Tapas are a variety of bites, served to be shared
How to order tapas in Spain can be a “challenging” experience. I ahve to admit, being Spanish, it´s natural for me to order a tapa in a bar but maybe it´s not so easy to know how to order tapas in Spain if you are a foreigner. For me, it´s something innate as I saw how to do it since I was a child, learning the rules, the silent codes between the barman and the customers, just observing how the adults did it.
I know you are now asking yourself, “but are there rules to order tapas?” Well, I didn´t know either until I went to Spain with my American husband. It was his first proper trip to Spain. We went to my family town, Tarazona, in Aragón, a beautiful and historic city, but not very big. I mention that because, for him, it was an immersion in authentic Spain. And the tapas experience…it blew his mind! And so did mine when he told me how shockingly different the experience was for him.
So this guide has been elaborated from his impressions as a foreigner, having tapas for the first time in Spain. I hope it will be useful for you when you go to Spain. Probably you have had tapas already in my country, but this guide to know How to Order Tapas in Spain may help you to understand why we do what we do.
A guide to tapas: how to order these delicious bites
Let´s start with the beginning: How to order tapas. This list is not the definitive guide to ordering tapas but I hope it will help you. Although you will find tapas in any region in Spain, the code can be slightly different as each area has its own singularities. But, in general, I think these points are common anywhere.
The guide to know how to order tapas in Spain
The huge variety of tapas available in a typical tapas bar. The bar will be full of plates, with different tapas. If you go at vermouth time, before lunch or dinner, you will see plates coming out from the kitchen with fresh dishes.
Read the menu and the boards. Despite that variety, what’s available isn’t always seen on the bar. One has to read the menu or the board, where the “specialties” or “special dishes for that day” are announced.
There’s a difference between tapa and a “ración”. Ufff, a difficult point. In general, a tapa is a bite that you don´t share. A ración (translate like portion) is a bigger serving that you share. [I will write a post about that later as I know it can be confusing.]
You must force your way to the bar to order. Hahaha! Yes, it sounds a bit weird but we like to have our tapas on the bar so if someone else wants to order, you politely move a bit to let this person see what is on offer and make visual contact with the barman to let him know they are ready to order. It´s not easy as sometimes you can´t reach the “first line” and have to shout what you want from the “second line”. Once there, point all the way down at something you saw waaaaay down the bar, order off the menu and order drinks all in one go. My recommendation, go to the bar to order only when you are ready and have decided ALL you want. If the place is busy, maybe the barman won´t be very patient, waiting for you to make your mind about which one of the 50 different tapas available that you want.
Always be nice with the barmen
Ask the barman about the ingredients in each tapa. They know each tapa as if they were their children. But be ready, they will tell you the list of ingredients loud AND quick. It´s a good way to check your Spanish, though. Don´t be frustrated if you don´t get everything, just ask again with a “por favor, más despacio”. They will appreciate it.
The barmen know what needs to be heated and what is served right off the bar, you don’t have to worry about that. You did enough deciding what to eat, what to drink, reaching the “first line” and shouting what you want. It´s your time now to enjoy. They will be in charge.
The kitchen is in charge, don´t panic
Food will arrive when it´s ready. You will take the dishes that don´t need to be heated or cooked and the rest will be prepared in the kitchen. Don´t expect vegetables, fish, or meat to come in a specific order; the kitchen is in charge and takes orders as they come in. Pay attention to the barman as he might make a subtle signal to let you know your other dishes are ready or, the opposite, and shout your name if you are distracted. There is no embarrassment in a crowded tapas bar!
You pay at the end (not at the point of delivery as in the UK or American bars). Be careful with that, as normally, yes, we pay at the end. We say to the barman what we had and he or she charges you. It´s a question of trust, and also, a way to keep the tab open in case you order more things. However, in some places, if they are very busy that day, or if it´s a tourist place, they can give you the receipt when you order to pay at that moment.
What you need to know about how to eat tapas
Have the paper napkins near you!
Tapas can be messy and inelegant to eat, mainly if they are stacked tall because 3 or 4 different ingredients are skewered, so turn your head when taking a bite but don´t be shy or very concerned about what others will think. After all, everybody has the same challenge.
You can grab forks and knives from the little bins at the bar, or ask the barman for cutlery but many tapas are finger food. Again, don´t be shy and use your hands. There will be plenty of paper napkins in dispensers on the bar. Don´t be alarmed, many napkins will end up on the floor. We are working on fixing that.
Bread often functions like a tapa delivery tool from plate to mouth. Bread is essential for us. It´s our fourth utensil together with the spoon, the fork, and the knife.
The egg yolk is supposed to be runny, don’t freak out. This is for our American visitors: some tapas have a quail egg and the yolk will be runny. Or if you order “huevos rotos”, the yolk will be runny too, otherwise, the dish will be ruined and we complain. (Check my recipe for “huevos rotos” with the step-by-step instructions and pictures).