A coffee maker in the dining room in Spain

Survival Guide for Dining Out in Spain

For the Spanish, dining out is a birth right.  They do it at all times of day, in various different forms, sometimes for just a drink and some olives, and sometimes for a several course feast.  For those of you who are new to our beautiful city, or to Spain in general, the Lens team has created, just for you, a survival guide, to help you get the most out of your dining experiences.

Tip 1:  Adjust your body clock.

Many people are surprised the first time they come to Spain and find that there is virtually nowhere to shop in the afternoon, nor anywhere to eat at 7:30 in the evening.  That thing you read about, the siesta?  Yeah, it’s real, and still in full effect.  While not everyone in the country retreats back to their house for a nap, most businesses do shut down at around 1:30 or 2pm, and don’t open up again until 5pm.  To accommodate for this break, everything else then happens later, including dinner, which doesn’t happen until about 1opm.  Thus, if you try and maintain your familiar “9 to 5” schedule, you’re going to find yourself getting very hungry, and very tired, often.   Our recommendation is to try and adjust your body clock, and do things when the Spanish do.  After a day or two you’ll hit your stride and likely find the rhythm of Spanish life quite natural.  In fact, people traveling from North America might just find that adapting to Spanish hours can help equalize the effects of jet-lag.  So give it a try.  Sleep late, eat a big lunch, then take a nap.  You’ll then be well rested for a late night on the town, and right in sync with everyone else.

Tip 2: Learn the Schedule.

Okay, so maybe this is really just a continuation of Tip no. 1, but it’s important, so listen up.  If you are coming from a part of the world that operates 24/7, you’ll need to reset your expectations.  Things close in Spain, at all sorts of strange hours and days of the week.  Once you are used to this fact, and let go of your “convenience at all costs” mentality, you’ll see that this actually has it’s benefits on a society.  But for now, however, it’s just plain smart so that you don’t go hungry!

Desayuno  (7:00-9:00) for most Spaniards “breakfast” is the equivalent of a cup of coffee and maybe a pastry or tostada.  In general, very light, but available at virtually every corner cafe.

Almuerzo (10:00-11:00).  In Latin America this means lunch, but in Spain, it’s a mid-morning snack that often takes the place of breakfast.  For most, it’s only a 20 minute break or so to chat with co-workers, but long enough for a sandwich (bocadillo) or omelet (tortilla).  It is NOT too early to have a beer, or wine, so don’t be surprised so see even elderly folks imbibing at this time.  Welcome to Spain…it’s a wonderful place.

Comida (13:30-15:30), is the main meal of the day.  It is often a lengthy affair, with many Spaniards still enjoying a 2 hour break during their workday.  It’s not unusual to see people still lingering at their tables until almost 5:00pm in the evening, especially on the weekends.  Most places will offer a Menu del Dia, to include a starter or 2, your choice of a few main courses, dessert and mostly likely wine or beer, all for less than you would probably spend on a Big Mac meal at home.  We’ll say it again, welcome to Spain!

Cena  (9:00-11:00) “Dinner” is sometimes a full blown multi-course occasion, but often, due to the size of lunch, just tapas or light snacks to go with your wine.  Even though most restaurants claim they are open at 8:30pm, it is likely they will not be ready for you…and you will most certainly be the first party in the door.  If you want to eat with the locals, make your reservation for 10pm.

Tip 3:  Be patient. 

Depending on which camp you belong, the good or bad side to eating out in Spain, is that tipping is not obligatory, and barely practiced at all.  The benefit to this of course is that you don’t have to add on another 20-25% to your bill, and you can rest assured, that it will never be your job to figure out the right tip amount for a party of 15.  The downside, however, is that your waiter or waitress doesn’t need to try very hard to win your appreciation.  In fact, your satisfaction is probably not even on their radar. Unless the restaurant has a Michelin star,  it is likely that your server will not come back to your table even once after your food arrives…not to refill drinks, not to see if everything is to your satisfaction, and definitely not to see if you are ready for the check.  For some folks, this can be a serious downer.  Our advice is to let it go.  You are after all, in Spain, and you didn’t travel all the way here for the same experience you get at home.  Be assertive and wave down your server when you want something–with a smile of course!  Also, make a habit of ordering drink refills for the entire table (trust me, one person asking for more wine will not prompt them to ask if anyone else needs the same).  You’ll find most servers are happy to help, and probably just working a much larger station than we typically see at home.

Tip 4: Dress for the weather.

With it’s year round mild climate, the weather is pretty much a non-issue in Valencia.  However, Dec-Feb can get a little chilly, and July and August often swelter.  Regardless, outside seating is the preference for most Valencianos and most restaurants cater to this by leaving their front doors open to allow for serving tables on the street.   In the summer, don’t assume the restaurant will have AC, and in the winter, don’t assume you’ll be next to a cozy fire.   Fine-dining establishments will have both however, so by all means, when the occasion suits, prioritize with looking your best!

Tip 5:  Learn some basic Spanish or carry a smartphone.

Outside of Barcelona, and more touristy sections of Madrid, English is not as widespread in Spain as it is in it’s neighboring countries.  If they can, most restaurants will send you an English speaking server, or better yet, provide you with an English menu, as soon as you open your mouth.   As you make your way off the beaten path however, you’ll eventually run into a situation whereby no one in the place speaks English.  If you don’t have the time to prep your Spanish skills then you should probably plan on carrying your smartphone.  There are many useful apps nowadays that can help you translate menus, and short phrases.  Some of our favorites are as follows:

Google Translate – No surprise here, but Google is still the best and easiest way to quickly translate.  Not only can you type a full sentence, but you can speak into it, and even take pictures of menus.

Spanish Dictionary – The beauty with this app is that unlike Google, it downloads a sizable dictionary to your phone, so you can use it without data or wifi.  This is a great feature if you are paying out the nose for data roaming, or if you have a SIM card with limited data.  Note:  It is best for people who have some Spanish.




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