How to Spot a Tourist in a Spanish Restaurant

You might be a tourist in Spain if...

A tourist. It’s that thing we all hope never to be labeled. It’s a word that conjures images of Hawaiian shirts and fanny packs, awkwardness and social faux pas. It’s a label given to restaurants that are overpriced and unauthentic. It’s a haze that hangs over those parts of downtown that are packed with people yet void of locals.

In Spain there is a special word for North American and/or Northern European foreign visitors who haven’t quite figured out how things work here: guiri. While it is sometimes used as a friendly description, it is often tossed about disparagingly. The longer I live here and the more I understand the Odyssey-length scroll that is Spanish eating norms, the closer I get to shaking that guiri label.

There are few places in Spain where it’s easier to see exactly who is a tourist and who is a local than a Spanish restaurant. From what you are drinking to what time you are eating, some things just scream tourist!

Hawaiian shirts aside, here are a few sure-fire signs that you just might be a tourist in a Spanish restaurant…

You know you’re a tourist in a Spanish restuarant if:

1. You are drinking a pint (or bigger!) of beer

Small cañas of beer are far more common than big pints in Spain!
More small beers = more free food!

There are two rules to beer drinking in Spain: it better be cold and it better be small. In a country where temperatures easily stay over 100°F for much of the summer, cold beer is not just a refreshing beverage– it is a mode of survival!

The second rule is more of a strategy. As most bars will serve some sort of free tapa with each beer, the more beers you order the more free food you’ll get. Therefore by ordering two small cañas (about 200 ml or about 1 cup of beer) you can double the amount of free food you get!

Therefore it’s rare to see anyone drinking a full pint glass of beer. If they are, they’re probably a tourist (or maybe in a craft beer bar!).

2. You are dipping your bread in the olive oil

You might be a tourist in a Spanish restaurant if... you dip your bread in the olive oil.
Do not be fooled… this is NOT destined for dipping!

There are two things that are always present at a Spanish table: bread and olive oil. If this were Italy, that would mean the makings of  a pretty stellar appetizer. But in Spain the two items are relegated to very different parts of the meal.

The oil is there as a salad dressing. The bread is like an edible utensil, used to politely push food onto forks and to scrumptiously soak up any remaining sauces.

If you see someone shaking out their olive oil onto a plate and then sopping it up with their bread, they just might be a tourist.

3. You are eating paella for dinner

Paella
Definitely not a right-before-bed food.

In Spain, there is a time and place for every food. The time for paella is NOT at dinner. This loaded rice dish is packed with meat and/or seafood and is thus quite a heavy meal. Seeing as Spanish dinner time is around 9:30 p.m., eating paella just a few hours before going to bed is, as any Spaniard will tell you, indigestion waiting to happen.

Instead, paella is savored over a long lunch giving you the whole evening to let all those carbs settle before hitting the hay.

4. You ordered a glass of water… twice

There are few things more basic and yet more difficult to get in Spain than a glass of water. Somehow Spaniards just don’t drink it very often and if they do, they usually order a bottle. So when you ask the extremely busy waiter to bring you a glass of water, there is about a 1 in 100 chance you’ll get it on the first try.

If someone asks for two glasses of water during the same meal, they are probably not from Spain.

5. You aren’t sharing your food

A tasty ración of Spanish artichokes.
All those artichokes are meant to be shared.

The playtime rule of sharing is caring is also the golden rule of Spanish eating. When a group of friends goes out for dinner they’ll order a bunch of large plates called raciónes and share them all.

Besides being an awesome way to try lots of different foods, it is also the only way to get a varied meal. The idea of a main dish and two sides all on the same plate is something akin to treason in the world of Spanish food. Keeping foods (and their corresponding sauces and flavors) separate is paramount.

Therefore, only one type of food typically goes on each plate (with the exception of a lunchtime main course, which is usually a protein with fried potatoes or salad). If someone orders just one plate and eats the whole thing themselves, they are probably a tourist.

6. You are eating lunch at noon

Noon in Spain is a food wasteland. An hour after the morning coffee break and two hours before lunch begins, most Spanish kitchens are closed at what is prime lunch hour in many other countries. That is, of course, unless it is touristy spot.

Many restaurants that cater specifically to foreign visitors start their lunch service early, long before the traditional 2 p.m. Spanish lunch hour rolls around. If you find yourself sitting at a restaurant table at noon, you just might be a tourist…

7. You tried to order “tempranillo” wine

You might be a tourist in a Spanish restaurant if...
Ribera or Rioja?

Props for being up on Spanish grape varietals, but it won’t do you much good at the bar. As the majority of red wine served in the average Spanish bar or restaurant is made from the same grape (tempranillo), Spaniards order their wine by the region.

The top two red wine regions in Spain are La Rioja and Ribera del Duero (both of which are famous for their tempranillos). The exception to this order-by-the-region rule is white wines from Rias Baixas in Galicia, which are instead referred to by their grape: albariño.

8. You ask to take your leftovers to-go

To-go is a concept that is just starting to make headway in Spain. It has caught on with coffee and now many bakeries and bars offer coffee in small paper to-go cups.

But to-go boxes are virtually unheard of at restaurants. Portion sizes are smaller and plates are usually shared, meaning there is typically little if any food left over. If there is food left uneaten, the waiter is about a million times likely to ask if their was something wrong with your meal than they are to ask if you’d like a to-go box.

9. You are drinking sangria

You might be a tourist in a Spanish restaurant if...
Sangria aka the drink of the tourists!

Despite it’s international fame as Spain’s national beverage, sangria is actually a drink consumed almost entirely by non-Spaniards. While sangria’s origins are undoubtably Spanish, the wine-based beverage owes its worldwide fame to American cocktail connoisseurs, as Lauren explains here in her post on Traditional Spanish Sangria.

While you’ll find many locals sipping on sangria’s simple sister, the tinto de verano, a pitcher of fruit-filled sangria is usually a tell-tale sign that you are a tourist…

But if you must get your sangria fix, try this delicious sangria recipe!

10. You leave a big tip

You know you are a tourist in a Spanish restaurant if...
Just a euro will do!

The twenty percent rule that dominates American tipping culture is a positively foreign concept here in Spain. In fact, in many situations in Spain there is no need to tip at all! For checks under 10 euro per person, no tip is necessary (though it is appreciated). For pricier bills, I usually round up to the nearest euro or leave a euro coin or two.

If you leave a tip so large you can’t pay it in coins, you just might be a tourist (though one your waiter will really appreciate!).

What are some tell-tale signs of tourists where you live? 

Comments

  1. I am definitely guilty of the leftovers from time to time! With the monster tapas that some bars serve, I can never tell! Or when a waiter keeps telling you it’s not enough food, I tsk him for the decepción, pay for my food and then ask it to be wrapped up. After all, I paid for it!

  2. Spanish don’t do sangria? Must tell manolo that. Next time the family are down the beach cooking sardines. Also found out drinking coffee with tapas is a no no.

  3. First off, that artichoke photo is amazing! I am guilty of a few of these despite all of my visits to Spain. For us, we are usually the first people sitting at a restaurant, whether it is for lunch or dinner. It’s so hard to figure out when to eat in Spain, and my belly just doesn’t agree with the schedule.

    Also, I don’t think I’ve ever ordered Sangria in Spain!

  4. They’re probably not chain smoking throughout the meal, or even (as I saw quite an elegant lady in Malaga city centre doing) smoking between mouthfulls!

  5. A total nonsense article. Lived in Spain 20 years (Malaga). Spanish drink Sangria. Spanish eat Paella for dinner. I visit hundreds of restaurants over two decades and have never been given a glass of water; always a bottle. The author of this piece has not lived in Spain very long.

    1. Hi Sofia, thanks for your feedback, though I’d beg to differ. As we both know, Spain is extremely regional and generalizations (while amusing, as is the intention of this article) can never be completely correct. However, I’d stand by what Amy has written in my personal experience of 10 years living in Spain, both in Andalusia and Madrid, and traveling extensively. I don’t know many Spaniards who eat paella for dinner– most people I know personally would consider that too large of a meal for dinner (which I personally find ridiculous, but it’s the common belief). Here is an article talking about the (crazy!) idea of promoting paella as a dinner food http://www.levante-emv.com/sociedad/2011/11/15/hay-pizza-noche-paella/856798.html. As for the water– I’m confused, as Amy is saying what you are also saying (most places give a bottle and it’s hard to get a glass of water). My experience in getting tap water has varied depending on region– Andalusia is quite good at giving it, Madrid is getting harder, and Barcelona is next to impossible. Here’s an article about one ordeal in Madrid: http://www.madridchow.com/is-the-tap-water-safe-to-drink-in-madrid/. I appreciate opinions here, but insulting Amy as an author is quite rude. Especially when, as you’ll see, she’s backed up by plenty of information on the web.

      1. Barcelona has always been said to have very poor quality tap water, unlike Madrid. In Barcelona it’s usual to drink mineral water even at home.
        The thing I would never order for dinner is a cocido or olla podrida or any meat and legume dish

  6. Great article. These little differences I miss as I left Spain to return to the U.S. a few years ago after living 6 years in Madrid. I would also agree with one of the comments above that mention playing on a phone would definitely indicate you’re a tourist (American particularly). Also, lack of long conversation with a cafe con leche AFTER eating.

  7. I generally agree with all of the above though Sangria is a bit touch and go – sometimes it’s trotted out for picnics and the like.

    I know when we have Britons visiting from the UK they seem to think the bread and oil thing is very European.

    To go with the doggy bags I always cringe, when someone visiting, wants to take away the unfinished portion of a bottle of wine – “How do I ask for a cork?” – they ask me. “No idea I’m afraid. I’ll leave you to it whilst I just pop across the road to get something.”

  8. I am not spanish, I am portuguese and I would agree with it, except for number 9. Obviously I would ask the origin of sangria “Is it not portuguese?”, yet, in portugal and most “portunhol” (where you would speak portuguese or spanish and third parties would understand, mostly border regions) places I would say its quite common to drink sangria and not be a turist, I know I do.
    Number 2 specially, Iberia is not italy (althought I like the way italians do that and quite often do it my self), so bread is to spread butter and olive oil to to dress the salad :D.
    But anyway, great article had fun reading it.

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