Menus in Spain can be anything but straightforward. With strict social norms on when to eat, which type of foods and in which sizes, ordering at a restaurant can sometimes be downright difficult.
But a few key Spanish words and bit of menu decoding and the joys of Spanish cuisine are ripe for the tasting!
Many Spanish restaurants do not have English menus and those that do are often rather unhelpful (and sometimes outrageous) direct Google translations of their Spanish menu. That being said, most restaurants use the same rough guidelines for organizing their menus. Here is everything you need to know about Spanish menu terminology to excel at ordering and dining out in Spain (and therefore eating like royalty!).
Menu Categories by Plate Sizes
Size is the name of the game when ordering in Spain. Whether it’s a plate of food or a glass of beer, most all edible items in Spain are ordered by size. Here are the most common options:
- Tapa: Tapas usually are the smallest size you can order. While many bars and restaurants in Spain give out a free tapa, most also have a list of tapas you can pay for. These menu tapas are usually about the size of a small salad plate and vary hugely in their variety. For two people, tapas are a good option if you’re looking to get a small taste of many different dishes.
- Ración: Raciones are larger plates that are meant to be shared. While ración sizes vary from restaurant to restaurant, the rule of thumb is to order one ración for each person at the table. It is extremely common to ask the waiter if he or she thinks you’ve ordered too much food or not enough. Raciones are also often available in half-sizes or media raciones as well.
Menu Categories by Type of Food
The options are endless when it comes to Spanish menu categories, but here are a few that hard to miss!
- Entrantes: Appetizers. These are usually meant to be shared at the beginning of the meal. You’ll also see appetizers under the heading para picar which means “to pick at.”
- Primeros: First courses. This word is most often used on lunchtime “menus of the day” called the menu del día. These first courses tend to be more elaborate than the second course. This is often where you’ll find most of the vegetable dishes.
- Segundos: Second courses. This is another word used almost exclusively on daily lunch menus. Segundos are often a meat or fish dish served with fried potatoes or a small salad of lettuce, tomato and onion.
- Tostas: Baguette-style bread, sliced lengthwise, toasted and topped with any number of goodies. Some popular tostas are topped with cured meats and cheeses. Two of my favorites are sobresada con miel (paprika-spiced spreadable pork sausage drizzled with honey) and gulas (imitation baby eels aka fish spaghetti with toasted garlic and cayenne pepper).
- Carnes: Meats. Most meat dishes in Spain are either stewed or simply pan-seared with olive oil and garlic. Some popular stewed meats are rabo de toro (oxtail) and carrillada (beef cheek). Common pan-seared cuts of meat include solomillo (pork or beef sirloin), chuletón (t-bone steak, usually enormous!), and filete (thin-sliced filet of chicken, beef or pork).
- Aves: Birds. Some of the most common are pollo (chicken), pavo (turkey), pato (duck).
- Ensaladas: Salads. The traditional Spanish salad is often called the mixta and is comprised of lettuce, tomato wedges, onion and sometimes green olives, shredded carrot, hard boiled egg and/or pickled white asparagus.
- Postres: Dessert! Some popular Spanish desserts are: a slice of fruit like melon or pineapple, milk or egg-based desserts like flan, leche frita (fried milk) or arroz con leche (rice pudding) or tartas aka cakes like cheesecake, chocolate cake or carrot cake.
Toss out all those old notions of ordering your beer by its name. In Spain beer is ordered by the size. Each major city in Spain has their own beer brand. For example, Mahou in Madrid, Estrella Damm in Barcelona, Cruzcampo in Seville and Alhambra in Granada.
As most bars only serve that city’s main beer brand, there usually is no need to specify which type of beer you want. Instead, you order by size.
- Caña: usually the smallest and most popular size of tap beer at about 200 ml (roughly 7 oz).
- Doble: literally means “double” although it is usually not quite double the size of a caña coming in around 350 ml (12 oz). Dobles are also only used for beer on tap.
- Botellín: means “little bottle.” These are like the caña versions of bottled beer and are often served in bars and sold in supermarkets. One botellín is 200 ml (6.7 oz).
- Tercio: means “a third.” Tercios are the normal size of beer bottles in the U.S. They are 330 ml (11 oz).
It may be called café but virtually all coffee sold and consumed in Spain is espresso– café de maquina in Spanish. And like most foods in Spain, it is served simply. You won’t find ten different syrups or a dozen distinct coffee beans and roasts at your average Spanish cafe. Here, coffee has just one variable: the milk. These are the most common coffee options:
- Solo: translating to “alone” or “by itself”, a café solo means espresso all by its lonesome.
- Cortado: Usually served in the same small cup as a solo, cortados are “cut” with a splash of hot milk. Both cortados and solos are almost exclusively drank at the end of lunch or dinner.
- Con leche: The most common morning coffee is a café con leche, or “coffee with milk.” This is the largest of the three coffees and is about one-third coffee and two-thirds milk. You can order your milk either caliente (hot steamed milk) or templada (half hot steamed milk and half cold or room temperature milk).
- Con hielo: Any of the above coffees can be ordered “with ice” in which the waiter will bring you a glass with a couple large ice cubes. A quick tip: dump the coffee over the ice as fast as possible to minimize the inevitable spillage!
- Americano: If you want a more American-style coffee, go for an americano, which is espresso with hot water.
There are a few extra charges you may see on your bill at the end of the meal. These are the ones that you’ll almost always find:
- IVA: Value-Added Tax. Sales taxes in Spain are built into the price of every item and therefore no taxes are added to the end of the bill. You will, though, see the IVA breakdown at the bottom of the check.
- Servicio/Pan: There is usually a 90 cent to 1.50€ charge per person for service and/or bread, which is served at every meal except breakfast.
- Terraza: Many restaurants add a 5 to 10 percent surcharge for sitting on the patio or at the outdoor tables.
- Tip: I have never seen a bill with a line for adding the tip. That does not mean you shouldn’t leave one in cash though! If you sit down to eat a meal it is common and recommended to leave about 50 cents to 1€ per person, a bit more (up to 10%) at nicer or more expensive restaurants. Though tipping is never obligatory in Spain, it is always much appreciated.
What are your favorite things to order from a Spanish menu?