Recently, my wife joined me on her first-ever trip to Spain. Before we arrived, she couldn’t wait to dive into the fabled tapas scene: an endless array of bite-sized baguette sandwiches, deep-fried sea creatures, grilled veggies soaking in garlic-infused olive oil, and toothsome tortilla española. We arrived late one rainy Friday evening in Bilbao. By the time we’d checked into our hotel, it was around 9 p.m. — prime tapas time. This was going to be fun.
But then…it wasn’t. The bars were jammed. We could barely get inside. And when we finally managed to muscle our way to the bar, we couldn’t get served. I’ve spent several months in Spain, dating back to a semester abroad in college — and even I was overwhelmed by the experience. On a busy Friday night, Spanish tapas are a full-contact sport…an eat-or-be-eaten world.
Americans who are used to “small plates” restaurants back home might underestimate the cultural hairiness of the true tapas experience. Don’t get me wrong: Tapas are quintessential Spain. What’s not to like? You get culinary variety and an authentic encounter with Spanish culture for reasonable prices. But wading into a claustrophobic mosh pit of tapas aficionados is no fun for nervous novices. Here are my top tips for navigating tapas bars with the savvy of a local.
Don’t be shy — stake your claim at the bar.
If you walk in and see a wall of people, don’t bother looking for the end of the line. There is no line. Instead, tuck your elbows up like chicken wings and plow through the melee until you reach the bar. If you smile demurely, wait patiently, and expect to be waited on…waiting is exactly what you’ll do. The onus is on you to get the bartender’s attention. Introverts starve, and the person who makes the biggest fuss gets served first. When you’re ready, wave your hand, make eye contact, and boldly say, “Por favor!” or “Perdón!” (Observing the dominance displays required to get fed, it suddenly makes a little more sense that the national pastime involves the ritual slaughter of an innocent animal.)
Survey the options on the bar, but don’t overlook the menu.
Most tapas bar line up a few ready-made dishes on the counter, or in a glass display case. But these have been sitting out for who-knows-how-long. And at many tapas bars, the most interesting options can only be ordered from a menu. In more traditional places, you’ll squint at the handwritten menu, hung in low light at the back of the bar. Even if it were in English, it’d be next-to-impossible to read.
You can try asking for a printed English menu. But even if you get one, your choices can be far from straightforward. (Trendy eateries have a penchant for naming their dishes creatively. Is “Flavors from the Briny Depths” some sort of seafood salad? Paella? Dredged sewage with a seaweed garnish?) You can ask the bartender for some clarification, but don’t overdo it (see the next point).
When I go for tapas, I pack along a sense of culinary adventure: If I can identify roughly what the key ingredients might be, and it sounds good, I’ll give it a chance. Sometimes it’s delicious. Other times…not so much. But one thing’s for sure: It’s always different from back home. To increase your odds of getting ostras (oysters) instead of orejas (pig’s ears), equip yourself with a list of key food terms. An extensive menu decoder designed precisely for this purpose is a major feature of the Rick Steves Spanish Phrase Book. The Google Translate app also works well, but isn’t tailored specifically to menu decoding.
Be ready to order.
The bartender’s job is not to chitchat. She’s not there to conduct a nuanced dialogue about the provenance of various ingredients, or the pros and cons of each dish. And forget about substitutions. Just watch how hard the bartenders work — a perpetual-motion machine of order-taking, drink-pouring, and cashiering — and you’ll understand why they seem rushed.
So, be prepared: Once you get the bartender’s attention, cut to the chase — clearly and succinctly. (“Glass of vermouth, glass of beer, grilled beef loin, tortilla española. Por favor.”) On rare occasion, you may luck into a bartender who has the time and language skills to explain your options. But it’s safest to assume you’re pretty much on your own.
Know the specialties.
A dozen bars on a given street might do serviceable gambas a la plancha (garlic-sautéed shrimp) — but discerning locals know which one does it the best. And that place might do another dish the worst. Octopus (pulpo) can be rubbery and gross at one place, then tender and delicious at the next. Some tapas bars are hip, trendy, foodie, and fusion; other places are old-school, serving just the classics to appreciative traditionalists. If you’re an “A+” eater, do some homework to find out not only which tapas bars to try, but what to try at each one.
Order sparingly, and share everything. Then repeat.
With so many temptations all lined up, it’s hard to resist overdoing it at your first stop. But Spaniards would never eat an entire meal at one bar. The whole point is to assemble a moveable feast. People stroll from bar to bar, running into different friends and neighbors at each place. And at each bar, they order a drink, and a plate or two to share. Everything is family-style by default — don’t even try to order a tapa just for yourself. (That’s why many places serve plate-sized raciones alongside the bite-sized tapas. And in many cases, the tapas are designed to lure you in the door, but the raciones kick things up a culinary notch.)
This works even better in a small group, which allows you to maximize the number of raciones you can sample. Try to see how many different dishes you can taste without getting stuffed. To pace yourself, alternate between hard drinks and soft drinks (for this very reason, most bars have cerveza sin alcohol — N/A beer — on draft; just say “thervetha seen”).
“Basque-style” self-service tapas bars are more user-friendly.
The Basque Country has a more streamlined, self-service approach: The bar is lined with a wide variety of bite-sized tapas, each one pieced with a toothpick. Just grab whatever looks good, leaving the toothpicks in a little pile on the plate as you graze. At the end, flag down the bartender to tally the toothpicks and give you your bill. This “Basque approach” is also beginning to catch on in other parts of Spain, especially Barcelona; look for eateries with the name “euskadi” (the Basque word for “Basque”).
For a less intense experience, go earlier in the evening.
Spaniards eat notoriously late — dinnertime begins around 9 p.m. (When I was a student in Salamanca, I would marvel at families taking their kids out for a walk after midnight.) While this might seem mystifying to outsiders, the siesta-then-a-late-dinner tradition perfectly suits Spain’s blazing-hot climate.
However, most bars are open all day long, and start to lay out their tapas for early birds at what approximates a reasonable dinnertime back home — say, 7 or 8 p.m. — to catch office workers for a bite on their way home. If it’s your first time experimenting with tapas, get your bearings at an off-time, when it’s far less crowded. As you master the tapas tango, you can start nudging your dinnertime later and later, eventually achieving the all-in, late-night, fully authentic Spanish tapas experience.
Take a tapas food tour.
All of this might seem bewildering. And, for many travelers, it is. But these days, most Spanish cities have tour companies offering fully guided, thoughtfully curated culinary walks that link up a representative sampling of tapas bars. (I took a great one with Mimo San Sebastián; others are listed in our Rick Steves Spain guidebook.) Food tours know which bars specialize in which dishes, and offer cultural context that brings meaning to your munching.
You guide can point out, for example, that if you walk past the premade tapas in front, there’s a grill counter in back where they’ll cook up a fresh dish for you while you wait. And without a guide, you might order a delicious plate of pimientos de Padrón —miniature green peppers, flash-fried and coarsely salted — and discover the hard way that a random number of the peppers on that plate are jalapeño-hot. Doing a tapas tour early in your trip provides an ideal crash course in how the whole scene works, emboldening you to delve into a swarming tapas bar with the confidence of a local.
Just a few days after her baptism by fire, my wife was already an old pro. And she’s already looking forward to her next trip to Spain. Armed with these tips, being steep on the learning curve in a Spanish tapas bar is fun rather than frustrating. Dive in!