When I first came to Spain, going out to dinner with friends was a constant nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I would have rather been at home. I’m from the restaurant capital of the world and therefore, eating out is a part of my genetic code. Even still, I just couldn’t get into the Spanish food scene. One too many nights of walking for hours only to end up in a noisy, lackluster bar with trash filled floors just wasn’t doing it for me.
Let me clarify, the food wasn’t the problem. In fact, I soon realized that the dirtier the place, the better the eats. The real issue was the ambiance…
The majority of us true foodies would agree that ambiance awakens the palate. Some of the best restaurants in the world get this, but for some reason the typical Spanish bar at that time just kept missing the mark. Granted we all want a good plate but who can digest even the most amazing of Bravas knee deep in toothpicks and empty chicken bones.
Looks can be deceiving (not that this place is deceiving ;-))
Call me a food snob if you may, but where I come from eating out was a full packaged deal. For my friends and I, Friday night dinners meant a pair of heels and a new outfit; It was that much of an event. Many of us Expats are used to restaurants that cater to all of the senses: Gourmet flavors heightened by smooth jams and a decor that made you stay three hours and then decide to order dessert. As such, the Spanish, no frills bar atmosphere presented a real dining dilemma.
Fast forward five years and I still dread going out to dinner…
It’s true, the Spain of yesteryears, where the quality was only in the food, has since died out. An influx of people from cultures where restaurant quality is synonymous with chic decor has taken over the best restaurant barrios in Madrid. The issue now is that often times the pretty package does not match the plate. It’s sad to say, many of my beloved restaurants have been replaced or bought out by hipster architects who just don’t understand what great food is.
Just a week ago, I went with a friend to a restaurant that looked like something out of a magazine. The felt purple booths, jazz remakes of fifties favorites and perfect lighting made it a place where you could settle in and get lost in the night. A look at the fusion menu and decent prices won me over immediately. I had very high expectations.
Sadly by the end of the second course, everything that drew me to the restaurant began to annoy me. The portions were ridiculously tiny, the meat tasted like it was straight from the frozen section and the icing on our cake was beginning to curdle from improper storing. By the end of the night, I felt suckered. You know that feeling, like when you finally buy a pair of shoes that you have been eyeing for months and you put those bad boys on only to realize walking in them is a torture test. Yeah…I was that annoyed.
So how do we keep from repeating this epic food fiasco?
Here’s a couple of tips to help keep you from wasting time on dinner duds: Everything worth finding out is at the bar. Don’t misuse the bar opportunity!!
1. Take a look at the menu before you leap into a seat.
The good thing about the Spanish dinning tradition is that restaurants most often publish their menus outside the door. Often times, the menu can be the first key to making or breaking a restaurant. Remember, in the restaurant world, less is always more. A good chef stays in his lane and would rather offer a couple of really well prepared dishes than 30 mediocre ones. If the menu is over crowded you can bet something will be missing at the end of the night.
2. Just order a cocktail.
One thing these deluxe decor dives usually have in common are amazing drinks and great bartenders. If you and your friends are heading out for a long night and time is not an issue, take a seat at the bar and have a cocktail. The key is this: While you’re having your drink, look around the restaurant , take in the vibe and keep an eye on what’s being ordered. If people are sticking around and the eats look great, get a table. If not…on to the next one!
3. Ask questions!
Anyone who has been in Spain for a while knows that asking questions at a restaurant traditionally was a surefire way to get your food tampered with. There was a definite “don’t ask, just eat” unwritten code. Thankfully those days are slowly but surely disappearing. Now, bragging about locally grown ingredients is a sign of success. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of this and ask how and where your food is coming from. Usually, a good restaurant will have good answers. Always look at the menu before going in. The simpler the better.
4. Make friends with the table next to you.
Warning: This technique is not for the faint at heart but it’s definitely worth it! Sometimes when I’m eating alone or out with a small group of friends I chat up the table next to me. Now please understand, I’m not recommending you tell your life story (creepy won’t get you far!). Still, you’d be surprised how friendly people become with a full belly. Rest assured that people in Spain tend to be a bit more sociable with strangers at bars anyway. Even those who aren’t Spanish usually like the chance to bond with a fellow Expat. What better way to do it than over a glass of wine? So the next time you’re out just throw out a quick “Hey I noticed you were speaking English! That looks so good, what are you eating?” It’s a great way to find out what’s good. Besides, you may end up meeting some really cool people.
5. Check out MuchBites!
Really, is there any explanation needed here? As always, we’ve got you covered on all of the new and up-in-coming places that are worth your patronage. For a list of restaurants that have elements of both decor and delish, check out our “Repeat a Million a Times Eateries.”