Tapas bars are one of the great pleasures of traveling in Spain. Not only do these lively, inexpensive places capture the exuberance of Spanish life, they pour decent wines by the glass and serve a variety of inventive, affordable nibbles that are perfect for a light meal.
Spain’s tapas tradition dates to the Middle Ages and is cloaked in folklore. The original tapas were small plates of food that bartenders placed on top of freshly poured drinks, possibly to keep flies away from the sweet wine. Over the centuries, tapas have become a bona fide Spanish gastronomic art form. Every region of the country has its own particular style, and a new generation of daring Spanish chefs has adopted the cuisine as an opportunity to invent clever cameos of culinary talent. Though tapas are found from the Basque Country in northern Spain to Catalonia and Madrid, it is broadly agreed that Andalusia, particularly Seville and Córdoba, have the best in the country.
Spaniards regard tapas as an ideal lunch and a perfect after-work snack before a (very late!) dinner. Foreigners often find tapas bars just right for a light meal, since it’s so simple to eat according to one’s level of hunger. For the uninitiated, mastering the etiquette of tapas bars may take some time. At noon and again in the evening, the best bars are loud, crowded places where people eat standing at the bar or over the occasional wine barrel or window ledge. Some have proper tables, but they’re strictly first-come, first-served, and if you do manage to snag one, you’ll pay an average of 25 percent more.
Very few tapas bars have printed menus, since the food varies according to the market and the season, and not many waiters speak English, so we suggest that you have a good look at the selection on the bar and simply point at what you want, or come equipped with a couple of key Spanish words (see glossary below).
Tapas come in four portions: a pincho is the smallest, sort of a canapé; then a tapa, or about two pinchos on a saucer; followed by a media-racion (half-plate); and a racion (full plate).
Suggested Tapas Bars
Several of our favorite Andalusian tapas bars:
Taberna San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel 1, Córdoba. Tel. (34) 957-478-328. Not far from the Palacio del Bailío hotel, this friendly, cozy tapas bar is decorated with beautiful 1880s-vintage tile walls and bullfighting paraphernalia. Stand at the bar or sit in the interior courtyard and sample the superb jamón, croquetas de jamón, patatas brava (deep-fried potatoes with a delicious spicy tomato sauce) and other outstanding dishes.
Bodegas Castañeda, Calle Almireceros 1 (at the corner of Calle Elvira), Granada. Tel. (34) 958-223-222. Just across the street from the cathedral in the heart of Granada, this is one of the city’s oldest bars and a place that pulls an intriguing cross-section of locals — from bankers to shoeshine boys — for very good tapas and wine served out of wooden kegs mounted into the walls. This place is particularly noted for its pâté and cheese boards (called tablas), and also serves delicious gazpacho, small open-faced sandwiches (montaditos) with a variety of toppings, and garnished baked potatoes. Though the bartenders will surely urge you to sample a Calicasas, the house cocktail, we’d advise against it unless you plan to be pushed home in a wheelbarrow.
Bar Juanito, Calle Pescadería Vieja 8-10, Jerez de la Frontera. Tel. (34) 956-334-838. Tucked away in a narrow lane near the old fish market just off the Plaza Arenal, this popular place is widely considered to be the best tapas bar in Jerez, no mean distinction in a city known for them. In addition to terrific fresh seafood from the nearby Atlantic — the prawns were among the sweetest and most succulent we’ve ever eaten — we’d recommend the odd but wonderful patatas revueltos, fresh potato chips cooked in scrambled eggs; alcachofas, artichoke hearts in a sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil; and the albondigas al olonso, tiny, delicate veal meatballs in a sauce spiked with olonso sherry — sublime.
Casa La Viuda, Calle Albareda 2, Seville. Tel. (34) 954-215-420. Right in the heart of Seville, narrow Albareda Street has two of the city’s best and most popular tapas bars: Meson Cinco Jotas at No. 15 and our favorite, Casa La Viuda at No. 2. As is true of most tapas bars, service is chaotic, but it’s a pleasure to snare a sidewalk table and snack for a couple of hours while watching the Sevillanas parade by. Start with plump, cracked Seville-style green olives with fennel and a racion of jabugo bellota, and continue with some of the delicious deep-fried potato chip-size baby-shrimp omelettes, deep-fried ham croquettes and maybe some battered squid rings.
El Rinconcillo, Calle Gerona 40, Seville. Tel. (34) 954-223-183. Founded in 1670, Seville’s oldest bar is a charming place with excellent tapas and lots of atmosphere created by its massive mahogany bar, Moorish-style tilework, tables created from upended wine barrels and wrought-iron chandeliers. In addition to an excellent assortment of Spanish charcuterie, it serves local favorites such as garbanzo beans with spinach (with a clearly Moorish pedigree), a variety of excellent omelettes (cheese, mushroom, wild asparagus, ham, chorizo), great soups — gazpacho and salmajero (tomato and bread soup) — and broth by the glass, the latter being just the ticket on a cool night, especially when ordered garnished with slivered ham and a fresh egg.
This short tapas glossary includes the most commonly found dishes.
Aceitunas: Olives; aceitunas rellenos, stuffed olives, usually with pimiento or anchovy, although lemon peel and almonds are also used.
Albondigas: Meatballs, usually veal, but sometimes pork or beef.
Almendras saladas: Salted almonds.
Boquerones en vinaigre: Anchovies in vinegar, usually fresh.
Calamares: Squid; rellenos, stuffed; a la romana, dipped in batter and fried; en su tinta, in a sauce of their own ink.
Chanquetes: Battered whitebait.
Chorizo al vino: Sausage in red-wine sauce.
Croquetas: Deep-fried breaded croquettes, filled with thick béchamel sauce with ham, tuna, chicken and other fillings.
Empanadas: Flaky pastries that are usually filled with tuna but also can be stuffed with meat.
Ensalada Russa: Russian salad, or a mayonnaise-rich potato salad with onions, peppers and often tuna.
Flamenquines: Breaded ham or pork rolls.
Fritura de pescado: Small deep-fried fish, a specialty of Seville.
Gambas al ajillo: Shrimp cooked in garlic-seasoned oil.
Gazpacho: The classic tomato, cucumber and pepper soup of Andalusia.
Jamón Ibérico: High-quality ham from pigs fed on acorns.
Jamón Serrano: Classic Spanish-style ham.
Manchego: Ewe’s milk cheese.
Mejillones al vapor: Steamed mussels.
Patatas bravas: Fried potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce.
Pimientos de padrone: Tiny flash-fried green peppers; not hot.
Pincho moruno: Grilled meat on skewers.
Pollo al ajillo: Chicken with garlic.
Revuelto: Scrambled eggs, often with potatoes, or asparagus or other vegetables.
Tortilla Espanola: Potato omelette, served at room temperature.