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LIFE IN SPAIN

The secrets of El Menú del Día: The surprising story behind Spain’s fixed-price lunch menu

Madrid resident Paul Burge discovers the story behind Spain's popular Menú del Día and asks - is it on its way out?

El menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain.
El menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain. Photo: Cpgxk/flickr

Wander up and down any street in Spain and you’re bound to see a blackboard propped up outside almost any restaurant announcing ‘Menú del Día‘.

A list of two courses with various dishes for each will have been hastily scribbled down by the chef that morning. And no menú would be complete without the final flourish of, ‘Pan, Bebida Postre o Cafe‘ (Bread, Drink and Dessert or Coffee) followed by an appetite-inducing and implausibly reasonable price.

There is a catch of course. El menú del día is only available from Monday to Friday and as the name suggests only at lunchtimes, normally 2 – 4pm. You’ll also have a fairly limited two or three options for each course. Hence the incredibly good value. I’ve eaten fixed-price menus in Spain for as little as €7. They can be as ‘expensive’ as €15 at more high-end establishments. But the average is around €12. 

So how did this fantastic value lunch menu come about and why is it so popular today? 


A  maincourse of swordfish and potato at Madrid’s El Maño restaurant. Photo: F Govan
 

By the late 1950s Franco realised just how much Spain had to gain economically from tourism. The ‘Spain is different’ marketing campaign of the late 1950s saw an enormous boom in tourism from 2.9 million visitors in 1959 to 11.1 million visitors in 1965.

General Franco’s Minister of Information and Tourism, Manuel Fraga subsequently decided to introduce legislation to implement a standardised format for a fixed-price menu to make sure all visitors could enjoy Spanish cuisine.

Originally it was called El Menú Túristico and was aimed specifically at tourists. El Menú Túristico was made law in Spain on March 17th, 1965 and an official state bulletin from the 29th March 1965 described in excruciating detail what was to be provided by all restaurant owners.

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Accompanying legislation also laid down the law regarding the management of cafeterias, university and factory canteens, as well as restaurant and café cars on trains.

It was inevitable then that the economical fixed-price menú became incredibly popular with Spaniards, and soon spread right across the country. By the early to mid 1970s el menú túristico had become el menú del día and was available in every single town and city in Spain, as it is today.

Yes, el menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain – culinary may sound a little pretentious, as el menú is anything but. Think basic and hearty.

So what’s the format? 


A typical menú del día of starter, main course, dessert, bread and a drink. Photo: F Govan

The menu includes three courses; ‘primer plato’, ‘segundo plato’ and ‘postre’. First and second courses plus dessert. You’ll also be brought an often generous basket of bread.

So what can you expect to eat?  For the first course you’ll be given between two to four dishes from which to choose, usually based on vegetables, eggs or pulses.

The offerings will vary depending on the time of year, as Spaniards love to use fresh seasonal produce. In colder months, think soups, stews or paella.

When the heat kicks-in salmorejo and gazpacho (cold tomato soups of varying viscosity) are common choices along with salads. Meat and fish dishes are mainstays of the second course, often grilled, sometimes fried. You might be lucky enough to find seafood, calamari or prawns on offer too.

And for dessert? Well, they rarely come as a surprise.

Expect a stream of egg-custard style desserts, like natillas, flan or pudding. Arroz con leche is nearly always on the menú too – creamy rice pudding. Personally, I find these options too heavy after eating two substantial courses. So you can always opt for fruit, which will literally be an orange or an apple which you will need to peel yourself!

‘Un surtido de helados’ – a selection of ice creams is also standard. But why do they only ever have vanilla!? If you get really lucky there might be Tarta de Santiago which is a delicious almond-flavoured cake from Galicia.

Will el menú del día be around forever? 


Photo: AFP

Well, it is no longer the law to provide one. Yet, so ingrained has el menú become in the daily rhythm of life it’s hard to imagine it disappearing. It’s true that gentrification, and the closure of family businesses due to retirement are taking their toll on the bargain menu. 

But menú del días are still springing-up in less traditional restaurants. Italian, Chinese, Indian, Senegalese, you name it, they all commonly offer a fixed-price lunch menu, such has it become a national institution. 
 
Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain podcast, a free weekly show all about Spain – culture, travel, lifestyle, work, interviews and much more. Follow Paul’s observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, & Twitter .
 

READ MORE:  Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain

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FOOD & DRINK

These are Spain’s new Michelin-starred restaurants

The new 2023 Michelin Star guide for the best restaurants in Spain and Portugal has awarded new stars to 34 restaurants across Spain. Read on to discover which ones and where they are.

These are Spain's new Michelin-starred restaurants

En España se come bien (People eat well in Spain), you’ll hear many Spaniards proclaim. That’s coming from a country that’s not accustomed to singing its own praises on the global stage. 

Although these higher-than-average gastronomic standards apply to all types of bars and restaurants, when it comes to haute cuisine, Spain continues to be among the top five countries with the most Michelin-starred eateries, together with France, Japan, Italy and Germany.

On Tuesday November 22nd, Michelin revealed its newest restaurant selection of acclaimed Spanish restaurants during an event in the Spanish city of Toledo.

As of November 2022, two restaurants in Spain have been awarded the coveted three Michelin Star distinction.

Three have gone up to the two-star category and 29 restaurants have been given new one-star rankings.

Atrio in Cáceres (Extremadura region in western Spain) and Cocina Hermanos Torres in Barcelona have both earned the top award three-star prize, which is the highest award that can be given, and have joined the 13 other restaurants in Spain at this level.

According to the judges, Atrio won the distinction due to “its elegant and delicate dishes, prepared by chef Toño Pérez, who has shaken up local gastronomic traditions”. His menu focuses on Iberian pork and other products from Extremadura.

While in Barcelona, Cocina Hermanos Torres has been given the top award for “firing the imagination with every bite”. Chefs Sergio and Javier Torres have created “a magical space in which the gastronomic experience consistently seeks out the very best seasonal produce and exceeds foodies’ expectations, turning it into a dining extravaganza,” the judges said.

READ ALSO – REVEALED: Spain’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants

Of the 2023 guide, International Director of Michelin Gwendal Poullennec said: “We were delighted to see how younger chefs are taking the lead and embarking on their own journeys, in many cases flying the flag of reinterpreted regional or fusion cuisines”.

“In turn, vegan options are gradually forging ahead on menus, something which was already occurring in other European countries,” he added. 

Below are the Spanish rankings for the 2023 guide, including the three stars awarded to Atrio and Cocina Hermanos Torres. 

Two stars

  • Deessa, Madrid
  • El Rincón de Juan Carlos, Adeje, Tenerife
  • Pepe Vieira, Serpe, Pontevedra

One star

  • Ababol, Albacete
  • Ajonegro, Logroño
  • Aleia, Barcelona
  • AlmaMater, Murcia
  • Alquimia-Laboratorio, Valladolid
  • Ancestral, Illescas
  • Arrea!, Santa Cruz de Campezo
  • Ceibe, Ourense
  • Cobo Evolución, Burgos
  • Código de Barra, Cádiz
  • Come, Barcelona
  • Enigma, Barcelona
  • Etxeko Ibiza, Es Canar, Ibiza
  • Ferpel, Ortiguera
  • Fusión19, Muro, Mallorca
  • Gente Rara, Zaragoza
  • Kaleja, Málaga
  • La Finca, Loja
  • Mont Bar, Barcelona
  • Monte, San Feliz
  • Montia, San Lorenzo de El Escorial
  • Oba, Casas-Ibáñez
  • O’Pazo, Padrón
  • Ravioxo, Madrid
  • San-Hô, Adeje, Tenerife
  • Slow & Low, Barcelona
  • Tabaiba, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
  • Ugo Chan, Madrid
  • Zuara Sushi, Madrid

The Michelin Guide also handed out special awards to three different chefs.

The Young Chef Award for 2023 went to Almería-born chef Cristóbal Muñoz, who at age 31, heads up the kitchens at Ambivium in Peñafiel, Castilla y León.

The Chef Mentor Award for 2023 was given to a well-known name in the world of Spanish gastronomy – Joan Roca, who together with his brothers turned El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Catalonia into one of the best and most famous restaurants in the world.

Finally, the Michelin Service Award for 2023 was presented to Toni Gerez from Castell de Peralada, also in Catalonia. As the restaurant manager and sommelier, he “excels in customer-facing roles, in particular, when presenting his marvellous cheese cart that goes from table to table,” explained the judges.

In total, the 2023 Guide lists 1,401 restaurants throughout Spain, Portugal and Andorra. Out of these, 13 have three Michelin Stars, 41 have two Michelin Stars and 235 were awarded one Michelin Star. 

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