Dining Out in Spain

I’m sure you’ve heard the term tourist trap. But if you haven’t, let me tell you what it is. It’s a place that tries its darnedest to attact the naive tourists with lots of money to spend on cheap things they’ll end up regretting ten minutes. This includes food. Most guidebooks advise you to avoid eating and/or drinking in any establishment with menus in 3+ different languages. I hate to say that I don’t always follow this rule, especially when my stomach is grumbling. I tend to be vulnerable to the charms of so-called touristy restaurants when I’m lost, cranky, and hungry. Sorry I’m not sorry. If you come to Spain, especially if you’re from the U.S., there are some things you might want to understand about how dining out works here. I’ve already covered the tapas experience in another post, so I won’t address that here.

Breakfast in Spain

Eggs + Bacon + Toast = Delicious, but Not Spanish
Eggs + Bacon + Toast = Delicious, but Not Spanish
Eggs + Bacon + Toast = Delicious, but Not Spanish
Eggs + Bacon + Toast = Delicious, but Not Spanish

Let’s start with breakfast. When you think of a good, hearty breakfast, what comes to mind? I think of eggs, bacon, sausage, omlettes, pancakes dripping with butter and maple syrup, coffee, and orange juice. An everyday breakfast might include something like cereal, toast, eggs, or oatmeal. That’s not how breakfast works here, especially an everyday breakfast. A lot of my students, upon being asked, reply that they eat “biscuits” or “cookies” for breakfast. (It must be noted that when they say biscuits, they mean English digestive biscuits and not American ones.) To accompany that, they’ll have milk, sometimes sweetened with ColaCao, which is like Nesquik. It is also common to eat pastries and coffee for adults. Nothing too heavy, though.

Short Version:

  • Spanish: biscuits, cereal, milk, juice, pastries (such as croissants), coffee
  • Not So Spanish: Eggs, bacon, pancakes

Lunch in Spain

Onto lunch. It’s important to remember that the main meal here is not, in fact, dinner (as it often is in the U.S.), it’s lunch, la comida. If you’re going to a restaurant, the menú del día is often the way to go. It literally means “menu of the day,” although many restaurants do not, in fact, change the menu daily.

There is a list of primeros platos, first plates, a list of segundos platos, or second plates, and desserts. You also almost always get a drink (wine, water, or beer) and bread. Remember: in Spain, there is no meal without bread. Another thing to keep in mind: it’s likely that the menú will not be offered for dinner. That’s just not done. According to the website Catavino, “During Franco‘s 30 year reign, el menu del dia (menu of the day) was established to feed the starving masses a nutritious and balanced lunch on a budget: essentially, the working man’s meal.”

Snacktime in Spain

Before I talk about dinner, I’d like to address an important part of my life – yes, that’s right, SNACKTIME. Called la merienda, this meal is especially important for children. It can be anything, but usually involves carbs. Mario often eats fruit, but he’s healthy and all that jazz. It’s usually eaten anywhere from 4:30–6:30 p.m., and no one’s worried about ruining their appetite since dinner’s not eaten until 9 (or later)!

Dinner in Spain

La cena, or dinner, is usually eaten around 9-10 PM on a normal night. This may seem crazy late to your typical American, but as I’ve observed, Spaniards just do everything later than we do. They rise later, eat lunch later, snack later, eat dinner later, and go to bed later. In the U.S. this summer, Mario was surprised to see loads of people up and running by 8 AM. Dinner is usually a much smaller meal than lunch, consisting of soup, fish, or small things to munch on. Eggs are a dinner food. Mario and I like to eat salad, too. Fruit is usually consumed as well, as many Spaniards don’t consider a meal complete without the fruit course.

Spaniards love food and, as per my observations, the typical Spaniard is much more of a foodie (if you will) than the average American. Mario and his brother usually make observations (good and bad) about their mother’s food and no one is offended. They like to discuss food while eating as well. After all, talking about food while eating it—what could be better?