Tips for Tapas

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History of Tapas

Although there are many theories as to the origin of tapas, when translated, tapa literally means” cover”. I took a walking tour of Madrid and my tour guide, Fabrizio, told us the King Alfonso XIII version of the story. Apparently, King Alfonso XIII stopped by a tavern in Cadiz on the coast. It was a windy day, and the king ordered a glass of wine. When the waiter brought it to the king, he had covered it with a slice of cured ham (jamon) to protect the wine from the beach sand. When finished, the king ordered another wine “with the cover”.

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Understanding Tapas

Tapas aren’t specifically a kind of food, I think it’d be better described as a style of eating. After ordering a drink while in Spain, they will most likely bring you a complimentary tapa, a small plate of food, with your drink. Technically, a tapa can be anything (i.e. olives, nuts, even larger things like bread with tomato spread and olive oil). Also, tapas can be bought. It’s almost like there are levels of tapas - the free, simple tapas and then if you’d like something a little more, it can be bought for usually 1-5 Euro. Tapas are never served in restaurants. Generally, Spaniards will meet friends at a tapas bar to start their evening with drinks and small plates. They usually wander around from one to three tapas bars (my tour guide said this is to please everyone in the group) and later that evening, settle down at the restaurant they want to actually dine in. In Spain, when you find yourself in a true tapas bar, it’s going to be a great experience. My first night in Madrid I found myself in a really nice, local tapas bar called Casa Labra. Although it was a struggle to order because of the language barrier, I took a gamble and ended up with some delicious fried white fish (tajada de bacalao) and manchego cheese. My friend and I wandered out of the bar with our tapas and vino in hand and asked some local girls if we could stand at their table with them. Oh, yes, that’s another thing about tapas - it’s a very social experience for the Spaniards so it is common to stand and wander around while drinking and eating. The tapas were tasty, the wine was great, and we made some new friends who recommended some amazing places in Madrid for us to visit. Tapas dining at it’s finest!

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Where to find Tapas in Madrid
Tapas bars are found on every corner but the more quiet and authentic they look, usually the better. Don't be nervous about the language barrier, if worst comes to worst you can just point at the item you (think) you want! Unfortunately, it's hard to mention many tapas bars I went to by name because I did A LOT of wandering and maybe too much wine ha. Nonetheless, here are a couple.
Casa Labra - More of a local spot, be prepared to practice your Spanish and be social!
Mercado de San Miguel - A must see while in Madrid. This market has a plethora of stalls to choose amazing, well priced tapas from. Although it's a great place to try an array of tapas, you can get anything here - wine, paella, cheese, fruit, empanadas, fresh seafood, etc. Expect to be bumped around a bit and you may have to sit on the steps outside because this place gets crowded.
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Also, here is a list of the "best" tapas bar in Madrid from writer James Blick with The Guardian. Avoid the tourist traps!