Sitting around a table eating and talking is a huge part of Spanish culture, defining much of people's daily routines. Sitting in the middle of a typical bustling restaurant here goes a long way toward building understanding of how fundamental food can be to Spanish lives.
Although Spain has always had an extraordinary range of regional cuisines, in the past decade or so its restaurants have won it international recognition at the highest levels. A new generation of Spanish chefs—led by the revolutionary Ferran Adrià—has transformed classic dishes to suit contemporary tastes, drawing on some of the freshest ingredients in Europe and bringing an astonishing range of new technologies into the kitchen.
Smoking is banned in all eating and drinking establishments in Spain.
Meals and Mealtimes
Outside major hotels, which serve morning buffets, breakfast (desayuno) is usually limited to coffee and toast or a roll. Lunch (comida or almuerzo) traditionally consists of an appetizer, a main course, and dessert, followed by coffee and perhaps a liqueur. Between lunch and dinner the best way to snack is to sample some tapas (appetizers) at a bar; normally you can choose from quite a variety. Dinner (cena) is somewhat lighter, with perhaps only one course. In addition to à la carte selections, most restaurants offer a daily fixed-price menu (menú del día), consisting of a starter, main plate, beverage, and dessert. The menú del día is traditionally offered only at lunch, but increasingly it's also offered at dinner in popular tourist destinations. If your waiter does not suggest it when you're seated, ask for it: "¿Hay menú del día, por favor?"
Mealtimes in Spain are later than elsewhere in Europe, and later still in Madrid and the southern region of Andalusia. Lunch starts around 2 or 2:30 (closer to 3 in Madrid) and dinner after 9 (as late as 11 or midnight in Madrid). Weekend eating times, especially dinner, can begin upward of an hour later. In areas with heavy tourist traffic, some restaurants open a bit earlier.
Most prices listed in menus are inclusive of 10% value-added-tax (I.V.A.), but not all. If I.V.A. isn’t included, it should read, "10% I.V.A. no incluido en los precios" at the bottom of the menu. Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards are widely accepted in Spanish restaurants, but some smaller establishments do not take them. If you pay by credit card and you want to leave a small tip above and beyond the service charge, leave the tip in cash (see Tipping, for guidelines).
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places, it's expected. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Apart from its famous wines, Spain produces many brands of lager, the most popular of which are San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Aguila, Voll Damm, Mahou, and Estrella. There's also a thriving craft-beer industry and most large towns and cities have bars specializing in local brews. Jerez de la Frontera is Europe's largest producer of brandy and is a major source of sherry. Catalonia is a major producer of cava (sparkling wine). Spanish law prohibits the sale of alcohol to people age 18 or younger.