One of the hardest facts of life in Spain for Americans to fully adapt to is the Spanish meal schedule. In Spain, breakfast is of low importance and usually consists of an espresso with milk and a dry muffin or cookie. It is taken around 7:30 or 8 AM. The next major meal, la comida (literally, the food), does not occur until 2-4 PM. Obviously that is a huge time gap between meals and most Spaniards sneak in some kind of snack.
But when lunchtime comes, it is finally time to eat. La comida is the largest meal of the day, contrary to American meal habits. This fact often confuses American tourists in Spain who presume to maintain their American schedule, eating something light and fast at noon and waiting out for a large restaurant meal later in the evening. Unfortunately, by 6 to 7 PM, most restaurants have long finished serving the big meal and cater from that point on to Spaniards looking to merendar and tapear (both essentially mean to snack). One can walk by restaurant after restaurant from 6 PM onward and literally not see a soul really eating to nourish. Yes, there will be people sipping on a beer and snacking on olives, but not much in the way of real food to fill. The Spanish typically just eat a light dinner at home at 10PM or make a dinner out of wine and tapas.
What Americans, especially as tourists, have to understand is that the best deal for food in restaurants is what Spain calls the menú del día. The menú del día is usually a 3 course fixed plate option that most restaurants offer as a comida. The first plate is usually fairly light. It might be a salad or soup. The second is heavier and often is a meat or fish dish. Most menús also include bread, wine and desert. Menús in the small towns generally run from 9 to 12 EUR. While that’s not exactly cheap (especially in terms of U.S. greenbacks), it’s the best deal if what you want is a real sitdown meal. Menú deals coincide with the lunch hour, so 2 PM is about when you should show up.
However, be prepared for the lunch meal to be even later on Saturday and Sunday, when Spaniards sleep late and push their schedules back. Amanda and I were once again amazed last Sunday when we were walking through the town of Llanes about 4PM, and lots of people were just sitting down to eat their big lunch in the restaurants. At nearly the time when some Americans are beginning to think about dinner, the Spanish natives were beginning to enjoy their lunch. When it comes to food and sense of time, Spain still continues to amaze me. Maybe the old cliché slogan still says it best: “Spain is different.”