18 tips for eating like a local in Barcelona
Yogurt is not for breakfast. Omelets are for dinner. Espresso after meals. Napkins not in your lap… These, and many other customs, have been part of my Spain dining education over the past eight years.
I’m still not an expert, but these are a few tips on how to eat like a local when in Barcelona:
8 am: First Breakfast
What time do you eat breakfast? 8 am? In Barcelona they eat breakfast like Hobbits. At 8 am you have your “First Breakfast” which may be little more than a coffee with milk or a hot chocolate.
10 am: Second Breakfast
Around 10 am you eat “Second Breakfast,” which is normally a sandwich, or bocata/bocadillo. What sort? Ham. Or maybe cheese. The bread is a baguette and is rubbed down with a tomato and then drizzled with olive oil. You might have another coffee, you might have a Coca-Cola, you might even have a glass of wine! Hey, it’s 10 am and any time after 7:30 am is wine-time, am I right?! (I’m making that up. There’s no wine-time… but you will see people drinking red wine with breakfast.)
Forget your pancakes or eggs and baked beans with bacon. That’s not on the local menu. (Of course, if you want an American, English or Aussie breakfast in Barcelona, I’ve got some tips here.)
Also see my related article on Barcelona breakfasts, including my favorite local spots.
12 noon… what’s that? You’re hungry? Too bad. Lunch isn’t until 2 pm.
2 pm: Lunch
If it’s a weekday, you’ll see locals in Barcelona doing one of three things: going home for a two-hour lunch break; eating out of Tupperware that they’ve brought from home on a park bench; going to the local bar or restaurant for a Menú del Día, one of Spain’s best inventions.
Some points to consider during your lunch in Barcelona:
• Menú del Día: To eat like a local, find a restaurant serving a Menú del Día for €10. You get three courses and wine. This is a steal and a good way to fill up for a day of sightseeing. The same Menú del Día meal at night will cost you twice as much.
• Dining early: If you come at 1 pm or 1:30 pm you’re more likely to get a table.
• Wine: It’s socially acceptable to drink wine with lunch and then go back to work. (Don’t ask me how a person concentrates on much more than Facebook after a heavy lunch with wine.)
• Ordering: Sometimes the waiter will ask you for your complete order at once. This includes your starter, main course and dessert, so be prepared to decide.
• Weekdays: Weekday lunches are meals designed for workers, so service tends to be a lot faster.
• Napkin position: You don’t have to put your napkin in your lap. You can set it beside your plate.
• Gotta go: If you’re not getting attention from the waiter and you want to pay and leave, it’s usually OK to go up to the bar and ask to pay.
• You’ll get bread. If you eat it before your food comes then you’ll look like a guiri (a foreigner)… but let’s face it, you probably look like a guiri anyway, so go ahead! If I’m hungry I eat the bread and anything else they put in front of me.
• After lunch coffee: You’ll notice that no one orders a large coffee with milk after a meal. This was something that took me a while to get used to. A Catalan friend told me that it’s too heavy to have a large coffee after lunch. Fair enough. So the solution is to order an espresso or a “cortado” which is espresso with milk. If it’s hot out, I order the “cortado con hielo” – an espresso with milk over ice. Fabulous.
• Tipping: You are not expected to tip in Barcelona. If you want to leave something, leave a few coins. It is not common to leave 10%. I know it’s hard to not tip if you’re from a country where it’s the norm. It took me three years to stop tipping.
5-7 pm: Nibbles
It’s 5-7 pm and it’s snack time. This can mean almost anything. Sadly, most bars in Barcelona do not give a free tapa with your drink order. In other parts of Spain they observe this tradition and it comes in handy when you feel like a 6 pm refreshment.
You’ll see locals having a beer, or a tea, or another coffee and soft drinks. A quintessential snack in Barcelona are olives or a plate of “bravas” (spicy potatoes) or a bag of potato chips to go with your drink. My preferred snack is a glass of white wine, some boquerónes (white anchovies), and a plate of green olives.
See my related posts on 5 bars not to be missed in Barcelona.
9-10 pm (start): Dinner
The Spanish do not tend to eat huge dinners unless it’s a special occasion. Some points to keep in mind about “la cena”:
• Timing: If you reserve a table before 8:30 pm or 9 pm, you’ll be the only one in the restaurant. Many restaurants don’t even open for the dinner shift until 8:30 pm.
• Staying up late: If you’re invited out for dinner during the week with a group of Spanish friends, do not think that the fact that they have to work the next day will keep them from staying out until 4 am. Fun trumps responsibility and food and friends come first.
• Splitting the bill: In a group you’ll either be asked to split the check evenly or someone will calculate it to the penny to see what each person owes. This really depends on the people with whom you’re dining.
• Cocktails before dinner? Cocktails are not commonly consumed pre-dinner. For example, in the US I might have a gin and tonic with a friend and then go eat. Not so in Barcelona. Mixed drinks and cocktails are for after dinner when you’re getting your groove on at the club. Have a beer to quench your pre-dinner thirst.
• Again, no one really tips. If there are a couple of euros left over from a group meal, I tend to leave them for the waiter instead of trying to equally divide them among the diners.
Finally, on the weekends restaurants fill with families having long, wine-drenched lunches. It’s not unusual to spend three or four hours at lunch. Afterwards, go have a siesta.
As they say in Catalan, Bon Profit!