Tourists coming to Spain for the first time are often shocked at how late the Spanish eat. Hungry and frustrated, they’re perplexed at 7:00 p.m. when they head out for dinner, only to realize that most restaurants don’t even open until 8:30 p.m. (To say nothing of the fact that the locals won’t be showing up to eat until at least 9:30 p.m. — and even later on weekends.) If you’re used to an eating schedule that revolves around the hours of 7:00 a.m., noon and 6:00 p.m., Spain can be a challenge.
This is a country of night owls, so the daily rhythm of mealtimes is skewed to the latter half of the day. El desayuno, or breakfast (usually some kind of sweet bread and coffee), is eaten quickly at home or at a bar on the way to work, which starts at 9:00 a.m. or later. Then there might be a second breakfast, or almuerzo*, at around 11:00 a.m. This is usually another coffee and something salty like a slice of tortilla or a tosta.
Lunch, or la comida, typically happens between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m., but from what I’ve seen at all the sidewalk cafes around town, madrileños can easily stretch it to 5:00 p.m. Chalk that up to la sobremesa, a word I really wish existed in English! Literally, “about table,” it means lingering at the table, chatting after a meal. Traditionally, la comida is the biggest meal of the day and usually runs two or three courses, with dessert, wine or beer and then coffee of tea to cap it off. It can also be a screaming deal, since many restaurants offer a three-course menu del día for 10 or 12 euros.
La merienda, or afternoon snack, comes next, sometime between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. If you finished lunch at 4:00 p.m. and won’t be eating dinner until 9:30 p.m., you can see why a little mid-afternoon pick-me-up is necessary, especially for kids. And though my Spanish teachers have insisted to me that la merienda is really only for los niños, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen so many chalkboard menus outside bars around town inviting people in for a beer for la merienda that I think Spanish adults have started wondering why they’re getting left out of the afternoon fun. (Though they do have el afterwork, or happy hour.)
Still hungry? Good, because now we’re headed into la noche, which means it’s time for la cena (dinner). Since the Spanish eat dinner so late and because it can be so warm late into the evening in Spain, dinner tends to be lighter and less intense than lunch. Poached fish, a big salad or a hearty bowl of soup all work. Dessert, if it’s served, is also light and tends to revolve around fresh, in-season fruit.
I’d be lying if I said that this eating schedule didn’t freak me out when I found out we’d be moving to Spain. Mr. Natalie and I had always eaten dinner on the late side back in the States (seriously, if you both work and want to cook your own food, how is it even possible to eat before 8:00 p.m.?), so late dinners didn’t worry me too much. But when I used to work in an office, I’d be staring at the clock by 11:30 a.m., wondering if it was too early to go heat up my lunch yet. How on earth would I make it all the way to 2:00?
Surprisingly easily, actually. You just need to, as they say, move with the queso. If you’re visiting Spain, then the best thing you can do for yourself is just give up on your notion of when the “right” time to eat something is. Just. Let. It. Go. I guarantee that only the first day will be hard; once you’ve had your first dinner at 10:00 p.m., eating later the next day is going to be easy. And what better way to experience the flavor of a country than by eating with the people who live in it?
Also, there’s something natural and even logical about making the biggest meal of the day the one you eat for lunch. In Spain, this tradition has its roots in the country’s agricultural history. Farmers and shepherds ate big meals in the middle of the day, napped and digested during the hottest hours, and then headed back outside to work until the light was gone. While modern Spain’s mostly city-dwelling population doesn’t need to worry about tending the fields, it still makes sense to give your body plenty of time to process food and burn calories before heading to bed.
So these days, I’m fully on Team Late Lunch. I love the tradition of eating longer and later. Even though now I’m mainly eating lunch en casa, I take my time and eat it in courses. (Okay, what this really means is that I never skip dessert.) And unlike how I used to hoover my sad desk lunch in 20 minutes while staring at my computer in a cubicle, now I always eat at the table and end the meal with a café cortado or té rojo. ¡Qué excelente!
More Food for Thought When Eating Out in Spain
- If you find yourself hungry in Spain at noon, don’t panic. I promise that you aren’t going to starve. Tons of restaurants, especially those in the touristic areas, offer all-day food service. Even in small pueblos, most bars will offer some kind of food — like a bocadillo (sandwich) or tortilla — even while the kitchen is closed between meal services. But if you’re interested in authentic, higher-end, or off-the-beaten-path restaurants, be sure to check their hours ahead of time.
- Thinking of ordering paella for dinner? Stop! Paella (and the delicious array of Spanish rice dishes that get mischaracterized as paella on menus that feature more photos than words) is carb-heavy and rich — the last thing you want to eat a few hours before going to bed. In Spain, paella is a lunchtime meal eaten with a big group. It’s especially popular for lunch with la familia on Sundays.
- The Spanish have coffee after dessert, not with it. So if you’ve made it to the end of a long Spanish meal and find yourself itching to order coffee, dessert and the check (la cuenta) all at once so you can be on your way, take a deep breath and relax. You’re on vacation! Savor your dessert and then order a coffee like los españoles. The night is long in Spain — enjoy it.
- I’ve been told that only turistas order a glass of wine before — or without — a meal here. That may be the case, but the wine in this country is so wonderful (and so wonderfully priced) that I don’t mind the scarlet T on my forehead when I order just a glass of Mencía at the bar. Spaniards usually start their meals (or nights out) with cerveza, then switch to wine with the meal. Cocktails aren’t for drinking before dinner either, como los estadounidenses. In Spain, cocktails, especially el omnipresent gin tonic, are after-dinner affairs.
- Full disclosure: this custom irks me. In Spain, cheese is served as an appetizer, not a dessert, so you’ll rarely find queso listed with the postres. But for the cheese-obsessed like me, this makes zero sense, especially because Spanish cheese is so good! Though I suspect that the Spanish are starting to catch on to the popularity of a cheese plate for dessert (or maybe they’ve just been harangued too often by French tourists from their neighbor to the north?) because every now and then I come across a restaurant with cheese on the dessert menu. And if not, sometimes I’ll just order it anyway and figure I’ve used my one “ugly American” point for the day. At least I don’t have a selfie stick.
*If you’re confused, no pasa nada. El almuerzo in most other Spanish-speaking countries means “lunch.” In Spain, that’s la comida.