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Tapas and not speaking spanish in crowded bar

How hard is it in a crowded bar to get Tapas? And do you eat it at the bar or literally balance your beer and tapas standing? With limited Spanish? Just curious.

Posted by
803 posts

It depends on the bar. Some have low tables, some have high tables, some just have the bar. Pointing and nodding always seems to work. Remember to try your few words of Spanish first (twenty will do and are quite achievable during a transatlantic flight) and they will almost always acknowledge you in English. Except for our waiter in Argos de la Frontera where we discovered that both of us spoke German better than he spoke English or we spoke Spanish. Oh well. The Paella was amazing there.

Posted by
3489 posts

Oh, this was so incredibly fun in Granada! The first time is the hardest, as you figure it out and start to not worry about a mistake.

Just edge your way up to the bar and tell them what you want to drink (doesn’t hurt to know the basic Spanish for beer, wine, etc.). Everyone seems to have an open tab so you don’t pay immediately. In Granada, the bars seemed to have a rolling system for the complimentary tapas and would just bring it or get it close to where you end up standing. Find a place to set your drink - and yes, lots of people stand at the bar and if it’s crowded, stand anywhere there’s room. I saw people just standing with their tapas - and not minding asking someone (even with sign language and a gracias) if it’s ok to edge into their space a bit to put a drink down while eating. The bartenders are amazing and keep a sharp eye out for who might need a second drink, etc. And it might take a minute to get your tapa if they are swamped for a minute but it always seemed to happen. The second one will be different than the first. Then let them know when you are done for the night and they’ll bring your bill - and incredibly inexpensive night. It is not fine-dining; it’s an experience. We always stood elbow to elbow and conversation to conversation with locals, Spanish tourists, men and women of all ages, even babies, and the lucky few foreign tourists who weren’t afraid.

Now, if you order a specific tapa, that sometimes changes the process. And if you sit down and order, it definitely does.

Not everywhere in Spain is the same - not even in Andalusia. I didn’t experience this in Seville. But Granada…. 💕 Oh goodness, I’ve only been gone a week and am ready to hop a plane.

Posted by
676 posts

Learn the words for your favorite drink and then some words for food you like, tuna, egg, octopus, squid, tomato, other veggies etc. Or if you can eat anything and are adventurous just point. Most of the workers will speak some English. Say please and thank you. You'll do fine, it's a lot of fun!

Posted by
332 posts

Similar to other responses here, we enjoyed tapas bars in Madrid and Granada in March with very limited Spanish skills, but a willingness to try a few words and do our best - please, thank you, our favorite drinks, how to ask for the check, and not much else. In most places where tourists end up in Spain, they are used to having English speakers. Speak slowly and be prepared to try a few words, and be ready to point a lot. It's a blast.

Posted by
3741 posts

Hi there, over the years I've learned that "going for tapas" is sometimes confusing and intimidating for foreigners.

My first piece of advice, don't expect that the tapas are all small or cheap, often foreigners are surprised when their tapas order comes and they found they have over ordered and overpaid. Take it slow and pace yourself, order 1-2 tapas at once then if wanting more order another round of 1-2 or move on to the next tapas bar. Also know that there are Tapas and Raciones, Tapas are small plates to share between 1-2 people while Raciones are larger portions of food that are meant to be shared by a group of people.

Usually there will be a bar with a glass cover so you can point to what tapas you want. At the bar are bar stools so you sit on those while eating, your plates will actually be on the bar table, you are not balancing anything. Don't be "patient", you will have to compete for the bartender's attention with others at the bar, don't be afraid to raise your voice if they are not coming to you, this comes naturally for local Spanish but may be difficult for first timers from abroad. Once you start ordering tapas they will keep an open tap for you until you order the check.

The tapas bartenders are used to dealing with foreigners, they will understand you, just know some basic terminology beforehand like:

Que nos recomienda - What do you recommend
La cuenta, por favor - The check, please (when you are totally finished ordering they close the tap)
Una caña - small glass of the house beer
Una clara - beer and lemonade mix
Tinto de verano - wine drink we locals prefer over Sangria
Calamares a la romana - fried calamari
Ensaladilla rusa - potato salad
Gambas - shrimp
Pulpo a la gallega - octopus tapa
Patatas bravas - Potatoes in spicy sauce
Albondigas - meatballs

Hope this helps :)

Posted by
860 posts

We aren't really big drinkers and found it impossible to order pintxos in Bilbao. We had two places that just refused to take our order when we wanted food but not alcohol. We tried ordering mineral water and pintxos and got ignored in one place and told "no food" in another. Meanwhile people ordering alcohol were getting served. We gave up and went to a supermarket to buy something to eat.

Posted by
6476 posts

Our first time in Madrid we were intimidated by the crowds in the bars to even get near the counter. As we were walking.awhile, we noticed a new place that was just opening. They literally were attaching the front sign as we ate!

Since they weren’t crowded, they were really patient with us. We had some expensive tapas, but we appreciated them and approached it as a chance to learn. The tapas were excellent, too! That gave us confidence to order at regular places the rest of the trip.

So try to find a less crowded place to learn, and then you’re good to go!

Posted by
3741 posts

We had two places that just refused to take our order when we wanted food but not alcohol

Wow that's very weird, I would think that just ordering a Coke or limonada then some pinchos would work in that case. Typically just water doesn't cut it. If all else fails you can just order una cerveza sin, which is non-alcoholic beer.

Posted by
22 posts

My husband doesn't drink and I'm trying to support his recovery by not drinking either. Is this going to interfere with our tapas experience? I saw a response here by someone who said they had trouble getting served because they didn't order drinks.

Posted by
3741 posts

I saw a response here by someone who said they had trouble getting served because they didn't order drinks.

That is not the norm, see my previous reply for alternatives. While it's true that tapas are often associated with alcoholic drinks, particularly wine or beer, you can still enjoy the tapas experience in Spain without needing to consume alcohol. Most tapas bars offer non-alcoholic alternatives like soft drinks, limonada, or alcohol-free beer (cerveza sin) etc. Though just ordering water sometimes won't cut it.

Posted by
2451 posts

Four point process: first, say loudly “yo bro!”. Second, point at a tapa. Third, put up one finger for one tapa, or more fingers for more of that tapa. Then do thumps up, to ask if that’s cool.
Then, the tapas guy, or sometimes lady, will give you a thumbs up back and your tapa.
Or not.

Posted by
526 posts

I see a lot of confusion and misunderstandings here. First of all, Spain is a very heterogenous and diverse country and what most people know as "tapas" is quite different from one region to another. And the original concept has evolved into something quite different, thanks to tourism and what our visitors think a tapa is.

To start with, a "tapa" is (or should be) a free, small appetizer that goes with your drink, alcoholic or not, and in many places it´s complimentary. In several regions it may be some olives, a bit of cheese, some chorizo, a small portion of Russian salad, a meatball, a piece of tuna on bread...but again, complimentary and just to go with your drink, and never a meal (I mean, it´s not lunch or dinner for us). But in some places, like Granada or Almería or Murcia, the "tapa" is free, much bigger and with just two you can have lunch...but again, it´s not a meal for us. Then we come to what´s happened into in the most touristy areas (Seville, Barcelona...): a tapa has turned into a "ración", much bigger, you have to pay for it and it´s something that must be shared by at least two or three people. A "tapas" bar is quite usually a touristy thing (like "sangría", by the way), what you´re really looking for is "raciones" and they are to be shared while enjoying a glass of wine, a beer, a... (you name it). A pintxo is a different thing: mostly offered in the Basque Country and Navarre, it´s more delicate and elaborate than a tapa or ración, it´s normally smaller and you pay for it. Two types of pintxos: those in the counter and those that are ready made (these are bigger and normally eaten with a fork and knife...but this is something new too). Pintxos and tapas are had by locals standing by the counter while socializing, rarely sitting down and rarely more than one or two per bar. And they are never a meal for us (pintxos or tapas). A pintxo or tapa can be had with or without alcohol, what happened in Bilbao is very, very strange and there must have been some misundersanding there.

So: not a meal, free if it´s the real thing, simple, standing, one per bar...would be the right words to apply for real tapas. Raciones: bigger, paid for, shared. Pintxos: paid for, elaborate, one, standing.

Posted by
73 posts

These replies have been super helpful! What if you just want to eat dinner? I guess there must be restaurants to just grab a bite. Thank you everyone

Posted by
3741 posts

There are typically 4 kinds of restaurants (not including fast food) in Spain:

Bar-Restaurante - these low-key establishments are frequented most by locals during the weekdays. They usually serve a 'Menú del día', an excellent seasonal three course lunch. Here one usually sits one's self on the outside sitting unless there is a reserved placard on the table. The waiter then comes over to see what you want if just drinks or food as well. The waiters will check in on you from time to time, but can be considered slow compared to American standards. These are usually only for lunch.

Restaurantes - more upscale affairs with table cloths, wine menus etc.. Here there is typically someone you talk to first to get seated (like a host in the USA), they usually will be standing near the entrance. This is most similar to the US in terms of service. These are usually for dinner, starting after 9:00 pm.

Tapas bars - these places are usually located in the more touristy centres of cities and will have long bar tables with different tapas on top, here you usually make your way to the bar first and talk to the bar tender directly to get service or if you want a check, waiters will not come to you here, you have to be more proactive. Don't expect Tapas to be cheap eats, they can get quite expensive as you add them up.

Gastronomic food markets - these are where local restaurants have food stalls located in the main market, that sell street food to eat on site. These newer types of food markets have become quite popular in Spain in recent years, especially for those looking for a quick drink and a bite to eat. You just order what you want at the counter then sit down at any empty table then pick up the food order when its ready and eat at your table.