There are three main types of bars: ordinary bars and cafés, cafeterías and ‘pubs’. In addition most restaurants, especially out on the open road, also have a bar and label themselves ‘Bar-Resaurant’. Within each of these there are numerous variations, more so than British pubs it must be said, because almost all are family owned. Note that since smoking was prohibited 2011 almost all bars have a terrace …
Bar and cafés:
Bars are the bedrock of the Spanish catering pyramid and are a big part of most people’s social life. In cities and towns bars vary from the tiny ‘local’ where people take their first coffee of the day to elegant boulevard cafés with outside terraces serves by liveried waiters – and prices to match! The difference between a bar and a café is subtle – bars are more of a man’s haunt, tend to be heavy on the decoration and scruffy in a homely way. It seems an obvious thing to say but the emphasis is more on the bar itself than the tables as the place to take your tipple. On the other hand cafés are more open, lightly furnished and have more tables. All cafés have a bar but these are the ‘domain’ of the waiter/ess rather than the customers. Bars and cafés are used by both genders, however, and I can’t imagine a bar in the whole of Spain where a woman would feel more uncomfortable than a bloke, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bars where no-one would feel entirely happy to go into – there are plenty of spit-and-sawdust places, usually without the sawdust!
Bar etiquette varies a little between the two. In bars if you are drinking at the bar itself you would normally stay there, rather than mill around, and even in small bars you are normally served at table. Customers sit at tables in cafés. In all cases you pay when you finish. The term la cuenta meaning ‘the bill’ is a bit grand sounding for a bar, even if you’ve had quite a pig out on tapas; it’s better to say ‘me cobras‘, which means to take money owed. It’s not usual to leave a tip in a bar or café, but if the change is a few coppers then that’s OK but not at all expected.
All bars and cafés serve food of some sort. Bars progress from crisps and savory snacks to full blown tapas – note that small bars may only have a few olives and forlorn looking tins of seafood. These are usually quality brands, however, and you shouldn’t turn your nose up at them (see Shopping and cooking). Cafés tend to have sweet and savoury pastries and go upmarket, if at all, in the salad direction. Many cafés are integral with baker’s and cake shops. Even quite small bars will do fried food, usually on a plancha or griddle but no cafés will do this – which belongs to the next step up, the cafetería.
A cafetería is a bar/restaurant without a dining room. That is to say, it has a bar area but with dining tables rather than little tables. The food is mostly short order, with the majority being cooked a la plancha or, in mountain regions sometimes, barbecued over an open fire in the kitchen. Most cafeterías don’t usually offer a menú del dia, or if they do they will have a small separate dining room. This is quite a common arrangement in commercial hotels in the country. The range of grills, sandwiches, etc. is normally on display in the bar, as well a menu cards on the table. Photographs of all the choices are often displayed outside as well as over the bar – this should not be taken a being just for tourists! Food of some kind is available all day, although not necessarily hot meals. Decor is usually hideous – Formica is not dead! But they are always very clean and, unlike bars and cafés, have sumptuous lavatories. For the wandering biker, Cafeterías are a great boon!
Pubs are actually nightclubs or disco-bars. They only open at night, often after midnight. Drinks are always expensive, at least double normal bar prices and are usually only available in large measures. In contrast to bars you have to have a drink, but there is no pressure to drink quickly or leave once your drink is finished. Pubs in country towns and villages are often a sort of ‘club’ for local youngsters (who aren’t permitted to buy or drink alcohol until they turn 18, but do go out ‘on the town’) and it’s common for pubs to have large screen TV’s for watching football, rock concerts and Grand Prix racing – so may be of use.
An Important Note: a ‘Club’ is not a ‘pub’ nor a nightclub – it’s a brothel!
Broadly speaking there are two types of restaurant; those based on providing a service for working people and specialist offering ‘cuisine’. In both cases the quality, ambiance and prices varies, the latter type considerably, of course.
Business restaurants always offer a menú del dia and only rarely do a la carta, except at weekends and fiestas. They vary from roadside ‘greasy spoons’ to really quite swanky city establishments. Many of these will only open for lunch or just run the bar in the evening. Small towns and large villages also have simple family restaurants and these are usually open all the time, except for their weekly day off. Menús are based in traditional casolana, or ‘home’ cookery, and can be very good indeed. Eating there, especially turning off the highway and seeking a village restaurant, is a good way to discover real Spanish cooking – note that diners on the highways are often more pricey, pricing up to the expense account limits I guess. Little white vans parked outside are a sign of a good restaurant – these will belong to locals who will know how to eat – one of the pleasures of eating in these type of places is to see how the Spanish working men – and women – treat themselves to good food, good humoured conversation . . .
‘Cuisine’ restaurants range from small country hotels and even farmhouses (see the Rural retreats page) to Michelin three star, with prices to match. The former often offer amazing food a fantastic value – especially if you like home produced foods and are interested in genuine culinary tradition. Local tourist offices will be very happy to recommend – good restaurants are highly regarded – enjoy!