Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain

Valentina Ruffoni has lived in Madrid for three years and runs the highly successful food and drink community, Eat Out Madrid. She shares her top tips for dining out like a true Spaniard.

Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain
Photo: Valentina Ruffoni / Eat Out Madrid

Whether you have been in Spain three years like me or just three weeks, understanding and adapting to the Spanish dining culture can be difficult but follow these tips and you will be on your way in no time!

Dining times

Photo: Pablo Lopez/Flickr

Dining times here in Spain are much later than what you are may be used to. Lunch is usually between 2-4pm and dinner from 8.30pm onwards. Most restaurants will open at these times and close between the seatings to reset for dinner and give their own staff a chance to rest and eat, so if you are like me and like to eat an early dinner (6-8pm), this could be difficult to find unless you are in the centre of one of the big cities such as Madrid where kitchens are open all day. This is one of the biggest hardest cultural differences many expats find it difficult to adjust to.

Menu del Dia

Photo: CPGXK/Flickr

Translated to “Menu of the Day”, you will see many chalkboards offering these outside most of the traditional Spanish restaurants at lunchtime. For a set price you can enjoy a starter, main course, dessert or coffee, a drink and bread. These can range from €9 up to around €15 depending where you are but are a common choice for most workers as it is usually a large meal which will set you up for the rest of the day. In Spain, lunch is considered their largest meal and dinner is often something smaller. Many attribute this as one of the main reasons why Spanish people enjoy such long life expectancy.  

TOP TIP: Out with a group of 2 or more? Order “agua, vino y casera” which basically gives you a large bottle of water, a bottle of wine and a bottle of casera (a sweet fizzy soda water). This allows you to have more than one drink for the same price. Word of warning: Alcohol is prevalent throughout the day even during working hours, the drinking culture here is as common as going for a coffee (plus the prices are very reasonable, thanks to the many local brands of he country)


Where are the vegetables?

Coming from the UK I grew up on meals which consisted of meat, potatoes and vegetables. Here in Spain a portion of vegetables with your meal is quite uncommon and even hard to find as a side dish on most menus. Aside from a couple of pimientos de Padron (Small green peppers cooked in oil) or a side salad (iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion and tuna – yes tuna is a common ingredient in salads) the absence of vegetables on plates is very evident. 

That said, potatoes is a main staple with most meat and fish dishes and a meal is always served with bread (but not butter).

TOP TIP: If you don't want potatoes, it's worth asking if they have an alternative as an accompaniment. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Eating al fresco


One of the perks of living in Spain is undoubtedly the climate and the joy of eating in the sunshine even in March or October. 

The streets and squares of Spain are lined with terrazas and it is tempting to choose to eat al fresco. However, if you do decide to sit here be aware that you could be charged a premium, something that isn't always explained when you sit down and order.

After dinner drinks

Photo: OscarDC/Flickr

Dining out in Spain is a very social experience, many locals will often meet for an aperitivo and then spend at least 2 hours eating lunch. After lunch is finished, it is common to order a “chupito” which usually would be something creamy, similar to a Baileys or something more herbal. In many restaurants, especially more traditional Spanish ones, you will be offered these for free. But after dinner is the time to order “copas”: Long drinks such as gin and tonic or rum and coke.

To tip or not to tip?

Photo: orellopics/flickr

Unlike other cultures tipping is not something that is compulsory or expected here, and many could argue that as a result of this the customer service does not always meet the standard you'd desire. However, if you do feel you want to give something and the staff were particularly friendly and efficient then a handful of small change is more than enough.

Throwing serviettes on the floor

Particularly in traditional bars where stools are placed at the counters or there is a large space to stand, you will start to notice serviettes or tissues on the floor, and I don’t mean just a few here and there. This was one of the most difficult things to adjust to and actually I still question it now. Someone once told me that if a someone is to throw one on the floor it is a sign of a good experience. This always confused me as there are bins at floor level, yet none of these were any-where close.

Enjoying the “Free tapas”

Photo: AFP

Spain is well known for giving out a small “tapa” for free when you order a drink. Now, depending where you are, you can experience very different things. Smaller offerings can include olives or crisps (chips) but this could also span to tortilla, potatoes or some sort meat or fish with bread.

TOP TIP: When going to a bar where you know you will order food, only order a drink to start and wait a while to suggest you are interested in food. By doing so, you are more likely to get that “free tapa” with your drink at the beginning, rather than risk missing out because the staff  know you will be ordering food and don't want to fill you up with a freebie.

Valentina Ruffoni is a Madrid based foodie who is originally from the UK. She is the founder of Eat Out Madrid, the largest online community of English speaking food lovers in the capital who are on the search to find the best places to eat and drink. Get recommendations for your next eat out experience and share your favorite places to go by joining the community.


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The best vegan and vegetarian Spanish dishes

These are two words that don’t often go together – vegetarian and Spanish, as most vegetarians and vegans will only know too well, however, it may come as a surprise to discover that there are a few Spanish dishes that naturally do not contain any meat or fish.

The best vegan and vegetarian Spanish dishes

Whether you live in Spain or you frequently travel here, if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan you’ll know that finding traditional Spanish dishes can be tricky. But if you don’t want to have to eat international food all the time, you will discover that there are several meat and fish-free dishes that are Spanish classics. 

Espinacas con garbanzos

A dish traditionally found in southern Spain in Andalusia, this is essentially exactly how it’s translated – spinach with chickpeas. The dish has a long history dating all the way back to the Moors, who ruled southern Spain for almost 800 years. Completely vegan, the spinach and chickpeas are made into a type of stew with herbs and spices like paprika and cumin. Often pine nuts and raisins are added to the mix too.

READ ALSO: What did the Moors ever do for us?’ How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

Spinach and chickpeas is a classic Andalusian dish. Photo: Xemenendura / Wikimedia Commons


A classic vegan dish from Catalonia, escalivada is a mix of slow-roasted vegetables, usually onions, peppers and aubergines. It can be eaten as a type of topping for large toasts called torradas and can sometimes have goat’s cheese melted on the top.

Calçots with romesco sauce

Another much-loved Catalan vegetarian dish is calçots with romesco sauce. Calçots are like a cross between a spring onion and a leek and are only available in the winter or early spring seasons. They’re typically grilled over an open fire until blackened. You must then remove the burnt exterior with a pair of gloves before dipping them in the romesco sauce. The sauce is a concoction made from toasted almonds and hazelnuts, tomatoes, garlic, toasted bread, olive oil, vinegar and dried ñora peppers. They can be a bit messy to eat, so restaurants will often give you a bib to wear too. 

READ ALSO – Recipe: How to make, eat and enjoy calçots

Try some calçots at a traditional calçotada. Photo: Esme Fox


A dish that many are familiar with, this cold soup is traditionally from Andalusia, although it’s likely you’ll find it all over Spain in the summertime. It’s made from blended tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bread, olive oil and garlic. 

Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup. Photo: Ирина Кудрявцева / Pixabay

Paella de verduras

Ordering paella in Spain can be tricky for vegans and vegetarians because the most traditional either contain seafood or rabbit, chicken snails and butter beans, like the ones from Valencia. Many places, however, now offer a paella de verduras, featuring only vegetables. Restaurants will use whatever is in season, whether that’s artichokes, green beans, peppers, asparagus, mushrooms or courgettes. The only difficult part is that many places will only do paellas for two or more people, so you have to hope your companions are willing to eat the vegan version too. 

A vegetable paella is completely vegan. Photo: Corophoto / Pixabay

Berenjenas con miel

This simple tapas dish translates as aubergines with honey and is essentially deep-fried aubergines usually dipped in bread crumbs or battered and then drizzled with molasses or treacle which is actually miel de caña, not the type of honey from bees. Although you can find it in many places in Spain, it’s typically from Andalusia and is very popular in Granada and surrounding areas.

A plate of berenjenas con miel is always a veggie favourite. Photo: Esme Fox

Patatas a lo pobre

Poor man’s potatoes might not sound very appetising, but this dish of fried sliced potatoes with onions, peppers and garlic is actually delicious. Again you’ll find it mostly in Andalusia, particularly in the Alpujarras mountains, just south of Granada.

Try some patatas a lo pobre in the Alpujarras. Photo: pxhere


Similar to the French ratatouille, pisto is a stew made from cubes of aubergines, onions, peppers, courgettes and tomatoes. It comes from the region of Castilla-La Mancha and is often served with a fried egg on top. To make it vegan, simply ask for it without the egg.

Pisto is similar to the French ratatouille but is often served with an egg. Photo: Arnaud 25 / WikiCommons

Ajo blanco

This white garlic soup is a tasty combination of almonds, garlic, olive oil, bread and white wine or sherry vinegar. It comes from the areas around Málaga and Cádiz and like gazpacho is served cold. It’s sometimes served topped with grapes too. 

Ajo blanco is often served with grapes. Photo: cyclonebill / WikiCommons

Croquetas de boletus, ceps or espinacas

Croquetas are a favourite tapas dish throughout the country, and while many of them are filled with jamón (ham) or even squid ink, there are several vegetarian varieties too. Unfortunately, they are not vegan because they’re made with bechamel sauce, which contains dairy. The bechamel is mixed with various flavours and then covered in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. Vegetarian varieties come in varieties such as boletus or ceps (types of mushrooms), espinacas (spinach) or cabrales cheese – a blue cheese from Asturias. 

READ ALSO – MAP: How well do you know your Spanish cheeses?

Try croquetas filled with spinach, mushrooms or cheese. Photo: Ralf Gervink / Pixabay


Salmorejo is a cold soup similar to gazpacho, but it’s much thicker and creamier. It’s typically made from just four main ingredients – tomatoes, bread, olive oil and garlic. You can find it all over Andalusia, but it’s actually from Córdoba. Often it’s topped with ham and boiled egg, so simply ask for it sin jamón y huevo for it to be vegan. 

Ask for your salmorejo sin jamón for it to be vegetarian. Photo:Javier Lastras / Wikimedia Commons

Tortilla de patatas

One of the two only non-vegan dishes on our list is the classic tortilla de patatas, which you can find all over Spain and is definitely a meal you can rely on if all else fails. It is of course made from eggs and potatoes, but Spain is very divided on whether you should add onions or not. The Local is firmly on the onion side! 

Do you like your tortilla with or without onion? Photo: Luis MGB / Pixabay