The history (and etiquette) of eating tapas in Barcelona
The evening ritual of sharing tapas with friends, family and colleagues is a way of life in Barcelona. But what should you expect when you cram into a small, local bar for small plates and cerveza?
In many ways, it feels strange to focus on the etiquette of tapas.
By its very nature, these bite-size dishes are all about sharing, using your fingers, and unabashedly digging in. So, while dining decorum should not be your main concern, what looks so natural to the locals does take a bit of getting used to—especially if it’s your first time squeezing into one of the tiny tapas bars that line the streets around El Raval and Barri Gòtic.
But once you’ve mastered the art of ordering and eating tapas, you’ll feel right at home, and before you know it, you’ll no longer be regarded a guiri—the name some Barcelona locals bestow on tourists unwilling to adopt their culture.
The food of kings
Like many culinary traditions, the origins of tapas are contested. Some believe it was born in the 13th century when, during an illness, King Alfonso X of Castile could only manage to eat small bites of food at a time. The king thought this was marvelous and, on his recovery, decreed that all drinks should be served with a small snack.
As charming as this tale is, it’s refuted by many food historians. An alternative (and more practical) reason for the cuisine's existence is that the small, regular bites of food and glasses of wine were a great way of keeping 18th-century farmers and laborers going throughout the day before their carb-heavy, mid-afternoon lunch, which was quickly followed by a siesta.
Whatever the true story is, everyone agrees that most of the early dishes were served on top of a slice of bread placed over a sherry glass to keep the fruit flies at bay. Tapas means “to cover,” and in some cases the bread didn’t make an appearance at all, with only a slice of serrano ham laid over the glass. Today, things have become slightly more sophisticated. Serrano ham is still served, but it’s often paired with sweet Spanish melon and the zesty tang of Manchego cheese.
Where to start
More often than not, the best way to find a decent tapas bar is to follow your instincts. The busier the place, the better the food, just be prepared to fight your way to the bar. The most popular spots can get quite crowded, especially as the weekend approaches and local workers pile out of the office looking for cold beer and plates of patatas bravas (roasted potatoes in a spicy sauce)" .
When it comes to finding a seat, your best bet is to let the staff know you’re there to eat, not just drink, and they’ll often do their best to find you a space. In contrast to the bright Barcelona sunshine, the bars are often dimly lit and smoky. And while smoking isn’t allowed inside, the kitchens use extremely hot grills and friers, and the old establishments aren’t always the most ventilated. As a result, it’s advised to avoid wearing your finest clothes if you don’t intend doing laundry while you’re in town.
The order of service
Some bars will have the day’s dishes etched on the wall in chalk, while others will showcase what’s on offer on top of the bar. You may even find yourself in a spot with no menu at all. If this happens, just ask for help. The staff will be delighted to recommend the house specialties or dishes popular among regulars and will tell you when to stop, as it’s easy to over-order without a little guidance. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, your choices may be limited, as most dishes will include some form of meat or cheese. But don’t let that stop you from asking what’s available! You never know if the chef may be able to create something bespoke just for you.
You may also notice that the staff won't write down your order. This is normal, so don’t fret. You’ll be sure to get everything you ordered quickly and in no particular order. The dishes are designed to be communal and informal, so be prepared to share and to try things you may not usually eat. Also, don’t try to be polite and leave that last piece for someone else to eat. Food left untouched will be whisked away by the staff with very little warning.
When you’re ready to leave, simply request “la cuenta,” and your check will be brought to you. Tipping is not always required in Barcelona, but most locals will round up the cost to the nearest euro. If you’re feeling more generous, a 10-15% tip will be greatly appreciated, and you may well be ushered straight to a table if you happen to return during your trip.
If this has given you an appetite to plan a trip to Barcelona, you can discover the most authentic places to sample tapas and recommendations on what to order here: The taste of Barcelona.