A Handy Guide to Spanish Tapas

Estimated reading time 8 min

When it comes to social snacking, it’s hard to beat the tapas culture of Spain. Tapas, or small savory snacks or appetizers often accompanied by drinks, carry with them such a profound place in Spanish identity that they’ve become one of the country’s defining characteristics. If you’re looking for a way to be part of the local atmosphere (and indulge in some of the tastiest dishes in the country) the next time you’re in Spain, a “tapeo,” or tapas bar crawl, is just the thing for you. Here’s everything you’ll need to know about tapas—and how to find the best around!

Origins

Though there are a handful of tapas origins stories, no one is quite sure how exactly they came about. One popular theory dates back to the 13th century, when King Alfonso X of Castille was recovering from an illness. He could eat only small amounts of food with wine, and he enjoyed this so much that he decreed all wine should be served with food.

Another theory originates around 600 years later. King Alfonso XIII ordered wine on a windy day in Cádiz and the bartender put a slice of ham across the top of the glass to keep out the sand. A similar story says tapas started when a bar in Seville served drinks with saucers on the top to keep the flies at bay. (In fact, the word “tapa” means “lid” or “cover.”) Bartenders quickly realized that they could serve small portions of olives, ham, and cheese in these saucers.

Popular Tapas in Spain

There are hundreds of tapas varieties across Spain, with variations unique to each region. Here are some of the most ubiquitous snacks you’ll find:

  • Tortilla Española: Spanish omelet. A concoction of eggs, potatoes, and onions that’s served either as a tapa or a main dish.
  • Croquetas de jamón: Ham and béchamel croquettes that are rolled into logs, coated with egg and breadcrumbs, and fried to a golden brown.
  • Patatas bravas: Fried potato cubes served with alioli or spicy tomato sauce (or both!).
  • Gambas al ajillo: Prawns sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chili peppers.
  • Bacalao: Salt cod that’s breaded and fried or stewed in tomato sauce.
  • Ensaladilla: Russian-inspired potato salad with peas, carrots, tuna, and mayonnaise.
  • Gazpacho: Cold tomato soup blended with cucumber and garlic.
  • Jamón ibérico: Thinly sliced, salt-cured Iberian ham, generally served on crunchy slices of bread
  • Calamares fritos: Fried squid rings.
  • Boquerones: Anchovies marinated in vinegar and served with parsley and garlic.
  • Aceitunas: Assorted olives.
  • Bombas: Fried potato croquettes filled with spiced ground beef.

How to Order

Walking into a tapas bar for the first time can be daunting, especially if it’s crowded and your Spanish is limited. Here’s everything you need to know about how to order your tapas:

  • Head straight to the bar and order from there. If you sit down at a table, it may be a while before a waiter stops by to take your order, particularly when the bar is busy.
  • Order a drink first to give yourself a chance to look at the menu.
  • If you’re overwhelmed by the choices and don’t know what to order, take a look at what the locals are ordering.
  • When placing your order, start small. There’s no set size for tapas, and three in one bar may be plenty for your while the same amount in another be may be too little or too much. Order a little at first, and you can always get another round.
  • If you order at the bar, stay close so you can grab your food as soon as it’s ready.
  • Pay when you finish eating, not when you order. Bartenders will keep your tab open as long as you’re there. You don’t need to tip, but locals often round up their bill

Other Tips

  • Some restaurants may give you free tapas if you ask. If the waiter/waitress bring you a plate of tapas, they’re on the house. However, if he or she brings you a menu, you will need to pay for whatever you order.
  • Going to a tapas bar is a social event, so be sure to bring your traveling companions.
  • Prices are usually around 2–3€ per tapa, but fancier bars may charge anywhere from 5–14€.
  • Tapas bars are generally open between 1:30 and 3, then again from 8:30 to midnight. Exact hours of operation will vary. If you’re looking for a truly authentic tapas experience, go late. Most establishments frequented by locals don’t really get going until 9:00pm or later.
  • Vegetarians, don’t despair! While the majority of tapas feature meat of some kind, most bars will offer at least a couple vegetarian options (like tortillas Española, olives, patatas bravas, and tomato toast, to name a few).

Useful Terms:

Pintxos (or pinchos): Basque-style tapas served on slices of baguette, with the toppings anchored in place by a skewer.
Raciones: Bigger plates of tapas, typically eaten as a meal.
Medias raciones: Half rations.

5 Best Tapas Bars in Barcelona

Quimet y Quimet

This family-run, standing-room-only establishment in El Poble-Sec has been tantalizing the taste buds of locals and visitors alike since 1914. The bustling bar showcases an enormous collection of wines (more than 500!), as well as a delicious array of tapas, served cold because there’s no kitchen. At Quimet y Quimet, seafood is king. Try the montadito with anchovy and tomato relish, or with salmon, yogurt, and truffle honey. Mussels with caviar, shrimp with red peppers—they’re all winners.

Bar Cañete

Busy, bright, and beyond compare describes the atmosphere at Bar Cañete to a tee. This fine-dining establishment in the Raval neighborhood pays tribute to some of the country’s most iconic flavors: grilled Iberian pork loin, lobster croquettes, flatbread with tomato, Galician scallops, and so much more! Cured, dried, fried, pickled—you name it, they’ll make it happen.

Jai-Ca

Situated in the old fisherman’s district of Barceloneta, this popular locale is all about the fried seafood. (Three types of fried squid, fried anchovies, fried cuttlefish, and cod fritters, to name a few.) If you’re not in the mood for seafood, they’ve also got some excellent patatas bravas and bombas.

Cal Pep

If you’re looking for arguably the best tortilla Española in the city, you’ve come to the right place. Follow that up with some grilled monkfish, tuna tartare, fried artichokes, and steamed clams, and you’ve got yourself a tapas meal worth celebrating. Prepare for items a bit on the pricier side, but the quality is certainly there.

La Cova Fumada

No menu, no sign, no problem! With tapas this mouthwatering and beer and wine this inexpensive, word of mouth is all they need at La Cova Fumada. This Barceloneta bar is known for its unrivaled bombas, but you’ll also want to try the salted cod, grilled artichokes, garlic toast, and octopus.

5 Best Tapas Bars in Madrid

Casa González

This gourmet shop/tapas bar in Barrio de las Letras is a wonderland of Spanish flavors. From the 40 wines on offer to an extensive menu of cheeses, charcuterie, and canned seafood, you won’t ever want to leave. Try the jamón ibérico with Manchego cheese, sobrasada (cured sausage) toast with honey, and the foie gras with fig and rum jam. You won’t be disappointed.

TriCiclo

Opened in 2013, TriCiclo serves up some of the best in Spanish haute cuisine. Lobster in red curry sauce, white asparagus in a lemon cream sauce, oxtail cannelloni, and pork belly with octopus are some of the top sellers, but the menu is packed with delectable offerings.

Celso y Manolo

Cod croquettes, grilled veal with spicy kimchichurri, sautéed beef with creamy whiskey sauce and fried rosemary potatoes—Celso y Manolo is, simply put, a revelation. You’ll want to make a reservation if you plan on visiting this modern, family-run establishment near the Gran Vía. Don’t leave without trying a thick slab of organic tomato topped with avocado, mango, papaya, red onion, fresh herbs, and olive oil.

Taberna Tempranillo

Come for the wine and tapas, stay for…the wine and tapas! This small, rustic bar offers wide selection of Spanish-only wines accompanied by such edible gems as sliced baguette topped with foie gras and roasted apples, or grilled squid and caramelized onions.

Bodega de la Ardosa

With over a century to perfect the art of Spanish tapas, it’s no wonder this antique-filled neighborhood tavern whips up some of the best tortilla Española in the country. Order yourself a house-made vermouth and tuck into a refreshing bowl of salmorejo (a cold, creamy tomato soup) or a plate of crispy ham croquettes.

Is your mouth watering yet? Don’t make those taste buds wait a second longer. Set off on one of these exciting Spanish adventures!

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