cuisine? Having visited Italy and been impressed with the near universal availability of great food, we had high hopes for Spain. (See our effusive narrative in Italy, the Unguided Tour.) Unfortunately, the Spanish food that we had throughout our trip was of uneven quality.
On our second night in Barcelona, we had some great late-evening tapas at a restaurant near our hotel. The olives and fried anchovies were delicious. We also enjoyed a grilled skewered octopus leg. The wine was always good, with glasses of excellent vino de casa available for as little as 2-3 €.
In Seville and Granada, we had difficulty finding good restaurant meals. We found things to be overcooked, heavy, and in some cases barely palatable. Generally the worst food seemed to be the areas most heavily frequented by tourists, although we saw many locals eating the same stuff, apparently quite happy with it. A notable exception was our paella meal at La Cueva in Seville. We stumbled into that place at random, and it was in the heart of a tourist area. At that time we didn’t realize how lucky we were to find it.
The number one item available everywhere that we visited is jamon, a type of cured ham similar in flavor to pancetta. Nearly every venue that offers food has these cured hams hanging in the window or behind the bar. Jamon is interesting at first, but after repeated servings over time I grew tired of the tough texture and heavy, oily flavor. I switched to grilled chicken when ordering bocadillos.
We also had issues with the menu offerings. In general, they were heavy on meat and fish, with vegetables an afterthought and fruit nearly invisible. If you order a meat dish, you get a plate of meat. A salad could be tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna. They don’t seem to have a concept of a balanced meal. You have to construct your own by ordering several different things. Overall, the servings were large and the prices low, but so was the quality. After most meals, I went away feeling kind of stuffed, with a heavy, slightly uneasy feeling in my gut.
Organic food is only beginning to appear in Spain. We didn’t see much of it in the markets, and there were only a few restaurants that offered it. We did have a good organic meal at a newer restaurant in Barcelona.
For our final meal in Madrid, we sought out an upscale restaurant near our apartment. That meal was excellent, although the price was high by Spanish standards: three shared dishes and two glasses of wine, with complementary amuse-bouches and desserts came in at 65 € (no tip, of course). We were also put off by the formality of the place: waiters in suits, new plates and silverware for every course, little pre-moistened hand wipes, etc.
Overall, we had to give the Spanish food experience a C+ at best. Good meals are available if you seek them out and if you are willing to pay a premium price. But compared to our experience in Italy, where even the airport food was excellent in both flavor and presentation, Spain was a disappointment.