When travelling, everyone has to watch their pennies at times, and eating and drinking are among the greatest worries. For visitors to Spain, though, there are plenty of affordable options for eating and drinking, including the country’s famous tapas, full-blown budget meals and a variety of other ways to fill your stomach without emptying your pocket.
When in Spain, it helps to get in the swing of Spanish eating habits. Spaniards breakfast light, lunch like nobody and dine moderately, and this is generally the most economical way for travellers to get by as well. Spaniards tend not to nibble much between meals, either, though it is a good idea for tourists to have frequent shots of coffee or other source of sugar to keep energy levels up.
Breakfast (el desayuno). Any time before 11 am. With the exception of civil servants, who often seem to spend the entire morning having breakfast, Spaniards tend to place little importance on this meal, though they often actually have two breakfasts, the true des-ayuno (ending of the fast) and morning coffee being referred to by the same name. There is no especially cheap way of breakfasting: head for a cafetería or bar and order un café con leche, milky coffee, maybe un zumo (fresco) de naranja, freshly squeezed orange juice, and one (only one) of the following: un bollo (sweet roll), a croissant, una tostada (con mermelada) (toast (with jam — confusingly, mermelada does not mean marmalade), churros or porras (delicious batter fritters, deep-fried in olive oil). Set breakfasts, combinations like this one, are not much cheaper than ordering the different elements separately, but are often advertised by reassuring pictures captioned “Desayuno Nº 1″ or similar, and will cost you around 2-4 euros, maybe less.
Lunch (el almuerzo or la comida). Between 2 pm and half-past three or four, even later at weekends. It is not insignificant that the Spanish word comida means both “lunch” and “meal.” This is the big one, the leisurely, hour-long, no-fewer-than-three-courses, strap-your-serviette-on-and-get-stuck-in, serious eating event of the day. Real lunchers in Spain begin by visiting a bar or three for the aperitivos. Then, in some parts of the country, lunch is a four-course affair, in which case it begins with entrantes, starters. Otherwise, it consists of a primer and a segundo plato (first and second courses, the first often more substantial than the second), and postre (dessert, frequently simply fruit). Fortunately for travellers, there is a budget version of this, the set-price menú or plato del día, sometimes called just el menú, generally available in restaurants of all categories, bars, mesones and tabernas. Originally introduced to encourage tourism back in the sixties, I believe, the menú del día (a selection of dishes at a price slightly below the total price of its components) quickly became popular with Spaniards themselves, especially workers — it may not be available at weekends, especially on Sundays — and often offers fresher food than the a la carte menu. Remember that the price, which starts at around 7€, will only include what is stipulated in writing, and if pan, vino o bebida y postre (bread, wine or another drink, and dessert, usually included) are not specified, they will cost extra.
Tea (la merienda). Five- or even six-ish. Often skipped, or no more than a cup of coffee, tea or other infusion, perhaps with a piece of cake or something else sweet.
Dinner (la cena). About ten p.m., even later in Madrid at weekends, and never before nine. The menú del día is not normally available in the evening, except in tourist spots, and the biggest meal of the day for most Brits or Americans is not as important for Spaniards, anyway. They do dine out, of course, and sometimes have a sit-down, knife-and-fork dinner, but will more often take this meal in the form of tapas and raciones, portions. One waiter I know, when asked if he could offer anything para cenar, for dinner, put it like this: “Cena, cena, no tengo, sólo raciones” (“Dinner, what you might call dinner, no — just portions”). This can make dinner the most interesting (not to say chancy) meal of the day for the visitor, especially the non-Spanish-speaking visitor, ordering by pointing at things enticingly laid out on the counter.
Tapas. There are any number of stories about the origins of this Spanish fast-food, the most satisfactory and so the most widely believed being that bartenders in Andalusia developed the custom of placing a piece of bread over customers’ glasses to stop the flies getting in their wine (if they were so squeamish, how on earth could they take the next step and eat the bread?).
In many parts of Spain, e.g., Madrid, tapas are given free and automatically with drinks ordered (not tea or coffee). In this case, they will evidently be fairly basic: a few olives, a boquerón (anchovy lightly cured by soaking in oil and vinegar) laid across a potato chip (crisp to the English), a piece of bread with a slice of morcilla(black pudding)… There are countless variations. Note that tapas are only served as an aperitivo and if the time of day does not correspond, say at 11.30 pm, they will not be served. When tapas are free, that does not mean they are included in the price, it means they are a gift, and it is very bad manners to complain about what you are given, though if you do not eat your tapa, you may well be asked if you would prefer something else.
In other parts of the country, especially where cooking is considered an artform, e.g. the Basque Country, tapas are more substantial, often more elaborate, and are not free. In this case, expect to pay something like the price of a drink per tapa, but after three or four you may not need anything else for dinner.
Raciones. When the ración, portion, is cold, it may be of a ‘single’ food: ham, cheese, chorizo… or may be a combination. But when the ración is a hot dish, it is usually a ‘single’ food (not necessarily simple): champiñones or setas (different types of mushroom) baked on a hot-plate with a little oil and ham; sepia (cuttlefish), also baked or fried with lemon, garlic and parsley; gambas al ajillo, prawns cooked quickly with oil and garlic and served scaldingly hot in an earthenware dish… Travellers observe groups of Spaniards sharing a number of raciones and conclude that it is like eating Chinese food, with lots of dishes being eaten at the same time, though in fact, this is not usually the case: most Spaniards prefer to eat one thing at a time, the plates being finished off sequentially.
Budget travellers will find the cheaper raciones vary from place to place, though staples include patatas bravas (sauted potatos in a spicy tomato sauce), ensaladilla rusa (Russian Salad) and the pincho de tortilla (substantial slice of potato omlette, eaten hot or cold). In a few places, you can order a media ración (half portion) of some dishes, especially cold ones.
Snacks and Other Forms of Eating
Bocadillos. The Spanish form of the sandwich is often a lifesaver for budget travellers in Spain, being substantial, cheap and widely available. A bocadillo is made with long, crusty, French-bread type rolls, never buttered, one reason being that the filler — ham, chorizo, cheese, omelette — is often a little greasy. If you are really saving money, buy your pan (bread) and your filling in a supermarket, tienda de alimentación (grocer’s) or panadería (baker’s); in the latter two they will usually be happy to slice your bread open for you or even actually make your bocadillo for you. In catering establishments like bars, the standard of bocadillos has risen immeasurably in recent years in response to specialised, hamburger chain-inspired businesses which have spread throughout the country — Pans & Company was the pioneer.
Sandwiches. Apart from the very ordinary, mass-produced sandwiches you will find in supermarkets, there are two interesting forms of the sandwich in Spain: toasted sandwiches like those found in France (the sandwich mixto, a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich, is clearly a transplanted croque monsieur), and those served in specialised shops like Rodilla, which are delightful Victorian affairs in triangles with the crusts cut off and often containing a paste filling. They make a great pick-me-up when you are on a shopping expedition.
Montados. Small bocadillos, very handy between meals.
Tostas. Originally Catalan, now found everywhere, these are substantial canapés on thick, toasted bread.
Plato Combinado. Again, this is often misunderstood by travellers, because at first sight the plato combinado can look like northern European food. For example, one plato combinado might be a few sticks of asparagus with a blob of mayonnaise, sitting next to a pork chop, with a few french fries and perhaps a little salad. Aha, thinks the traveller, meat and two veg, just like at home, right? Wrong. The plato combinado is two or more courses on the same plate, in this case the first course being the asparagus and the mayonnaise and the second being the pork chop and its guarnición, decoration. Spaniards will eat the asparagus first, and then get started on the chop, but if you want to eat it all at the same time, no-one will say anything — ever.
Tea and Coffee. There is not a lot you can do to economise on tea and coffee, as prices are generally standard. You can often save a little by not sitting at a table, and drinks at a pavement table are generally quite a lot more expensive. Tea with milk (té con leche) is invariably horrible in Spain, though té con limón (tea with a slice of lemon) can be very acceptable. Coffee is a much better idea and is usually excellent, the standard being espresso coffee, made with steam rather than hot water. If you just order un café, it will generally be black; ask for un café solo if you need to specify this, un cortado if you want a little milk, or un café con leche if you want a lot of milk, at breakfast for example. Café con leche is very slightly more expensive than café solo, but is more nutritious (see Breakfast). In summer, try freshly-made iced coffee (café con hielo): you are given a hot, black coffee in a cup and a glass with ice cubes — sweeten the coffee to taste, then pour it over the ice cubes.
Soft Drinks and Water. Non-alcoholic beverages have more or less standard prices, though you can economise a little by specifying Spanish brand names such as Tri Naranjus (pronounced tree-na-ran-chus, where the ‘ch’ sounds the same as in Scottish words like ‘loch’). If you want water, ask for un vaso de agua and specify del grifo if necessary, unless you specifically want bottled water (which is not usually expensive anyway). If you are really thirsty, most bars will serve you a glass of water (free, of course) and not blink an eye if you do not order anything else — it is considered practically a duty, though there are always exceptions, and it is a good idea to say please and thank you.
Alcoholic Drinks. Although beer (cerveza) is considered almost a soft drink in Spain and tends to be light and easy to drink, it is actually stronger than most English beer, so be a little careful, especially if you are driving or in hot weather when you are more susceptible. On the budget front, ordering draught rather than bottled beer saves a little money, as does drinking at the bar instead of sitting down. The standard measure is the caña, a 20 cl glass, though the jarra (usually a half-litre mug, sometimes a litre jar for sharing) is becoming more popular. Young (very young) people will often share a litre-sized plastic cup of beer, called a mini, which is undeniably economic though a little too intimate for my liking.
(The cheapest way of drinking, of course, is to buy in a supermarket and drink outdoors, and this has long been popular with young Spaniards, who call the custom el botellón. It has become too popular, unfortunately, leading in many places to vandalism, dirt and litter, noise problems and occasionally serious confrontations between youths and residents, and by-laws have recently been introduced in much of Spain to restrict the practice of drinking in the street.)
Surprisingly, beer is more popular than wine in Spain, where people are more likely to drink wine with meals than for its own sake. Ask for un vino tinto or un vino blanco, a red or white wine, and you will usually be given the cheapest wine in the house. If you want something a little better, most establishments can still only offer you a Rioja or a Ribera del Duero, though some places now offer a variety of wines, prices often being chalked up on a blackboard, as in pseudy winebars in England.
One of Spain’s greatest pleasures is its very affordable licors, especially after a meal, when a glass of brandy (colloquially called coñac) is an affordable luxury, especially for Brits. Spanish brandy is excellent and it would be insanity itself to ask for any other nationality in Spain, though the cheaper brands like Terry’s Centenario can be very fiery indeed. A little more upmarket you find brands such as Osborne Veterano or Magno, while brandies like Pedro Domecq’s Carlos I are fine licors for a special occasion. Alternatives to brandy include anis, an anisette liqueur like Pernod (anis dulce by default — be careful not to order anis seco unless you have an ignifugous oesophagus); patxarán, a Basque or Navarran version of sloe gin; and orujo, a fearsome Galician drink distilled from marc, fermented grape residues, and popular with the kind of drinker who likes a challenge.
After dinner, Spaniards may go for una copa or two, this being difficult to define but basically meaning any alcoholic drink stronger than beer or wine. (Note that in late-night places, drinking at the bar is not usually less expensive than sitting down.) Again, there are Spanish spirits which are cheaper than imported drinks, though not as good as Spanish brandy. Some Spanish spirits like Larios gin are virtually indistinguishable from a good English gin except for the hangover; others, like DYC whisky, are to be avoided at all costs.
Types of Establishment
Note that Spanish businessmen are prone to mix their types of business, and it is not unusual to see a single establishment being called a restaurante-cafetería-cervecería-heladería, for example.
Asador – A kind of restaurant specialising in roast meats, often on the expensive side.
Café – A bar, often large and generally with better decor than usual, normally opening until late at night and where people sit at tables rather than standing at the bar.
Cafeteria – A bar specialising, theoretically at least, in coffee, though often indistinguishable from any other kind of bar.
Casa de Comidas – Sadly becoming extinct, this is a kind of cheap, working-class restaurant.
Cervecería – A bar specialising in beer, again theoretically at least.
Club – Particularly when seen outside roadside establishments, this denotes a brothel, even when the sign is in the colours of Coca Cola.
Comedor – Halfway between a restaurante and a casa de comidas, and headed for extinction like the latter.
Heladería – Ice cream parlour.
Marisquería – A seafood restaurant, which does not really belong on these pages as prices are unavoidably high, though cheaper than in most of Europe by a long way. If you are tempted to splash out, remember you will usually buy your seafood by weight: prices tend to be given in kilos and to look terrifying, but 100 grams is a tenth of the price and represents nearly a quarter of a pound.
Mesón – A bar, frequently with rustic decoration, invariably serving at least some food. The hungry budget traveller’s best bet.
Pub – A late-night bar where music is played: if it is a disco-pub, it probably even has a DJ. Where you want to be at one or two in the morning, before or instead of going to a discotheque.
Restaurante – Restaurant, of course, given between one and five forks by way of classification. The number of forks is not a direct indication of the price but is a good guide. A quick rule-of-thumb method for estimating the cost of a Spanish restaurant meal beforehand, or one that works for me, anyway, is to pick the second or third most expensive item from the list of segundos platos and double its price: this gives the approximate price of three courses including wine and coffee, provided you are not choosing extravagantly.
Taberna – Tavern. To all intents and purposes, the same as mesón.
Tasca – Tapas bar. Some of these have become out-and-out restaurants, often too chic for comfort.
Terraza – Pavement café. In summer, as popular as pubs for a late-night drink or more so, and some terrazas can be outright fashion centres.
Whiskería – Not usually, as you would expect, a bar specialising in whisky, but a kind of semi-brothel where men pick up prostitutes, going elsewhere to do the deed.