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What is a Tapas Menu?

Nick PerryAuthor

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Tapas has long been a traditional dining mode in Spain, where people tend to eat several smaller meals rather than three large ones, as many do in the United States. In recent years, however, the tapas and small plates revolution has come to the US. Despite a rapid rise in small plates restaurants in cities all over the country, that trend is expected to continue even further in 2024.

While there are many small plates culinary traditions around the world, tapas were popularized in the southern region of Spain, Andalucia. These salty snack-size portions were made at bars and tavernas in the region as a way to keep patrons around, purchasing more drinks. The style caught on in the rest of Spain and is now considered one of the foundations of Spanish food culture — especially for tourists.

Now, Americans are falling for tapas in droves. A tapas experience where a few friends can share six to a dozen or more tasty treats while having a nice drink is especially popular among young people. So, if your bar or restaurant could use a boost, consider tapas.

In this article, you will learn how to make a tapas menu for your restaurant or bar that will keep patrons hanging out for a long time and coming back for more.

The Origins of Tapas

There are many stories about the origins of tapas, but no consensus as to how they came to be. Some say King Alfonso X of Castile invented tapas in the 13th century when, recovering from an illness that restricted how much he could eat and drink, the King decreed that all drinks should be served with a small bite to eat, as well.

Another royal origin story tells that King Alfonso XIII, some 100 years later, stopped at a Cádiz tavern on a windy day and, to keep the sand out of his drink, the bartender put a slice of ham on top. The King loved it so much, he kept ordering drinks with a “tapa,” which means “cover” in Spanish.

Whatever the actual origin, today most food enthusiasts trace the origins to Andalucia and consider tapas a small snack to accompany a beverage. Today, tapas restaurants serve more than just a slice of ham on top of a beer, but the idea remains the same. Tapas are small plates meant to accompany beer or wine and be shared among friends.

To quote legendary Spanish chef Jose Andres: “Tapas is a celebration of life.”

What is a Tapas Menu?

Like any restaurant menu, a tapas menu is a selection of dishes that a bar or restaurant can make for customers. Don’t confuse tapas with other small plate traditions like dim sum, meze, or banchan — tapas celebrates the flavors and culinary traditions of Spain, specifically. Ingredients like cured meats, cheeses, salted seafood, olives, and more are often highlighted on a tapas menu.

A tapas menu may have cold or hot appetizers, or slightly more substantial plates to serve larger parties. Most importantly, menu items are made for sharing and eating easily while socializing. You won’t find hefty burgers or complicated shellfish on a tapas menu — these dishes should be easy to eat with your hands or one utensil. You may feel the urge to continue to speak with your mouth full.

Tapas Menu Highlights + Typical Tapas Dishes

Every tapas restaurant puts their own spin on the menu, and may pay homage to different regions of Spain. That said, there are a number of classic dishes you’ll find on the menu at most tapas restaurants.

  • Patatas bravas: These crispy fried potatoes are similar to American homefries, but served bathed in a spicy tomato sauce known as “bravas” sauce. They’re a hit at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

  • Tortilla Española: Another all-day staple, tortilla española is a traditional egg and potato Spanish omelette, often made with cheese and onion mixed in.

  • Gambas al Ajillo: Literally “garlic shrimp,” this sharp dish is often served in the pan its cooked in, with slivers of fresh garlic and doused in olive oil. It’s usually served with crusty bread for dipping.

  • Croquetas: Almost like the Spanish version of an empanada, croquetas are creamy, crunchy, deep-fried bites filled with your choice of ham, cheese, mushrooms, or seafood. Often, restaurants offer a mix of fillings as part of their own twist on the classic croqueta. They are often served with aioli.

  • Pulpo a la Gallega: A delicacy in Spanish cuisine, pulp a la Gallega is octopus cooked until tender in olive oil, paprika, and sea salt.

  • Aceitunas: Aceitunas are olives, and olives are quintessential to any tapas menu. Depending on the restaurant and the region it celebrates, you may find a range of varietals and preparations, from marinated and stuffed to served fresh.

  • Pan con tomate: A simple, but delicious, staple of tapas menus, pan con tomate is toasty bread rubbed with ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. It’s similar to an Italian bruschetta.

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Tapas Dining Etiquette and Socializing

While the food should be a highlight, the true essence of any tapas restaurant should be the dining and social experience. To re-invoke Andres, “Tapas is a celebration of life.” 

Sharing

The core tenet of the tapas experience is that all dishes are meant to be shared. You could go alone and order several dishes, but it would sort of defeat the purpose. The tapas experience is all about ordering multiple plates and sharing them with friends, enjoying a variety of tastes while having a good time.

Pacing

Tapas are typically served as they’re ready, so items come out of the kitchen at different times. Again, this is the point, as the gradual serving of different items allows you and your companions to enjoy each dish before moving on to the next one.

Drinks

From peasants using ham to cover the odor of bad wine to King Alfonso’s delight at a tapa on his glass, the tapas tradition has always been closely tied to drinking. Tapas menus often come with wine pairings and have complete drink menus of sangria, beer, sherry, or whatever else you’d like. Having a beverage is a great way to complement the food and take the edge off.

Conversation

Tapas menus encourage extended stays in the restaurant. Kicking back and relaxing with friends while enjoying some food and drink is all part of the experience. Some restaurants may choose to provide music or ambient lighting to support a festive, but casual mood. Some tapas restaurants are on the more lively side, but many are more laid back, encouraging conversation among friends.

Notable Tapas Restaurants Around the World

Naturally, the world’s best tapas restaurants are located in Spain, but there are outstanding examples in other parts of the world, as well. These are a few of the world’s best.

  • El Riconcillo, Seville, Spain: Since 1760, this rustic restaurant has been serving up some of the world’s most celebrated tapas on Seville’s Calle Gerona. A mosaic-tiled bar and wine barrel tables pay homage to the restaurant’s roots as a watering hole for all-comers, while the menu includes an eclectic mix of stews, seafood, meat sweet flans, and of course, tapas.

  • El Vaso de Oro, Barcelona, Spain: One of Barcelona’s top tapas restaurants sits in the lively La Barceloneta neighborhood. The iconic bar looks almost like a New York City hole-in-the-wall, squeezed into an intimate, street-lamp-laden bar. But don’t let the size fool you, the restaurant is world-renowned for extraordinary tapas, desserts, and a delightful beer menu.

  • Barrafina, London, England: Widely considered the world’s greatest tapas restaurant outside of Spain, Antonio Gonzalez’s Barrafina offers world-class dishes at a surprisingly affordable price. A hot spot for locals and tourists alike, it may be very hard to get a reservation, but Barrafina is one of the more accessible examples of world-class cooking.

  • The Cellar, Doha, Qatar: The Cellar blends old-world Spanish food with modern restaurant design. Built to encourage the community of the tapas experience, this open, lively bar and restaurant is well-known for paella and delicious tapas celebrating a centuries-old Spanish tradition.

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Tapas have been a staple of Spanish cuisine for hundreds of years, but they’ve really only taken off in the US recently. However, there’s been a strong surge of tapas restaurants in the past decade in US cities and the trend has caught on at bars and restaurants across the country. The small plate revolution is well underway, so pour a glass, grab a few friends, and start passing las croquetas.

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