Photos by Jason DeRusha
I just got back from 11 days eating and drinking my way through bars and restaurants in Madrid, Rioja and Barcelona, Spain. And man, do Spanish restaurants live up to their reputation. While I wouldn’t want to bring everything back here to Minnesota (I have a new appreciation for quality service after what we experienced in Spain!), there are a handful of lessons in the way they run their restaurants that I think we could learn from.
Less Is More: We are in the era of 32 tap lines of craft beer and wine lists longer than the JCPenney Catalog. Why? Who does this serve? Maybe the hard-core beer nut or the extremely crazy wine nerd, but the average person wants a nicely curated list of choices. There’s barely any craft beer in Spanish restaurants, most places only had one tap line. I didn’t miss it.
Good House Wine: When I ordered wine, I was usually given the choice of red or white (tinto o blanco). Even at our hotel in Madrid (I highly recommend the Only You Hotel) they had one red and one white. That’s it. At a lot of restaurants, the house wine was just $2 a glass, and at that price I don’t need a million choices! The wine is perfect for the food, and I didn’t feel like I wanted more choices.
The Olive or Potato Chip Bowl: Whenever we had wine, we were given a small bowl of delicious Spanish olives or a bowl of potato chips. It can’t cost much to the restaurant, and it sure is a welcoming gesture of hospitality.
Small Plates/Tapas: Obviously Spain is known for tapas, and this is an area where I think Minnesota restaurants are moving quicker than diners. I can’t think of a single restaurant I’ve reviewed for Minnesota Monthly where the entrees were better than the small plates or starters. The small plates are more creative, more delicious, and more fun than anything in the entrees. We diners need to catch up: eat more plates, share more plates, and eat less food.
Gin & Tonic Bars: In Madrid especially, we saw lots of gin and tonic bars. A bartender would pair the gin with different tonics (classic or flavored) and then pair fruits or dried berries or other botanicals with the drink. They were served in large goblets and were delicious. Everyone loves Gin & Tonics. Marin had a fun periodic table of gin a couple years ago on their patio bar in the summer, but why don’t we have a year-round G&T bar? It would kill.
Late Night Dining: In Madrid and Barcelona, if you’re dining at 7 p.m., you’re a tourist. Locals eat at 9 or 10 p.m., all night every night, and it gives the city a real vibrancy. I’d be happy if more of us would go out for a drink and small plate at 6:30 p.m., and then have dinner reservations at 8 p.m.
Fried artichokes (We need these here!)
We do have geographical limitations to the kinds of restaurants we love when we’re out of the country: we’re not densely populated, we don’t have a lot of very condensced spaces for small, unique restaurants, and we don’t have super walkable spaces where people can bounce from one restaurant to the next. Have you been to Spain? What would you like to see here?