Shortly after My traveling companion and I arrived in Madrid and had explored our area, even walking blocks and blocks to the El Prado Museum and exploring the grounds and nearby park, we always came back to the Plaza Mayor to eat. We stayed at a charming little place called El Hostal Macarena and discovered that directly across from us was a place called El Cuchi Restaurante, a restaurant that specialized in, would you believe—Mexican food? Well, I had not come all the way to eat Mexican food in Spain—I eat Mexican food quite frequently in my own home. I wanted real Spanish cuisine.
As we walked around the Plaza Mayor we noticed that people always stood at the counter or bar in the eating establishments—all with the word Tapas above the menu.. Very few sat at the tables inside or the ones outside on the Plaza. I soon realized why—the price of the food went up depending on where you ate. If you sat down inside, you would be charged more than if you stood up, and even more if you went outside. This was a disappointment to me—I loved outdoor cafés but my companion and I were on a budget and so we settled for standing up at the counter.
Our main problem was that we didn’t understand the menu written all over the walls of these establishments except for tortillas. I immediately ordered a slice of tortilla and received a nice thick slice of an egg and potato omelet, which really resembled a frittata.
Since we didn’t want to eat Spanish tortillas for every meal, I tried to watch what others were eating. However, I didn’t recognize anything at first and I couldn’t match what was being eaten to what was written on the wall. At one place the proprietor was making cute little fried somethings or other and I asked what they were in perfect Spanish. He didn’t reply but gave me a couple and didn’t charge me anything. I think they were probably croquettes of some kind and they were delicious. Now here was our first mistake. We should have gone from establishment to establishment asking what those little appetizers were and we would probably have received free samples. But no, we were too honest to do that or to be really honest, the thought never occurred to us.
One evening we were particularly hungry and entered one of these Tapa places and saw a big basket full of something that looked like deep-fried onion rings. Now, if you’re going to think that we actually thought that was what they were, you would be wrong. I knew they were deep-fried squid rings. I had eaten a lot of squid in Puerto Rico and loved it, especially a marinated squid salad. My companion and I decided that since we finally found something we recognized and liked we would order the basket of fried squid rings.
I asked the proprietor in my oh-so perfect Spanish if we could have the basket of squid. He didn’t blink an eyelid and handed it to us. He offered us a fruit drink of some kind and we stood there stuffing ourselves with the delicious squid. We were also very proud at having found something relatively inexpensive to eat. Scanning the menu wall I spied calamares fritos and noticed how unbelievably inexpensive they were. I told my friend that this was the cheapest meal we could have possibly have chosen—it was only going to cost us a few pennies, American money.
We finished our basket of squid and drank our juice and asked the proprietor for the bill. His answer translated into English [I can’t remember the ratio of pesetas to dollars] was, “Seventeen dollars.” We were stunned.
“¿Cómo puede ser?” I asked. How can that be?
His explanation? The price on the menu wall was for one or two little squid rings not the whole basket. Then I looked around and saw that people were eating fried squid sandwiches with one or two squid tucked into sliced bread rolls.
We paid without arguing, ducking our heads in shame as we left the establishment.
Much later I discovered what amateurish turistas we had been. In Spain tapas bars and taverns are patronized before lunch and before dinner—the tapas are little appetizers for the larger meals to come. It took us a long time to realize that regular restaurants didn’t open until very late in the evening. Even nine o’clock was an early dining hour.
But as we continued our trip westward toward Portugal we knew we had learned a valuable lesson in ordering food and would not make such a gigantic mistake, price-wise again.
Or would we?
To be continued . . .