We're going to Spain this spring, and will probably hit the tapas bars often. What's the actual procedure? Are they out on the bar, or do you have to order? If there's a crowd, do you just muscle forward? And how much do tapas actually cost? If you're dining on tapas, where do you get your drinks? And any other practical tips, please. Thanks.
Like any other kind of restaurant, different tapa bars do things differently. I have been to bars where the dishes are on display and you point out the ones you want (ordering your drink at the same time), and at stand-up bars where you order from an overhead menu. At some places, you accumulate your plates and pay at the end of your meal, based on how many plates you have. Prices vary, too.
Some restaurants sell tapas. You order from the menu or chalk board listing. It is perfectly acceptable to eat and continue ordering. Like any other restaurant food, you pay the bill when you finish. More typical is buying tapas at a bar. The "rules" vary, so just watch what the locals are doing. Typically, you either point to tapas on display or order off a chalk board, or are handed an empty plate and you take the tapas you want. In my favorite tapas bar there are also waiters circulating with trays of hot tapas. When you're ready to leave, the cashier or waiter will add up your bill. Sometimes they simply count the number of empty plates or the number of toothpicks that were stuck in the tapas. Drinks are sold where you buy the tapas. Prices vary. My favorite tapas bar in Barcelona sells all tapas for only 2 euros each.
Be careful, sure tapas can appear cheap, ( my experiences limited as they are didn't see much for less then 3-4 euros a "plate", often even more for some fancier things) but you do not get much per plate, so you order and order an order and pretty soon you still end up with a 30 euro bill for basically some bits and bites.. a real meal would have been cheaper in some cases. To be honest aned fair, I have only been on one short visit to Barcelona so we could have just been unlucky, we did however spend a week in a small town with awesome cheap food,, but we didn't really tapa it, we ate meals.
I will take the lazy way out. This - http://www.spaintravelguide.com/the-first-timers-guide-to-tapas-etiquette.html - is close to what I might have written. However, there is no mention of the 'free' tapa which is still available in parts of Extramadura and Andalucia, some quite substantial.
Generally, my experience was the same as Nancy's. Places will have some kind of chalk board with tapas they serve; they will also put out some options on the bar (normally behind/under a glass shelf). You can either choose something from the chalkboard, which may need to be cooked, or just point to the choices that are out and available. Beer is generally cheap, wine can be either cheap or expensive depending on the place you're in. I found the tapas to be fairly expensive in Barcelona. We had a list of well reviewed places (by travel writers and travelers) and checked out most of them. Many were essentially classy bars with good tapas that were upwards of five euros each (some ten or more) so they can add up fast - and the drinks were higher than normal for Spain. Other places were chains and really weren't anything special, the tapas were average and the prices above average. The only place I really liked in Barcelona was Xampana (Catalon for Champagne), it was cheap, local, and good. We found tons of cheap tapas elsewhere - maybe because we got a better hang for what we were looking for. I did a trip report about our trip to Spain here (Spain: Cheap lodging and clean toilets) some is specifically about ordering tapas and what the different terms mean so you have an idea what to expect (it's now on page 5 of the trip reports).
I think it depends on where you go. There are some places that you can goto where you just walk up to the bar and pick the ones that you want. Or you could go to a place where you sit down and order the tapas from the menu and the waiter brings them out to you. Depending on where you are look for La Taberna del Pintxo as its a great tapas place. The waiters walk around with plates of various tapas and if you want one you take it off the plate. When your are all done they count the toothpicks the tapas came on to give you your bill. The fatter toothpicks tend to be the more expensive tapas and the thinner ones the cheaper ones!!! Great tapas, great service and would recommend.
Tapas vary from region to region. Madrid is not so good a hunting ground as Bilbao, for instance, so don't count on finding tapas on every corner in the capitol city. The "pinxtos" mentioned in a previous post is the Basque version of tapas and taken seriously there as a snack or an appetizer before the serious sit-down eating begins at 10 p.m.
I agree with one of the other responses that it varies by establishment. I am not a big fan of tapas, as most of the reasonably priced plates are deep fried, while the ones that are truly tasty tend to be pretty expensive. It's an expensive way to make a meal unless you are satisfied with only a little to eat or not discerning in what you eat.
If you plan to visit Madrid be sure to try the tapas at the San Miguel Market. Everything looks fresh and wonderful and prices are good-it's a fun place. In Barcelona I can recommend Sagardi for good tapas-they have a cider which tastes like white wine that comes from a spigot in the wall. Nice variety of tapas there and it is located in the Barri Gottic area-near the Jaume Metro stop.
Thanks, all. I will check out some of the sources you recommend, as well as the tapas bars a few of you mentioned by name. I suspected that the cost would add up quickly; it's good to get some comments on that. I guess my main concern was that everything I've read said it's hard to find dinner early, and we are not late eaters. I figured tapas might be the answer. Maybe, after we've tried them just for the experience, we'll just plan on having large lunches! Thanks again for the feedback. Muchas gracias!
Also keep in mind that tapas are a regional thing in certain parts of Spain that only spread to the entire country due to tourist demand. They aren't native to say, Barcelona, so it's not surprising that people are disappointed with their tapas experience there. I would try to do some research into what areas you're visiting that have more of a tapas tradition and hit them up there. My tapas experience in Barcelona was that they were pricey for what you got, and not freshly made for the most part. Not super exciting.
As for hours of operation, yes tapas starts earlier than dinner in Spain. Dinner would be unusual before 9 pm; tapas usually start in the 7 to 8 pm range. You can look in the window and see if they've started stocking the bar with tapas; that's a good clue that it's okay to come in and order. We went to Rick's favorite bull bar in Plaza Mayor in Madrid and stupidly ordered tapas. We had a nice conversation with a Mexican Plastic Surgeon and his great looking wife (50 and yes she'd had some work done). Our total was double theres and they had the better choices all-around. The difference was they ordered drinks and the place offers a free tapa with each drink order. Not knowing this, we ordered expensive tapas rather than cheap drinks.
No matter where you are in Spain, you will find plenty of places to eat early. Everything from delis and sandwich places (yummmm....bocadillos!), American fast food places, cafeterias, and restaurants. It's not like everything will be locked up tight until 9:00 pm.