Tapas and Raciones
You keep hearing that a trip to Spain isn’t complete without trying tapas. OK. But do you really know what they are? What if you get up your nerve to wander into a bar, and you find that there is no such thing on the menu?
Tapas are small, appetizer size portions… of almost anything. They can be a small plate of ham and cheese, or tiny sandwiches, or a plate of olives, a small skewer of pickled vegetables or seafood or… the list goes on and on. Some bars will serve one small tapa for free with your drink, but most bars charge for them.
Many bars only list raciones on the menu. These are larger portions. You might want the larger portion if two or more of you are sharing the appetizers, but you can always ask for tapas size or even a 1/2 racion (media-racion) or for a portion somewhere in between. Some bars don’t serve anything smaller than a racion, but it’s worth asking. You’ll run into these especially in the tourist areas.
If you wander into a bar and you see half a dozen or a dozen different types of food under glass on the bar, it’ll be easy. Choose a couple, order a small glass of wine or beer and enjoy. You’ll be charged accordingly when you ask for the bill. The first time we did this, we were unsure of the price, so we asked for the bill after a beer and a couple of tasty choices…. the bill was so reasonable that we stayed and enjoyed more.
You’ll find that there are different prices depending on where you choose to eat and drink. If you stand or sit at the bar, you’ll get the best price. Sitting at a table will cost you a little more, and if you eat out on the plaza for the view, you’ll pay the most. So sitting outside on the Plaza Mayor in Madrid having a racion of Serrano ham and cheese will be the most expensive way to go… but it could be worth it.
On the other hand, if you want to get a little more intimate with Spanish life, find a little bar on a back street, stand at the bar and take in the swirl of life around you. A smattering of Spanish will definitely come in handy for this!
Don’t necessarily go looking for a particular bar that you’ve read about. The small snacks that they offer change all the time. Just find a bar that looks lively and that you’ll be comfortable in. Sometimes you can order a small sampler plate. This isn’t how the locals do it, but it might make it easier your first time or two.
Some tourists talk about hopping from bar to bar in the evening. It’s fun to do that, but you’ll find Spaniards enjoying these small plates of appetizers any time of the day. Going to the local bars is part of the social scene to meet friends. Tapas are part of this scene.
Remember that in Spain, dinner is eaten late at night. Spaniards love their tapas, however they generally don’t eat them in place of a meal…. But if you’re not up for dinner at 9, 10 or 11 at night, you can certainly make a meal of them.