Tapas Bar Etiquette

Written by zora hughes
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Tapas Bar Etiquette
Spanish tapas offerings include both cold and hot food options. (Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Tapas are small, typically bite-sized portions of Spanish dishes, served at tapas bars all over the country. While different types of tapas offerings vary depending on the region, common items include patata bravas, fried potatoes topped with tomato, or ailoi sauces jamon iberico, a popular, high-quality Spanish ham.

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At authentic tapas bars, you will have to go to the counter where the many options to choose from are displayed in a glass case or on top of the bar. If the plates of food are under glass, get the waiter's attention and place your order. Do your best to order in Spanish, but if your Spanish is not good, simply point to what you want and they will understand. If the food is on top of the counter, ask the bartender or server for a plate. He will either serve you what you want or you can help yourself to the selection, working your way down the bar. Do not be afraid to speak up loudly to get the server's attention, especially at a crowded tapas bar where everyone is trying to place their order at the same time.


While some traditional tapas bars will have standing room only, many do offer tables, though you will be charged for sitting down. It is more customary and cheapest to eat standing up around the bar counter or wine barrel as most locals do. If you go to a more contemporary tapas bar, you likely will be seated and order from a menu like a typical sit-down restaurant. Tapas dishes are meant to be shared, so going with a group where everyone orders one or two different things is ideal. If you are unfamiliar with tapas and are unsure of what to order, feel free to ask the bartender or your waiter to select the best options for you. Also be clear that you are ordering for tapas portions and not a "racion," which is a bigger, more expensive portion.


It is customary to enjoy an alcoholic beverage at tapas bars. Traditional drinks that complement tapas are barrelled wine and beer. Different regions of Spain will have different types of wines available. In the Basque region, txakoli wine, a young, inexpensive white wine is widely available, while in the Andalusa region, sherry is the more common drink of choice. It is generally not recommended to choose a strong red wine for tapas because the drink will overpower the flavours of the light appetizers you are eating. Common beer options for tapas bars include Spanish beers such as Cruzcampo, but many bars will have a variety of international beers available as well.


Do not attempt to pay for your meal when you order your food, as no one will take it. Most tapas bars run on an honour system where the server will count the toothpicks left on your plate from all of the tapas you ate. If toothpicks are not used, tell him what you had and they will tell you the price. Some servers remember the orders without even writing them down and will simply give you a bill when you are ready. To receive the bill, grab the server's attention and ask "la cuenta, por favour?" which in Spanish means, "the bill, please?" Although tipping is not expected at a tapas bar, it is polite and acceptable to leave a euro or two for the server if you really enjoyed the food and service.

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