How to order tapas in Madrid (and other tips)

Aug 28, 2012

The simple things are always hard. When you first hit a new city or country, even if you have a little bit of the lingo, ordering food and drinks in bars and restaurants is always impenetrably idiosyncratic. Not only that – knowing how the locals eat seems to be something only the locals know. This cheat sheet aims to de-mystify the process for new arrivals. I hope it helps (and let me know if it doesn’t).

And if you decide you’d rather learn first hand from a pro, check out my food tour company Devour Tours! We offer award-winning tapas tours nightly in Madrid (and through Spain)! Click here for more info and to book click here.

OK, so start with this short video, then read on…

How to order tapas in Madrid

Tapas has become a five letter word; or a by-word for anything served in small helpings. Nowadays, the word means many things to many people in many countries and – equally – something quite different in distinct parts of Spain. Buy a beer in Granada and you’ll likely get a big helping of free food, buy a beer in Barcelona and you’ll likely get nothing. Tapas in Madrid is somewhere in between.

Order a beer or a glass of wine in Madrid and in most bars you’ll get something to nibble on. It may be a small plate of quality chorizo or cured manchego cheese, or it may be a small bowl of olives. With the economic crisis tightening bars’ budgets, you’ll often get the latter. But there are still plenty of places that offer generous tapas (El Lacón is one such place).

More often than not, you don’t order tapas (though there are exceptions where you can order and pay for small servings). What you typically order is the larger variety, called raciones (a heartier helping on a dinner-sized plate). A typical meal out with friends (say four of us) might mean ordering five raciones to share (say, pimientos de padrónsepia a la planchaalbóndigasboquerones fritos and manchego cheese). They will come with (usually free, though less and less so) bread.

Sometimes a bar will serve medias raciones, half-sized raciones. These places are ideal (again, El Lacón is one of them) because you can order small portions and try more things.

You’ll also see tostas, which are slices of bread with savoury toppings. Order a variety and share. Taberna Temperanillo and Juana La Loca are two good tosta places (and El Capricho Extremeño if you’re at the Rastro on a Sunday).

If you’re travelling to Madrid and want to know my 5 favourite tapas bars, download my free guide here. It also includes my favourite tapas bars in Barcelona, Seville and San Sebastian.

Menus del día (fixed-price lunch menus) are cheap, filling and can be very good. But they’re a dime-a-dozen (most bars do them) and they can also be very bad. In highly-concentrated tourist areas they can be uninspiring and disappointing.

For about €10-€15 you’ll typically get three courses plus bread plus wine or beer and maybe coffee (you often get the choice of dessert or coffee). But if you know where to go, for only a few euros more, your menu del día will improve exponentially. Check out Taberna Badila (one of my favourite spots).

A good tactic is to get a menu del día for lunch, and raciones at night.

How to order wine in Madrid

Order wine by the region (or, for some wines, by the grape), not by the colour. If you ask for vino tinto you’ll generally get the house red and it may be rough. Of course, if you’re in a nice place, it probably won’t be rough. When I say region, I mean names like Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rueda, etc. If in doubt, ask for la carta de vinos or just look up at menu on the wall.

And want to know the wine styles you HAVE to order when in Spain. Check out my video below!

How to order beer in Madrid

Generally, ask for a caña (draught beer)not a cerveza. If you want your brew in a bottle, ask for a tercio (meaning a third – i.e. 330 ml). Cañas are small, and this is a good thing. They don’t heat up in the brutal Madrid sun and they don’t lose their carbonation before you’re done. If you ask for a cerveza and the waiter plops down an Oktobor-fest sized flagon of beer, you’re in a tourist joint.

How to tip in Madrid.

How do you tip in Madrid? Good question. Tipping in Madrid took me some time to nut out. Many Spaniards don’t leave tips, many do, many do only sometimes. Confused? Here are some general guidelines.

If I’ve just popped into a bar and knocked back a caña at the bar, I generally won’t leave a tip. But if while I was knocking back the caña the bartender was friendly and gave me a nice tapa, I’ll leave something. If I get table service (vs. standing at the bar), I’ll usually leave something. If I get bad table service or they forget to give me a tapa, I might leave nothing.

If you do leave something, and you want to think in percentages, I’d say between 5 and 10% is fine. Generally, if a bill comes to €5, I’ll leave about 20 cents. I’ll never leave less than 10 cents no matter what the bill was. If there are five in my party, and the bill comes to €150, I’d leave €3 (sounds stingy I know, but that’s how tipping in Spain works…). Of course, if you get great service and the food is excellent, then there’s no harm in giving the (probably-not-very-well-paid waiter) a little more.

Bar or restaurant?

You’ll notice I mention bars all the time, rather than restaurants. The distinction is often fuzzy in Spain. Like the French cafe, the Spanish bar is all things to all people. Every village has a bar where you can get your café con leche in the morning, your digestivo at night, and every drink and meal in between. Even in the big cities, many bars still observe that tradition. Of course, there are restaurants (i.e. they have no bar), clubs, and bares de copas (cocktail bars, where no food is served), but you’ll find you’re spending a lot of time in Madrid bars in their traditional sense.

Jamón is expensive

Yes it is. But it doesn’t have to be. Jamón comes in two broad varieties – jamón serrano and jamón ibérico (there are sub-varieties within those two). Serrano is the cheaper variety and can be average (it can also be quite good). Ibérico is the stuff that melts on your tongue and leaves you speechless. So if you’re ordering a ración of jamón – I’d recommend the ibérico. Some places will do half and half raciones – half manchego cheese and half jamón.

A plate of good jamón (or good cured manchego) in a bar isn’t cheap. Expect to pay between €18 and €25 for a plate of jamón ibérico. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered that plate, it’s just too much for my budget. But also, because I live here, I can buy the same stuff much cheaper at the market and eat it at home. So, if you’re just visiting and you want to eat good jamón and good manchego and you’re on a budget, have a picnic. Go to a market and buy the jamón and cheese (as well as anything else you want – other excellent pork products are lomo and chorizo), buy a bottle of wine and head to Retiro to eat and drink cheaply, al fresco, under the oaks.

There are three markets in the centre where you can buy produce (note: the San Miguel market next to Plaza Mayor is not a traditional market, it’s more of a gourmet tapas joint and while you can buy produce in Chueca’s San Antón market, it’s very expensive.)

Mercado de la Cebada
Plaza de la Cebada, 15  28005
Metro: La Latina (line 5)

Mercado de Antón Martín
Calle de Santa Isabel, 5, 28012
Metro: Antón Martín (line 1)

Mercado de San Fernando
Calle de Embajadores, 41, 28012
Metro: Lavapiés (line 3)

And remember, if you want to get my free guide to my 5 favourite tapas bars in each of Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and San Sebastian, you can download it here. Salud!

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