The Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine. Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish. The Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies only on the use of high quality ingredients to give a good taste. As such, you may find Spanish food bland at times but there are usually a variety of restaurants in most cities (Italian, Chinese, American fast food) if you would like to experience a variety of flavors.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner times
Spaniards have a different eating timetable than many people are used to.
The key thing to remember for a traveler is:
-breakfast (el desayuno) for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (like a graham cracker) or magdalena (sweet muffin-like bread). Later, some will go to a cafe for a pastry midmorning, but not too close to lunchtime.
-"el aperitivo" is a light snack eaten around 12:00. However, this could include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a "pincho de tortilla".
-lunch (el almuerzo) starts at 13:30-14:30 (though often not until 15:00) and was once typically followed by a short siesta, usually at summer when temperatures can be quite hot in the afternoon. This is the main meal of the day with two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 16:00 at the latest. However, since life has become busier, there is no opportunity for a siesta.
-dinner (la cena) starts at 20:30 or 21, with most clientèle coming after 21. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 21:00 and most customers do not appear before 23:00.
-there is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called la merienda. It is similar to a tea time and is taken around 18 or so.
-between the lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes are closed, and it takes extra effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time. Despite this, you can always look for a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches, which can be filled with ham, cheese or any kind of embutido, and bocadillos calientes, hot sandwiches, filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and similar options with cheese. This can be a really cheap and tasty option if you find a good place.
Normally, restaurants in big cities don't close until midnight during the week and 2-3AM during the weekend.
Breakfast is eaten by most Spaniards. Traditional Spanish breakfast includes coffee or orange juice, and pastries or a small sandwich. In Madrid, it is also common to have hot chocolate with "churros" or "porras". In cafes, you can expect varieties of tortilla de patatas (see the Spanish dishes section), sometimes tapas (either breakfast variety or same kind as served in the evenings with alcohol).
The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars as tapas, which are a bit like "starters" or "appetizers", but are instead considered side orders to accompany your drink. Some bars will offer a wide variety of different tapas; others specialize on a specific kind (like seafood-based). A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink at a bar, then go to the next bar and do the same. A group of two or more individuals may order two or more tapas or order raciones instead, which are a bit larger in order to share.
Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and Burger King only in bigger towns in the usual places. The menu can be a surprise since it has been customized to appeal to the locals and beer, salads, yogurt (primarily Danone), and wine are prominent. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns but it can be their own homegrown franchises, such as TelePizza. In spite of beer and wine on the menu, fast food is often seen as "kiddie food." American franchises generally charge higher prices than in the United States, and fast food is not necessarily the cheapest alternative for eating out.
-Seafood: on a seacoast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. In the inner regions, frozen (and poor quality) seafood can be frequently encountered outside few highly reputed (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially on the north Atlantic coast.
Quality seafood in Spain comes from Spain's northwestern region of Galicia. So restaurants with the words Gallego (Galician) will generally specialize in seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you might want to try the Galician regional specialty Pulpo a la Gallega, which is boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is Sepia which is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of Calamares (squid) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that isn't your style you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present Paella dishes.
-Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain has maintained quite a high percentage of free range animals.
Ordering beef steaks is highly recommended, since most comes from free range cows from the mountains north of the city.
Pork cuts which are also highly coveted are those known as Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico, an absolute must if found in the menu of any restaurant.
-Soups: choice of soups beyond gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
-Water is frequently served without a specific request, and is normally charged for--unless it's included in your menu del dia. If you would like free tap water instead of bottled water, request "agua del grifo" (water from the tap). However, not all restaurants will offer this and you may be forced to order bottled water.
-Appetizers such as bread, cheese, and other items may be brought to your table even if you didn't order them. You will be charged for them. If you do not want these appetizers, politely inform the waiter that you do not want them.
-Tipping is not observed in Spain so don't tip (unless there was something absolutely exceptional about the service). As a result, you may find that waiters are not as attentive or courteous as you may be used to since they don't work for tips. This is less true in major resorts and cities where tipping is common. Look around at other diners to assess if tipping is appropriate.
-World-level restaurants: There are several restaurants in Spain which are destinations in itself, becoming a sole reason to travel to a specific city. One of them is El Bulli in Roses.
Tipping and VAT
No service charges are included in the bill. A little extra tip is common and you are free to increase that if you are very pleased. Obviously you don’t have to tip a lousy waiter. You would typically leave the small change after paying with a note.
VAT is-not-included is a common trick for mid-range and splurge restaurants: always check in menu whether VAT (8%, IVA in Spanish) is included in menu prices.
Menú del día
Many restaurants offer a complete lunch meal for a fixed price – "menú del día" – and this often works out as a bargain. Water or wine is commonly included in the price.
Typical Spanish food can be found all over the country, however top tourist destinations such as Costa Brava and Costa del Sol have turned all existing traditions upside down. Meaning that drinks are generally more expensive (about double) and quality is at its lowest. It is difficult to find proper Spanish food in the tourist centers.
However you will get Schnitzel, original English breakfast, Pizza, Donner, and frozen fish. However, if you are prepared to look a little harder, then even in the busiest tourist towns, you can find some exceptional traditional Spanish restaurants. If you are on the coast then think fish and seafood and you won't be disappointed.
Specialties to buy
-Cheese: Spain offers a wide variety of regional cheeses.
Queso Manchego is the most famous one.
Cabrales,Tetilla,Mahon are also popular.
-Chorizo: Spain's most popular sausage is spiced cured, made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper and is produced in multitude of varieties, in different sizes, shapes, short and long, spicy, in all different shades of red, soft, air dried and hard or smoked. Frequently contains emulgators and conservatives, so check ingredients if you feel sensitive.
-Jamón (air dried ham): Jamón Serrano (Serrano ham): Is obtained from the salt meat of the back legs of the pig and air dried. This same product is given the name of trowel or paletilla when it is obtained from the front legs. Also it receives the names of jamón Iberico (Iberian) and jamón of bellota (acorn). They are specially famous jamones that takes place in Huelva (Spain), in Guijuelo (province Salamanca), in the Pedroches (province Cordova) and in Trevélez (province of Granada). Jamón Iberico is made from free range pigs.
Judging by Boqueria in Barcelona, Jamon Iberico starts at €80/kg, and Jamon Serrano is about €25/kg. One well known chain in Spain is Mesón Cinco Jotas , which is known by locals for their expensive, but good quality ham. Visiting Spain without trying Jamon Iberico would be considered a crime by most Spaniards. Spaniards treat their ham very seriously and types and qualities of ham vary in a similar way to wine. Quality ham is generally expensive but has little to do with the many cheaper versions available. The diet of the pig is the most important factor in determining the quality of the ham. The least expensive ham comes from pigs fed on normal grains whereas medium grade pigs are raised on a combination of acorns and grains. The top tier pigs are fed exclusively on acorns and their hams are not considered to be the best grade without an "acorn fed" stamp. These top grade hams have a rich flavor and an oily texture but to non-connoisseurs, glossiness and the presence of white lines of fat crisscrossing a slice of ham is generally a good indicator of its quality.
-Morcilla: Black sausages made from pig blood, generally made with rice or onion. Sometimes flavoured with anise, it comes as a fresh, smoked or air dried variety.