One thing is for sure – you’ll never go hungry visiting Spain. The Spanish love to eat out and there are restaurants, bars and cafeterias everywhere you look! In fact, often times when traveling in Spain, there are so many options of what and where to eat that you begin to feel overwhelmed. Will it be a fancy restaurant, a neighborhood cafeteria or the chocolatería? Or, maybe you want to try some local tapas at that busy bar on the corner? And then there is the question of the restaurant and cafeteria rating systems that use forks and cups instead of stars… Yes, you read that correctly - forks and cups! So, how do you choose where to eat and what does the rating system mean?
Before going any further, it must be said that all eating and drinking establishments in Spain must conform to all health and sanitary statutes. The rating systems are strictly related to the amenities provided to the customer, such as whether there is air conditioning, a cloak room, a private telephone booth, an elevator if there is more than one floor, etc.
Each region in Spain seems to have their own version of the rating system for restaurants, cafeterías and bars, so the descriptions below are to be used as a general guide to the ratings.
Restaurants in Spain are classified as those eating establishments where there is a written menu and service by wait staff at the table. Depending on the classification, they can have from one to five forks, five being the highest rating. There will be a blue and white sign like the one in the photo, posted on the street near the entrance. It will have an “R” for restaurant and the forks it has earned. As with all European countries, all restaurants in Spain post their menus (with prices) in the window or next to the entrance to allow customers to see what is offered.
As you take your afternoon or evening stroll on the plaza, remember that a 2-fork restaurant may not have an elevator or fancy decoration, but may serve the best food in town. We recommend telling the hotel desk clerk what kind of food and price range you are looking for and asking their advice. In fact, ask where they eat when off duty. Most Spaniards will be thrilled to talk to you about food!
Cafeterías or cafés serve food and drink throughout the day and evening at the bar or tables. This is what the Spanish call “uninterrupted service.” Again, depending on the amenities, they will post a blue and white sign with one to two small “coffee cups” and a capital “C” above them.
Generally, the cafeterías are geared more toward faster meals and autoservicio or “self-service.” Snacks, sandwiches, pastries, ice cream and hot and cold drinks are typically served at cafeterías. Expect to pay a bit more for sitting at a table and receiving table service than if you sat at the bar. Cafeterías are good places to relax at a sidewalk table, order a coffee and pastry and people watch, especially on a busy pedestrian plaza.
Bars in Spain are places for the entire family, where parents drink beer, wine, cocktails, or coffee, while children will play and drink fruit juice and soft drinks. Most sell chips, nuts or some kind of munchies. Hot and cold tapas and bocadillos may be available and many will serve a specialty of the house. The menu or la carta may be a large sign or a chalkboard posted behind the bar, on the sidewalk and/or next to the entrance. Bars do not have ratings, but simply have a blue and white sign posted outside with a capital “B.”