Do’s and don’ts of tapas

Your go-to guide for authentic Spanish cuisine.

Calling all nibblers and lovers of a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

Traditional American menus have expanded to include everything but the kitchen sink. With pages upon pages to peruse, the decision-making process can be daunting. But what if you could have a little bit of everything? Easy. Turn to tapas, and avoid the limitations of ordering just a single entrée altogether.

Originating in Spain, the concept of tapas centers around small plates. Traditionally, it’s been said that a tapa would come complimentary with every drink order and be placed on a small plate or coaster that covered your drink to keep flies out. The word tapa literally means “cover” or “lid.” Today, tapas have evolved to encompass an entire dining experience.

But what are the best practices when it comes to ordering and eating these delicious little dishes? Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you navigate your next tapas night out.

Don’t go alone

This isn’t a meal for one. It’s a small-plate party for many. Invite 1 or 2, or …6 of your food-loving buddies, and enjoy the ride. Portion sizes will vary by restaurant, but typically, ordering 2 to 3 tapas per person gets the job done. So a party of 4 would order 8 to 12 tapas between them. Don’t be afraid to ask your server if you haven’t ordered enough food, and remember, your friends are there to help if you’ve ordered too much.

Don’t be stingy

Sharing is caring, and when it comes to tapas, everyone cares. It’s about more than food. It’s about spending time with people, catching up and having good conversation and good food in a casual atmosphere. No fuss here. Just hang out and have a good time. So don’t be afraid to reach across to try something you didn’t order.

Spanish-born Executive Chef Marcos Campos heads up the team at Black Bull—a Chicago-based restaurant offering a modern take on Spanish classics. His advice? “Don’t limit yourself to one. Tapas are meant to be shared! You’re creating a communal meal similar to how we dine in Spain. I’d recommend ordering a variety of tapas—a couple of seafood options, a meat option, a vegetable option and some jamón and cheeses to start,” he says.

Don’t be scared

Try something you’ve never had. Traditional tapas range from potatoes to squid. And this is the best time to be adventurous. Remember, it’s just a taste.

If you don’t like something, don’t worry. Someone else will, and you’ll be off the hook. If you’re especially particular about food and unwilling to venture into the unknown, don’t underestimate the power of olives and cheese. You can usually find a fine selection of both either at the tapas bar or on your table.

Do your homework

Some restaurants might get creative with their offerings, but you can always count on a few Spanish staples. And a little research goes a long way when it comes to mastering the menu. There are hot and cold tapas, and you should order a little bit of both. But brush up on the basics like patatas bravas, croquetas de jamón and tortillas Españolas.

Pro tip: Size is everything in Spain when it comes to food and drink. While people will popularly refer to the entire experience as tapas, raciones are larger plates that are also meant to be shared.

Do ask questions

No matter how much research you do, you’ll still have questions. Ask them. Tell your server what you like and let their expertise be your guide. Worried about whether you’ve ordered enough? Ask. Want to know which drink goes best with your selections? Inquire away. Again, you’re sharing everything, so there are no mistakes. When it comes to tapas, there’s usually little left to waste.

Do order sangria

Or any drink, for that matter. Remember why tapas were created? To cover your drink. And while flies are unlikely to be of concern, you’ll inevitably be thirsty. But for the most authentic tapas experience, go with the sangria. Choose between white, red or sparkling—whichever you fancy most—and grab a pitcher for the table to share.

So if you’ve ever sat down at a restaurant and couldn’t decide what to dine on, Spain can save the day—and your empty stomach. And you probably don’t have to cross the Atlantic to figure out which tapas are your favorites.

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