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A Tapas Tour of Spain

In search of classic flavors, unhurried conversations, and cuisine that welcomes the new while celebrating the old?A visit to the crowded tapas bars of Spain will show you how these small plates define—and preserve—the Iberian way of life.

After a decade of adventuring at new-wave restaurants, I recently landed in Spain with a yearning to immerse myself in the country’s most traditional social rituals, to connect more deeply with its compulsively sociable culture. And so, to plumb this unique Iberian alma, I joined the tapeo—the tapas-bar crawl that has Spaniards walking, talking, drinking, and nibbling every weekend, if not every day. A visitor can get off the plane, go straight to a tapas bar in any Spanish city, inhale some jamón and migas, and feel like an insider within 30 minutes. The eats—¡estupendo!—are only a part of what makes the tapeo so vital to Spaniards and irresistible to Americans. Pressed together at crowded counters, teenagers trade confidences with octogenarians and locals break bread with foreigners. On a tapeo, old ties are refreshed, new relationships are sparked, and an evening often turns into a come-one, come-all street fiesta. This is a way that the Spaniards keep bland globalization at bay, maintaining such a deep-rooted sense of community that the whole disparate country often has the feel of a big village. Even Spain’s status as a mecca of progressive cuisine owes much to the locals’ readiness to engage with new tastes. Spaniards will try anything once—as long as it’s small. Aren’t the tidbits dished up by avant-garde guru Ferran Adrià at El Bulli essentially a form of tapas?

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