¡Prepárate! El Programa de Verano de UNCG en Madrid, España

La Comida

Desayuno: Breakfast Bocadillos: Sandwiches Beware of thieves
Almuerzo: Midday Meal Cena: Evening Meal Restaurant Dining Consejos de los Compañeros: Advice from Students in the Summer 2007 Program
el Menú: Daily Special Manners la Propina: Tipping Ejercicio 1, 2 & 3: la comida
Ejercicio: "Word" documento


Spanish cuisine, manners, dining, restaurants

A pricey menu in the Plaza Mayor, featuring squid, anchovies, octopus, seafood cocktail, sausages and croquettes.

Breakfast (desayuno) and coffee

If you are living with a family in Spain, the dining customs will depend on the family's habits, but pancakes with syrup for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, frequent snacks and a steak and baked potato supper are things you should not expect! Foods and mealtimes are different from those in the United States, not only in Spain, but in many other countries you may plan to visit. In Spain, breakfast (desayuno) is a small meal: bread and marmalade, coffee, some cereal or yogurt. If a big breakfast is your style, you can get eggs, bacon and toast, for example, in many cafes and restaurants, but you ought not expect your host family to provide it. Spanish coffee is much stronger than American coffee and as with other beverages in restaurants or cafes, there are no free refills. If you are drinking your coffee in a cafe or restaurant, keep in mind that prices are lowest at the bar, slightly higher if you sit at a table and higher still if you sit at an outdoor table. No wonder that you see the Spanish crowded around the bars in the cafes!

The display shows the menú del día or daily specials: the first course (primer plato) is a choice of paella valenciana (rice with seafood and perhaps sausage or rabbit), gazpacho andaluz (chilled soup with a base of almonds or tomatoes), tripe with garbanzo beans, mixed salad or asparagus with mayonnaise.
The second course (segundo plato) is a choice of pork chop, veal cutlet, grilled squid or eggs and sausage. Notice that the price is higher if you eat on the terrace than in the dining room.

The midday meal (almuerzo)

The midday meal is usually taken in mid-afternoon, some time between 2 and 4 o'clock. It is called almuerzo and is a substantial meal that can include anything from a salad of lettuce, legumes, pasta and seafood to soup, stew, fish or spaghetti. Bottled salad dressings such as ranch or blue cheese are rare in Spain; not only your host family but also restaurants will probably offer you olive oil and vinegar to dress your own salad to taste. You can purchase bottled American-style dressing in the grocery store if you dislike olive oil and vinegar, but it's a good idea to try to adapt to the local customs. Spanish cuisine is closer to Italian than to Latin American cuisine. Chili peppers and cornmeal tortillas are Latin American, not Spanish, ingredients. A tortilla in Spain is a kind of omelet: cooked potatoes are combined in a skillet with enough eggs to hold them together to form a round cake. Legumes such as chickpeas or white beans ("judías") are included frequently in soups, casseroles and salads. It's uncommon to be served a roast or steak, although of course you can find these American favorites in restaurants, especially those that cater to tourists. Seafood of all kinds is a favorite, often served in "whole" form: whole cooked shrimp (including heads), octopus (including suckers), squid served in a sauce made of its own ink, trout cooked and served whole (including heads) are delicious if unusual for American diners. You can often see whole hams hanging in restaurants or bars, suspended by the trotters. The appearance of the food is not as "sanitized" as it is in the US; you know you are eating an animal. It is not unusual to eat rabbit or organ meats such as liver or tripe. Don't be put out; try something new! You'll probably like it and even if you don't, it won't kill you and it's part of the experience.

Justine Zeiders, UNCG '09, samples some tasty octopus tentacles, summer 2007.

The daily special, the menú

If you are eating out, rather than with a host family, it's a good idea to check out the "menú." This does not mean "menu" in English: that word in Spanish is "carta." Rather, the menú is a special combination of dishes offered that day, usually including a choice of first course, a choice of second course, a choice of beverage and a choice of dessert, all for a set price. It's usually your best deal. The menú is not offered in the evening, but only in the afternoon, because that's usually the main meal of the day in Spain.

This daily menú offers gazpacho andaluz, tomato with anchovies or asparagus with mayonnaise as a choice of first course.
For the second course choose tail of the bull (think oxtail stew), homemade meatballs or croquettes and includes a beverage, bread and either dessert or coffee.

The choice of beverages is usually water (served bottled), a soft drink, wine or beer. If you are used to drinking diet soft drinks, you may have some difficulty in finding them in Spain. Don't even try to find iced tea. Wine is either vino blanco (white wine) or (red) vino tinto. It's important to drink a lot of water, because Spain is much more arid than Greensboro and it's quite easy to become dehydrated. You must make an effort to drink water frequently with your meals and between meals.

Sandwiches or bocadillos

Sandwiches in Spain are also different than those to which you may be accustomed: a sandwich in Spain is referred to as a "bocadillo" or "mouthful," and usually not served as a meal. If you are on the road, your host family may prepare you a bocadillo if you will miss a meal at home, or you may be able to buy one at a roadside cafe. A bocadillo usually consists of a roll filled with ham or a potato-and-egg tortilla or omelet, or it may feature some kind of fish, such as smoked salmon.

The evening meal, the cena

The evening meal is called cena and is consumed much later than the typical American supper. You ought not to expect to eat supper (cenar) until 8:00 at the earliest, and it's not unusual to eat at 9 or 10. This meal is similar to almuerzo in the kinds of dishes you can expect.


You not only want to be safe in Spain, no doubt you also wish to be courteous, so it's good to mind your manners. Table manners are somewhat different in Spain. These are not hard and fast rules, but it's good to be mindful of them.

  • If you are eating with your host family, it's helpful to observe their behavior.
  • It's unacceptable to yawn or stretch in public, but especially at the table.
  • Spaniards find the American custom of sitting on your feet or legs (with one leg bent under you on the chair) peculiar and somewhat offensive; sit with your feet on the floor.
  • It's courteous to respect your companions at table by keeping your chair close to the table and your elbows close to your sides. Spanish children practice their table manners by holding books close to their sides while eating! If the books fall, they're sticking their elbows out too far.
  • Your two hands should be visible at all times and elbows do not belong on the table. Most Spaniards eat with the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left.
  • If you have a cloth napkin, put it in your lap, but a paper napkin can stay on the table.
  • Use your napkin before drinking from your glass, so that you don't leave food debris on the rim, and fold your napkin discreetly so that the dirt is out of sight.
  • Bread is usually placed on the table rather than a plate, and is used as a kind of utensil to push food onto the fork, although you would not do this in a fancy restaurant.
  • If you're not finished eating but set down your fork and knife, put them on the plate at an angle to each other (like hands on a clock showing twenty past eight), but if you are finished, put them on the plate parallel to each other and the server will know it's time to remove it.

¡Give thanks!

If it is your custom to say grace, pause and do so silently, without making a big display of it or insisting that everyone at the table join in. On the other hand, if it's the host family's custom to give thanks, respect the ritual by sitting quietly until it is over. It is not necessary to bless yourself (make the sign of the cross) if you are not Catholic.


You have probably heard the term "tapas" and may associate it with hors d'oeuvres or cocktail treats. The word actually means "tops" or "covers" and was originally used for slices of bread placed atop glasses of wine or beer (copa) to keep out breeze-borne debris or flying insects. Eventually tapas became more elaborate with the addition of a bit of fish, a slice of ham or cheese, a few olives. If you go out to a bar or cafe at midday or in the evening, you will probably be served some simple tapas with your beverage. You can also order tapas of various kinds. Be sure to check prices before accepting or ordering tapas! Especially if you are speaking English and it is obvious that you are an inexperienced tourist, an unscrupulous establishment may take advantage of you and serve you something outrageously expensive. This is something that can even happen to native Spaniards, so it's important to be very clear about what's "included" with your drink and what you'll have to pay for, as well as how much it costs.

tapas photo by Margo Bender
Tapas: el profesor Lagos disfruta de la compañia de su sobrina y unos estudiantes.
Comen tortilla, aceitunas, pan y embutido.

Restaurant dining

Eating in a restaurant in Spain is similar to eating out at home, but there are a few important differences. You are probably accustomed to getting water and bread and butter for free, or to having a salad included with your meal, but you should not expect that in Spain. Some restaurants may provide these things but usually there is a charge; always check with your server to be sure. There are no free refills on beverages. Often there is a price difference depending on whether you order your food at the bar, at an indoor table or at a sidewalk table. The bar is the least expensive and the sidewalk table the most expensive. Sitting at a sidewalk table is often a good idea if you are bothered by smoke because no-smoking zones in restaurants are unavailable or useless; they're right next to the smoking zone with no barrier between them! It can be quite relaxing to sit at a table in a sidewalk café and sip your drink as you watch the world pass by or chat with your friends. The server will not hover over you and try to get you to move on. On the other hand, if you want attention, you'll have to ask for it by waving at the server or calling him or her over.


Tipping is not necessary in a café or bar and usually not even in a restaurant when ordering the menú. Tipping under these circumstances shows you are a tourist and reveals your ignorance of local customs. If you are eating an expensive meal in a fancy restaurant, it's normal to round up your bill to the next euro or so or leave the change from your bills on the table, but here too, it's not necessary to tip as you would in an American restaurant.

Beware of thieves

Keep track of your purse and belongings in restaurants, cafes and discos. It's not a bad idea to keep one of the straps around your ankle when setting your purse down between your feet, especially in a sidewalk cafe. Never drape your purse-strap over the back of your chair; that's an invitation to thieves. Be careful of people bumping or stumbling into you or your chair "by accident." Don't leave your things unattended when you go to the washroom or onto the dance-floor. Ask a friend (that is, someone you knew before you got to the disco) to take charge of your things or keep them with you. This advice is not meant to alarm you; these are common-sense measures that you ought to keep in mind wherever you travel, not just in Spain but anywhere else as well.

lamb stew by margo bender

Advice from UNCG students in the Summer in Spain 2007 program

Students in the 2007 program offered the following advice on eating at home, eating out and Spanish food in general.

The number in parentheses indicates how many students offered that piece of advice.

  • You may not like the food, so you may want to bring some from home (comfort food, a brand of granola bars or energy bars you really like, for example). (3)
  • At least try the food regardless of how it looks -- you only live once! (2)
  • Just try new things. (2)
  • Even though your meals at the señora's are paid for, you should go to the restaurant once in a while for a change of pace and for the experience. (2)
  • The food your señora gives you is an important part of getting to know the culture and she's trying to please you, so be sure to at least try it, even if it looks unfamiliar.
  • The eating schedule is very different: meals are much later and the main meal is around 3 or 4 o'clock.
  • Eat at home and buy fruit for snacks between meals.
  • Hope you like ham, kiddos . . .
  • Plan to spend some money on food, especially McDonald's, because the señora's cooking gets old, and the eating schedule is so different: sometimes you won't eat lunch until almost 4:00.
  • You might not like the bag lunch you get for excursions, so take the opportunity to eat out. Be prepared with some money.
  • The food is very different and you may love the change or have a hard time with it.
  • Food is heavier and higher in fat; portions are smaller than American food.
  • If you use artificial sweetener, you can buy saccharin tablets in Spain, but if you prefer Equal or Splenda, bring it with you.
  • Be sure to sample some Spanish restaurants and if you've got a craving, go to an American restaurant--it'll still be a different experience than in the States.
  • Going out to eat is good because you have the experience of ordering in Spanish and that's very helpful.
  • Turkish restaurants like Döner Kebap are cheap.
  • The Museo de Jamón (Ham Museum) near the Plaza Mayor was great! You must try the ham, cheese and bread tapas!
  • Remember the menú is the meal of the day and the carta is the menu.
  • It's not necessary to tip in a bar or café or when ordering a small meal, for example, the menú del día. When eating in a fancy restaurant, leave the change from your bills but it's not necessary to tip as in the US. Only tourists tip, especially the Americans, but they do it because they don't know any better.




Copyright A. Campitelli 2007