This article was commissioned by the editor of a magazine, but was never published - so here it is for everyone's benefit!
So, you’ve arrived for your visit to Spain, got to where you’re going to stay, settled yourselves in and now you’re thinking about eating a good meal. As you’ve come here to relax you’re not going to be getting the pots and pans out on the first day. There’s nowhere better, and cheaper to eat than in a Spanish restaurant but you might feel a little daunted at first if you don’t know what all the words mean, and how everything is done.
Your first dilemma is going to be where to eat. Please resist the temptation to head for the nearest English-run burger bar. Of course there’s no harm in reverting to the familiar once in a while, but it is such a pity when people come to Spain and never enjoy the experience of real Spanish food. If you just want a light snack, the best place to go is a bar that serves tapas. When you put your head round the door, you will see rows of glass covered display cabinets along the counter containing a variety of tasty morsels. There will probably be pickled anchovies called anchoas; a kind of mayonnaise salad with tuna called ensaladilla; there might be some meat balls called albondigas, and almost certainly some potato omelette called tortilla. Bars often have their own specialities, and there’s nothing stopping you trying some out by pointing to them and saying "un pincho de esto, por favor", "a small portion of this one, please." Having ordered your snacks and drinks you can go and sit at a table as the waiter will bring them over to you, along with a plate, fork and serviette for each person and a basket of bread. It’s not usual to serve butter with bread in Spain, but the bread is so good it doesn’t really need any. Another thing about Spanish eating places is that there is rarely any pressure to get rid of you, or to take your money. You can feel free to take the time you wish to relax, chat, order another beer, buy an ice-cream for the kids, have a cup of coffee and pay for the whole lot together as you leave. These kinds of bars may look very disorganised, but there will be a note somewhere near the till of everything you have ordered.
If what you’re interested in is something a little more special, there is a huge variety of restaurants in Spain, all of which will display their menus and prices at the door. A particularly attractive, traditional type of eating place is called a mesón. These have an old-fashioned look with wooden beams across the ceiling from which hang legs of cured ham called jamón serrano. In a mesón, as well as ordering an ordinary meal, you can often order a larger portion or ración of a single food item. A typical supper time meal would be to share out several different raciones amongst a family or group of friends, with everyone helping themselves from dishes placed in the middle of the table. The selection of raciones would usually include small fish such as sardines called sardinas, or fresh-fried anchovies called boquerones; fried squid called calamares; large fried flat mushrooms called setas; a selection of cheeses or queso, and of course, jamón serrano. It is also very usual in these circumstances to order a green salad, una ensalada, which you can season yourselves with olive oil, white vinegar, salt and pepper.
If what you are interested in is plenty of food at real value for money prices, then you cannot do better than go at lunch time to a restaurant that offers the menú del día, which means the set meal of the day. Notice that the Spanish word for menu is la carta, so if you wished to see the menu you would say to the waiter "la carta, por favor". Otherwise, the menú del día offers a limited choice of first and second courses, a dessert, bread, wine and coffee all for a fixed low price. The best rule of thumb here, especially if you are really more interested in good food than an exclusive ambience, is to go where the ordinary Spanish working people go. Unlike their British counterparts who are to be seen unwrapping their sandwiches and opening their flasks of coffee at lunch time, Spanish workers have a good long lunch break, and sit down to a proper home cooked meal. One of the drawbacks in some of these places is that the contents of today’s menú del día is often retained in the waiter’s head and not on paper, so when you ask ¿qué hay de menú? (What is there for the set meal?) he may just rattle the list off to you, leaving you none the wiser. Don’t forget though, that you’ll have a few tablefuls of Spaniards nearby and can always point to their plates and say: "lo mismo para mí" which means "the same for me"! The result could be delightful, and after all you’re in a foreign country so why not be adventurous!
If you decide to choose from la carta, you will find that this is divided up into various sections under general headings. For the first course there will problably be ensaladas and soups or sopas. For the main course there will be a list of meat or carne, and fish dishes under the heading pescado. The traditional dish on much of the Mediterranean coast is called paella which is a delicious mix of rice with various sea foods and meats. Different kinds will be listed under arroces, meaning rices. They usually take at least twenty to thirty minutes to prepare and will be for a minimum of two people. Some restaurants will of course have other sections like pastas and pizzas, but unlike in Britain, you will not usually find a separate section of vegetarian dishes. Vegetarianism is not common amongst Spanish people and many restaurant and bar staff have only a vague idea of what it means. If as a vegetarian you are not prepared to eat fish or sea food then you will have problems in many eating places, and if you are a vegan, still more so. However, if you watch how Spanish people order food you will notice that there is a fair degree of discussion with the waiter, so you should feel free to ask whether a dish contains meat, ¿Esto contiene carne? (Does this contain meat?) or to request a dish with the meat removed "Quiero esto, pero sin carne" (I want this, but without the meat). The last section in la carta will be the list of desserts, called postres.
Well I think you’ve got more than enough information now to get out there and have a go. Just one last word of advice – remember that to really fit in with the way of life you will have to follow the Spanish timetable by having a late lunch and very late supper. So all that remains for me to say is ¡Qué aproveche! Enjoy your meal!