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Why do some bars in Spain want you to throw serviettes on the floor?

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Why do some bars in Spain want you to throw serviettes on the floor?
It's often the traditional family-run bars where the decor hasn't changed in decades and the tapas have been famous for even longer where serviettes are thrown on the floor. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

You’ve probably been to a bar in Spain where you have some tapas or pintxos whilst standing up, you look down and see a mountain of used paper napkins. It may seem messy to tourists, but it’s a tradition with meaning.

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All across Spain there are humble, family-run bars where for decades waiters have been dishing out the same famed tapas like clockwork and at lightning speed.

Some bars or taverns may specialise in one particular dish or pintxo, or offer the grub for free with customers’ drinks, all of which adds to the popularity and chaos of the establishment. 

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What happens in some bars is that there’s an unwritten rule whereby the paper napkins that customers use to clean their hands and mouths after tucking into a piece of greasy ibérico ham or brine-dripping olives are simply chucked on the ground.

The pile of used serviettes quickly piles up, in part because the thin paper napkins that are traditionally used across eateries in Spain are notoriously useless at absorbing or cleaning, meaning that people get through a stack of them in one sitting. 

Food-loving foreigners in cities such as San Sebastián or Madrid are often surprised to see the mix of servilletas, bits of food, sugar sachets and toothpicks mounting up around customers’ feet, whilst locals carry on eating and chatting without giving it a second’s notice. 

Every little while when the mess gets out of hand, one of the waiters will come with a broom and dustpan to scoop up all the serviettes, although in some cases bars have fitted a section along the base of the bar where customers can drop the napkins into, almost like a dustbin. 

“Napkins on the floor are a sign that we offer a good service,” Kino Martínez, head of Gipuzkoa Hotel and Catering Association told his local daily Noticias de Gipuzkoa.

“If there weren't any, it would be a bad sign," he concluded, adding that serviette littering is traditional in many bars in Spain’s northern Basque Country. 

This is generally the rule of thumb for locals, and consequently for foreigners on the lookout for hidden gems: if there’s a pile of crumpled up serviettes adorning the floor, it means the place is popular, probably because the food is good and/or cheap.

In the video below, titled " a good bar has serviettes on the ground", Youtuber Miquel Serrano argues that he hasn't been able to resolve the mystery of why Spaniards litter in bars but keep their homes so clean, but that this dirtiness gives the bar "essence", "happiness" and "makes it a Spanish bar and not a German one".

It’s worth stressing that not every bar, restaurant or tasca in Spain embraces this habit; it’s a rather old-school custom that you’ll spot at bars that have been around for decades (if not centuries) and not something to be done at flash new restaurants.

In fact, over the past decade a number of municipal bylaws have sought to end the somewhat dirty custom in some parts of the country. 

In 2022, the town hall of Almería in southern Spain announced it would fine bar owners who didn’t keep their floors clean between €120 and €750, with smaller penalties for customers who failed to put paper napkins in the bin. 

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Similar rules were brought out in Bilbao in 2014, with even a catchy rhyme used for the campaign to encourage the public to throw their serviettes in the allocated bins (encesta que no cuesta, something like ‘put it in the net, you won’t fret’).

"Now we sweep; if we got trash cans, they would also have to be emptied. It would mean the same work for us," Iñaki Zelaia, manager of San Sebastián’s Bartolo bar-restaurant, said at the time. 

"We sometimes tell tourists that if you like the pintxo, throw the napkin on the floor; if not, leave it on the plate. 

“And that's why there are so many paper serviettes on the floor".

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