My love affair with Spain and Spanish cuisine began many years ago when I was a student and spent a year abroad studying in Spain. Since that time I have returned to this beautiful country for many visits and tried as many tapas as my tummy would allow. Madrid, Spain is, in my opinion, one of the great capital cities of the world, well worth a visit for its historical importance, amazing museums, parks, warm people, culture, and of course, food and wine! Whether you are on a short layover, or visiting for several days, one of the must-do activities here is a tapas crawl, or as the Spanish call it, “un tapeo”.
What are “tapas”?
Tapas are small portions of (usually savory) dishes including cured meats, cheeses, salads, fried goodies, seafood, and other tasty bites, usually served with a drink. What began as a tradition in the south of Spain has now become commonplace all over the country; the tapas crawl, or tapeo, where friends make a night of hopping from one tapas bar to the next, enjoying a drink and a tapa (or more) at each place. The tapas crawl may function as a snack to tide one over until dinner (Spaniards typically do not eat dinner until around 10 pm or sometimes later), or may end up being a “nomadic” dinner. Traditionally tapas are consumed with a drink while standing at the bar, although many tapas bars now offer indoor tables or outdoor terrace seating for groups for a small surcharge. To a tourist, a tapas bar may be intimidating, as during peak evening hours (after 9 pm), they are often loud, crowded, and have one daily menu scribbled on the wall chalkboard only in Spanish. But please do not let this deter you from enjoying one of the greatest things about visiting Spain! Reference my tapas cheat sheet later in this post 🙂
Folklore surrounding the origin of “tapas”
No one can be sure how the idea of tapas came about, but there are several fun stories that have been told to explain their origin.
One legend involves King Alfonso X, El Sabio or “The Wise One,” who made sure that Castilian taverns serving wine always accompanied it with something to eat so that the clients would not get too drunk and rowdy by drinking on an empty stomach.
Another story claims that while on a long trip, King Alfonso had stopped to rest in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the southern province of Cádiz, and he ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting sand in it. King Alfonso liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa (which means ‘lid’ or “cover”).
Another common explanation is that an object (such as a piece of bread) would often be placed over a drink to keep the fruit flies from getting in it; at some point it became common to add a snack to the cover.
Whatever their origin, tapas are oh-so-delicious and Madrid is the perfect place for you to get your feet wet and embark on an epic tapas crawl that will have you coming back for more!
Do I have to pay for tapas?
It depends- mainly on what city you are in and what kind of bar it is. In the most traditional tapas bars, you order a drink and a tapa is given to you by the house along with your drink (the house decides what the tapa will be). As long as you keep ordering drinks, they keep giving you another tapa. This is common in the city of Granada. However in most large cities, Madrid included, usually you must order a tapa and pay for it. The menu will usually be on the wall or on a card. The portion sizes vary depending on the bar; some will have a small (for one person) portion or “pincho”, or they may offer a “ración” which is a larger plate made to share. Sometimes you can also order a half portion or “media-ración”.
Tapas Bar Etiquette
For an authentic tapas bar experience, stand at the bar with the locals, don’t be shy! Sometimes a few items will be on display under glass at the counter; its ok to point to an item to ask for it if your Spanish is not great. Look for the menu typically on the wall above the bar (and sometimes also posted on a board outside the entry). Order your drink first; then once it arrives you will know whether or not the house will give you a tapa. Assuming they don’t, choose an item from the menu. When you are ready to order, you will need to get the attention of the bartender; be assertive, or you may never get served. It’s ok to say “Perdona” or “Por favor” to get the bartender’s attention. They usually have napkins at the bar or give you one with your tapa. You may see locals throwing the napkin or toothpick on the floor after eating their tapa. This is actually acceptable; it is considered unsanitary to put trash back on the bar. It is considered bad form to order food at the bar and take it to a table. So if you are planning to sit at a table you should request it first and order from there. Some tapas come served with a toothpick or skewer through them (for example the “pintxos” which are typical Basque-style tapas) and these are kept on your plate so that at the end of the night the house can count how many tapas you had in order to charge you correctly.
Tapas Cheat Sheet
In case your Spanish is not great, here is a cheat sheet for some very commonly served tapas in Spain.
- Tortilla española– Spanish omelette (yes in Spain, tortilla means omelette) the clear winner as the most common tapa in Spain, pie-shaped omelette made with potato and usually a little onion for flavor
- Aceitunas– olives
- Anchoas– anchovies
- Atún– tuna
- Almejas– clams
- Calamares fritos or calamares a la romana– fried squid rings
- Caracoles– snails
- Champinoñes– mushrooms
- Charcutería– cured meats
- Empanadillas– meat or seafood pies
- Ensaladilla rusa– potato salad with lots of mayo, peas, and carrots, and plus/minus tuna
- Espinacas– spinach
- Frito– fried
- Gambas– shrimp
- Gazpacho– cold tomato soup (usually with a good amount of olive oil & garlic)
- Jamón– cured ham
- Mejillones– mussels
- Morcilla– blood sausage
- Paella– saffron rice dish with meat or seafood
- Patatas bravas– fried potatoes typically served with a spicy sauce or a garlic mayo
- Pescaditos fritos– fried small fish
- Pimientos de Padrón– fried small green peppers, some are very spicy
- Pulpo– octopus
- Queso manchego– classic Spanish sheep milk cheese
- Sardinas– sardines
My Preferred Madrid Tapas Crawl
First, these are the places that I have been to and keep coming back to because of certain dishes they offer that are delicious and noteworthy. However, a tapas crawl by nature can be very spontaneous, and that is a large part of the fun. So take this as your guide, but by all means, if a bar looks inviting to you, go in and try it out! Especially if its packed with locals, they know what they are doing 🙂
Your starting point and home base for this crawl is the centrally-located Puerta del Sol, a city square that is worth a visit in its own right. (See map at the end of this post). It is lively almost every night, with great people-watching, and also within walking distance of all of the bars and restaurants in this post. I like to stay in a hotel near this square, but if you are staying elsewhere in the city, you can take the metro to the “Sol” metro stop to reach the square. The goal is for you to try some of the major Spanish tapas staples and a few special dishes that are made very well at these locales. So vamanos a tapear! (that’s right, tapear is a verb in Castilian Spanish that means “to go eat tapas”).
- Enrique Tomás– This is a chain found all over Spain, but even though I typically avoid chains, this one is special in that their main item is ham. And not just ham, but the delicious and sought-after Spanish delicacy known as “jamón ibérico” or Iberian ham. The most special of the Iberian hams sold here is the “pata negra” a cured ham that is melt-in-your mouth good. I was actually never a big fan of ham until I tried this. Wow! It’s so good that I always buy a package of it at the duty-free shop at Barajas airport so that I can eat one last taste before I land back in my country! But don’t get too full here; we still have many stops, so if you are with a group, share a “ración”, if by yourself, consider ordering a “media-ración”. This is also a good place to try a combo plate with the jamón and the queso manchego (cheese), another great Spanish staple.
- Mercado de San Miguel (San Miguel Market)- The nice thing about this market is that you can come here throughout the day (whereas many tapas bars do not open until after 8 or even 9 pm). You could come here for a snack anytime during their open hours. This is why I like to hit it early during my tapas crawl, before some of the other bars are open. (the same principle goes for Enrique Tomas, which stays open throughout the day). This market is a foodie’s playground, so it’s really up to you to choose your tapas. I would recommend taking a nice stroll around the market to see everything first before you decide what to get. Personally, my favorite things to eat here are the seafood dishes (Crab Crab Crab! is on your left as you first enter the market) but everything I have tried here has been amazing. For example, I usually get a couple of the King crab legs upon arrival. Then head to the wine bar for a nice glass of Cava (I get the Brut Nature which is the most dry Spanish sparkling wine, for those who don’t like sweet drinks, pairs well with salty tapas). I love the stand that sells fried squid and other fried treats located in the middle of the market. The fresh squeezed juices are also wonderful if you are looking for a non-alcoholic drink. Vermouth is a very common draft drink in Spain, and can be found here at the bar as well as at most of the tapas bars. You can choose a dry or a sweet Vermouth. Other treats here include caviar, super fresh produce, paella, a large assortment of cheeses, hams, nuts, dried fruits, tortilla espanola, and shellfish and other amazing fish dishes.
- La Oreja de Jaime– This small mom & pop restaurant is very authentic and to be honest, it’s so family run, that they close down in August to be on vacation at the same time as everyone else in Spain. So I hope your trip is not in August! This place is known for their fried shishito peppers, or “Pimientos de Padrón”. They are crispy, spicy, and overall delish. However, my friend and I discovered another amazing dish here, which are their (seasonal) razor clams or “Navajas” (see photo). It was my first time trying these and as a shellfish lover, I was enamored. The fried pig ears are their house specialty and the reason for their name (the word “oreja” is Spanish for “ear”).
- La Casa del Abuelo– There are several locations of this locally owned restaurant, but this original location is my favorite. They are known for their specialty- “Gambas al ajillo” or garlic prawns. These are so simple and yet so remarkable! They are made to order and served sizzling hot in a ceramic dish along with crusty bread to dip in the garlicky slightly spicy oil sea of deliciousness. If you try them once please try them here. I have also tried their other dishes and have not been disappointed by any of them (great fried shrimp, wonderful gazpacho, the list goes on).
- Txakolina Pintxoteca Madrileña– We are now changing our location to a street called Calle Cava Baja, a street that is great for tapas bar hopping. This restaurant specializes in the Basque-style tapas known as “pintxos”. These are beautiful to look at and even more fun to eat. They are always served with a toothpick or skewer through them on top of a thick piece of crusty bread. I have a couple of favorites here, including one that has smoked salmon, crab, and gulas which are tiny fish. Codfish is a big staple here and theirs is fantastic. They also serve draft beer, wine, and vermouth. Although I’m a major wine lover, I will often get a small glass of beer here, as it pairs well with these tapas. To order a beer, ask for “una Caña” either small “pequeña” or large “grande”.
- La Taberna del Tempranillo– located further along on the Calle Cava Baja, this wine and tapas bar specializes in Spanish wines. They also have ridiculously good food, with daily specials listed on the chalkboard above the bar. They are traditional in the sense that, after I order my glass of wine, they give me a small tapa on the house. So if you are still full and waiting a little while before our next stop, take advantage of the super cool old school wine bar atmosphere here and enjoy your glass of wine slowly to make room for a little more food. If you are new to Spanish wines, you are in for a treat. Spain has the world’s largest acreage of vineyards, and comes in third in terms of actual hectoliters of wine produced annually (over 37,000). There are many distinct wine regions located around this country, although perhaps the best known and most-exported wines of Spain are those from Rioja and the sparkling wines known as Cava. The bartenders here are very knowledgeable and can guide you in choosing a wine based on your preferences; also, most of the bartenders speak great English.
- Chocolatería San Ginés– if you are ready for some sweets, this will be your next stop; but if its the weekend and you are not ready to hang it up; you can carry on with your crawl enjoying savory treats and then save this as your last stop. They stay open late on weekends, as they should. Their specialty is “Churros con chocolate” which is a “churro”, or fried cinnamon-sugar coated oblong pastry, accompanied by “chocolate” which is a thick, hot chocolate drink (almost a pudding as thick as it is) which you are to dip your churro in. This is the traditional food to be eaten at the end of a long night of drinking. In fact, Spaniards are known to stay out until the wee hours on weekends enjoying the bars with their friends, and hit the churro stands as the last stop (not uncommonly as “late” as 7 am). Some believe that “churros con chocolate” can prevent or cure a hangover. I’ll let you decide if that’s true 😉
- Llao Llao Yogurt– Ok, this one’s a freebie. I admit, frozen yogurt is not a tapa. But because I visit this yogurt shop every time I’m in Madrid, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give it a mention. This is a chain, but I have only seen it in Spain. For those of us who love FroYo, it’s got to be on the short list of places to hit for a yummy afternoon snack. The yogurt is very tart but not overwhelming, similar to Asian-style froyo. They have all kinds of great toppings, my fav of which is their Nutella sauce. This is perfect in the summer, as Madrid can get quite hot. They also stay open pretty late to accommodate the after dinner crowd. Their staff wears black shirts reading “Volverás por mi sabor” meaning, “you will be back for my flavor”…. so true! I go to the one closest to Puerta del Sol, but you can find many locations around town.
- La Mallorquina– Also not a tapas bar, but this is a very famous and great local bakery right on the Puerta del Sol square, a good place to stop during the day (they don’t stay open late) to buy a pastry for breakfast or some cookies (which are sold by weight not number). I like to buy cookies here and keep them for my breakfast before my flight home, since I usually have to head to the airport early in the morning before the cafes open or hotel breakfast service begins.
I hope this serves you as a good start to your tapas crawl adventures in Madrid! The best part of all is trying new things when you see something that looks and smells good. As they say in Spain, “Buen Provecho” (Enjoy your food!) and “Buen Viaje” (Good travels!). Cheers!