As an American let me explain the rules of eating tapas in Spain. First forget about the tapas experience you’ve had in American restaurants where you sit down and the waiter brings a menu of small plate items with foo-foo names that cost as much as an I-phone. I once tried a “fusion” Thai and tapas restaurant in a southern U.S. city that served Phad Thai bacalao on toast. My doctor thinks I will make a full recovery, my accountant is not so sure.
The Spanish tapas experience, which can vary quite a bit from town to town, is relaxed and casual. The essential thing to understand about tapas is that they are to be enjoyed with friends while imbibing “moderately” and chatting about family, lousy politicians and of course La Liga which, if you don’t know, is the center of the football universe or maybe a religion, I’m not sure.
In Spain most cities have more tapas bars than Seattle has coffee shops. This has led to the Spanish custom of the late evening tapeo, or tapas walk, where you go from tavern to tavern and have a tapa or two as you continue to imbibe “moderately.” The competition for customers can be fierce among the tapas taverns as they try to outdo one another in the extravagance and complexity of their tapas. And, get this, in many places they actually give you a free tapa when you order a drink at the bar. Granada, for example, is well known for this custom which likely started as a means of luring Brits to buy real estate away from the coast.
One thing you are likely to notice when you go to a typical Spanish tapas bar are the hams hanging from the ceiling. Don’t panic, they are a delicious gourmet product and the source of an endless debate over which ham and from where is the best. Indeed, the Spanish take their ham very seriously and produce and eat more air-dried ham than anybody, even the Italians. I suggest learning about it from a Spaniard on a tapas tour while drinking “moderately.”
Another thing you’ll notice when you go into a busy tapas bar is that next to the bar on the floor are baskets and next to the baskets are hundreds of napkins. Apparently throwing the napkins in the basket after eating a tapa is frowned upon or else a sign that one has been too “moderate” in one’s imbibing. Either way, one way to choose a tapas tavern is to see how many napkins are piled on the floor.
Did I mention that tapas are usually eaten while standing up. It may seem unusual to Americans but its true. (This may be a Spanish version of a sobriety check.) While you may find a stool or a table to sit at you’re far more likely to squeeze up to the bar and, if you’re as fluent as I am in Spanish, use your pointing skills to make your order. This is normally very effective as most of the tapas are quite tasty. I have learned to be daring and eat whatever I have pointed at while hoping its not criadillas, although many say they’re delicious. I‘ll take their word for it. And what are criadillas you ask? Hint: its something a bull would like very much not to lose.
Actually learning a little bit of Spanish can get you a long way in a tapas bar. The following are essential on the beverage side of ordering. Ready? Cerveza por favor. (beer please) Vino por favor.(wine please) and don’t forget the essential Donde esta el bano? (Where is the bathroom?) When it comes to the tapas remember to point and say Tu habla ingles? (Do you speak english?) They may hand you an English menu, but if they don’t, remember to point clearly and keep an open mind because it’s probably really tasty.
Another approach is to get a good guide that knows the locale and can help you get the best during your tapas explorations. At Culture Connect Tours we have guides that know their tapas and the best places to go. All of our tours have tapas outings (or pintxos outings in Basque country) that are fantastic. But one tapas walk I truly recommend is the one we have in Segovia. Wow it’s great, they know how to make a tapa in Segovia! (Don’t tell our guides in Seville or Basque country I said that.)