Restaurants have been a part of Spanish culture for centuries. Indeed Spain is home to the oldest surviving restaurant in the world. According to the Guinness book that would be Sobrino de Botín (established 1725) just off Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Botín is merely the oldest and you’ll find many other eateries that are well over 100 years old. Most of these restaurants began as coach houses, places where travellers stopped for the night. Or they were like Botín, what today we might call a working-class tavern or pub. It was then a lane full of workshops, smithies, potters and the like. At mealtimes the workmen would come to Botín for bread and wine, a bit of ham or chorizo. And some respite from the afternoon sun.
Horno Asador (Roasting Oven)
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At some time Botín developed into that quintessentially Spanish restaurant, the horno asador (literally, roasting oven). The actual oven is typically round, 1½m by 3m with its portals and cooking floor about half way up. It’s made of roofing tiles or adobe. One made of firebrick is said to provide a too intense heat. Beneath the cooking floor burns a fire of wood, preferably pine boughs, ash or broom. Sometimes charcoal is added. Baby lambs or kids, suckling pigs, sometimes fowl are placed in cazuelas (earthenware cooking dishes) and slid into the oven. In Summer, if the horno asador has no air-conditioning, dining in it can be challenging. But in the bitter Spanish winter there can be no better place to be. The air is thick with conversation and convivium. The aromas are maddeningly delicious. Many of them, including Botín, have several floors including a basement where the most romantic setting is. To dine in one of these is almost to slip away from this century into another. Unless you are seated next to a party of cigar smokers. Then it’s best to quietly ask for a table on a floor above. Horno asadors are very popular with tourists and locals alike. During high season it’s good to get reservations.
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The Spanish love to eat outdoors, so you will find streetside restaurants, known as terrazas (terraces) in every city. All you have to do is walk down the street, and you will eventually encounter several. This assumes you are walking in the centre of the city, its ‘old town’. So take a walk when you get hungry. When you find a terraza there will be awnings, umbrellas, even trees to fend off the sun. Most of them also have an interior dining room, if you prefer to get in out of the weather. Whole blocks will be given over to these establishments. And when you find them thus clustered, you’ll find that they all tend to have very similar menus. So make your choice of restaurant based less on the menu and more on its ambience, service or view of the world passing by. Reservations are generally not taken, but if there is a crowd they will start a waiting list.
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A proper sit-down restaurant in Spain is like any other in the western world. The customs and protocols are pretty much the same. No real pitfalls. One style difference is that they tend to be small and intimate. If they want to increase floor space they increase the number of floors, not the space. Real estate is expensive, and besides, the Spanish like intimate. Reservations are accepted, and often required in high season. If it is one of the famous temples to gastronomy like Arzak in the Basque Country or Bulli in Cantalunya, reservations are required year round and often far in advance.
Casa de Comidas (Working-Class Restaurant)
There is one type of restaurant that is never mentioned in guide books. And we are reluctant to do so here. But we trust you not to spread this around. Want a cheap meal of wholesome fare with good service? Unless you are staying at an expensive hotel, you could ask the receptionist “where do you go for lunch?” or ask them “where can I find a working-class restaurant?” They will probably direct you to a place across the street or otherwise very near. Working-class restaurants are, penny for penny, the best deal in Spain.
Tasca (Tapas Bar)
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And then there is the tasca. This is the single most common type of restaurant in the Heart of Spain region, and very common everywhere else. They are sometimes large. And they are sometimes the bar of a proper sit-down restaurant. They are often small. They can be grand or grotty. They can have marble floors or floors covered with sawdust, spit, cigarette butts and substances you’d rather not contemplate. But these tascas are sometimes the best! At least the most fun.
One of the great things about tascas is that they’ll sell you any of their wares para llevar (take away). Need a bottle of water or a can of beer as you trudge down the heated highway? Step into the nearest tasca. No problema. Do you like that wine you just had a glass of? Get a bottle. They’ll even open it for you. Carry it with you when you go. And the same goes for tapas when it’s time for an impromptu picnic.
Jamónería (Ham House)
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The Spanish don’t merely enjoy, or even love, their jamón (ham). Truth be known they worship the Holy Ham. You will see shrines to it everywhere. Jamónerías, all hung heavily with hams, are among the most common type of restaurant. Inside, hams hang thickly from the ceilings and walls. They grace the bar. Their hammy scent fills the air. And the establishments have names that sing the importance of ham. You will see names like The Palace of Ham; The Jewel of Ham; The Museum of Ham; The Salon of Ham. But the ultimate ham sight in all of Spain, the hammiest, the jamónissimo, is La Catedral del Jamón (The Cathedral of Ham), Palacio de la Bellota, Valencia. ‘Donde jamón es jamón!’ is their proud motto. ‘Where ham is ham!’
More guides to eateries in other countries here.