‘If you’re going to open a café, personalize it!’

This week in My Spanish Career we talk to Ryan Day, an American writer-turned-café-owner about how to avoid a bureaucratic nightmare when setting up shop in Spain and what to do to make your food joint stand out from the rest.

'If you're going to open a café, personalize it!'
Ryan describes The Toast as a literary cafe, a hamburger joint, a vegetarian haven and a musical meeting point.

So Ryan, how did you end up moving to Madrid?

I came over from my native Chicago seven years ago to do an MA in English at the Autonomous University of Madrid. 

How did you come up with the idea for The Toast Café?

I’d co-run a burritos bar in Madrid before so I knew that American-style eateries can be successful in a big, cosmopolitan city like Madrid.

I wanted to do something that wasn't English teaching to earn a living so when the opportunity to set up a breakfast café with my de facto partner Claudia came up, I took it.

How easy was it to set up shop?

We had a limited budget but we still tried to make it all as easy as possible.

It’s a lot more straightforward if you rent out a place that already has a liquor license.

We did a simple transfer, or traspaso in Spanish, and once our names were on the contract we had the right to sell alcohol.

We also chose a place that had all the essentials – furniture and a fully-equipped kitchen.

I think you’re always going to run into bureaucracy wherever you go. Yes, there are bills and charges that seem to crop up out of nowhere but I think it’s the same anywhere else.

So what makes The Toast Café stand out in Madrid, a city of countless bars and cafés?

Well, we cater for a different audience. During the week we have many American customers, many of them students who are looking for food like what they get back home but for affordable prices.

Then at weekends our clientele is mainly Spanish, but we have many other nationalities too.

We also seem to get a lot of mixed nationality couples.

I think people coming to The Toast are looking for a different experience. I don’t want to be harsh on all the other bars in our area but all of them seem to offer the same food and atmosphere.

We're a literary cafe, a hamburger joint, a vegetarian haven, a musical meeting point.

Malasaña and Chueca are the only two neighbourhoods I can think of in the city where you get loads of specialized and quirky food joints similar to ours.

What else goes on at The Toast?

All kinds – writers’ night on Tuesdays, concerts on Saturdays, the odd art exhibit from time to time.

Where is your staff from?

They’re American, Spanish and French.

What’s a must-try for your customers?

Our Big Apple hamburger with cheddar, bacon and of course apple!

What advice would you give to anyone trying to set up a café in Spain at the moment?

Make sure you make it yours. Personalize your food and your space. We've gone for a décor that’s similar to the freedom cafés you’d find in Chicago and DC in the 1920’s.

Our breakfast bar, which we initially sought to make a meeting point for Madrid-based writers, has evolved into so much more than just a place to get tasty pancakes.

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Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day


Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain


Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP


The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 


It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 


In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).