Madrileños tend to eat frequently, but on a small scale. The main meal is lunch (la comida ), usually taken around 2pm, and restaurants are particularly busy at this time. Breakfast is a light affair, though reinforced with a mid morning snack. Dinner is eaten around 10pm or later with another snack (la merienda ) filling the gap.
Originally a covering to keep the flies off a glass of wine, tapas (from the Spanish for “lid”) is now a national institution. Relatively few of these snacks are free nowadays, although you may strike lucky. You may see the word pincho or canapé alternating with tapas . Raciones are double portions of the same, usually large enough for sharing.
Most restaurants, cafés, even bars offer this set-price three course option, usually at lunch. The price normally includes bread, wine or beer (or a non-alcoholic drink). Standards vary, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. The choice of first courses typically includes soup or paella , while the main meal consists of a fish or meat dish. Coffee is sometimes offered instead of dessert.
If you’re not feeling hungry enough for a full three course lunch, the plato combinado will probably suffice. This is a one course meal, with a little extra, for example a drink, salad or dessert.
Nowadays the distinction between the two is largely artificial, though as a rule of thumb, a taberna will have a bar counter and will offer cheaper meals, served in a more informal atmosphere. While the word taberna suggests an inn or hostelry, more and more modern restaurants are usurping the term.
Before the Civil War there were dozens of cafés around Sol and Gran Vía known as tertulias unofficial discussion clubs where leisurely talk was more important than the drink. Very few have survived – exceptions include the Gijón and the Comercial.
Madrileños are notoriously sweet-toothed and cakes and pastries on sale here will certainly fill a hole if you don’t have the time or appetite for a full sitdown meal. Some pastelerías also sell sandwiches, but only a few have seating areas.
Waiter service is usually efficient until it comes to getting the bill. If you’re in a hurry, either ask for the bill (la cuenta ) with the last course or get the waiter’s attention by calling “perdone, la cuenta” (“excuse me, the bill”). Value Added Tax (IVA) at seven per cent is automatically added to bills, but not a service charge. A tip of up to five per cent is expected.
There are numerous words for bar – bodega , cervecería , tasca , bar de copas or just plain bar . Almost all serve food, usually tapas or other snacks. You pay a little more if you are served at table rather than drink at the counter. Bills are usually paid on leaving the bar, rather than after each round, though in late night bars it’s pay-as-you-buy. Even midweek it’s possible to get a drink up to 1am in most places, and until 3am at weekends. Madrileños still on the town after that time often round off the evening with chocolate con churros – hot chocolate and doughnuts.
There are numerous markets in Madrid selling fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and bread. They’re ideal for picnics and for soaking up the local atmosphere.