The Menu del dia – what is is; why and how to do it!
The tradition of eating a large, cooked meal at lunchtime is happily still alive and well in Spain. No soggy prepacked sarnie at the PC for these guys! Not only has this been proven to be a more healthy time to eat the main meal of the day (the Spanish have always known this and the working day allows for it), it is also very sociable; you will see families, friends, work colleagues, business meetings all taking place over a leisurely lunch.
One of our favourite pastimes (particularly on a wintery day) is to spend a good couple of hours in a favourite eatery over a long lunch and a glass (or two) of wine.
On a weekday in Spain, you will see most restaurants and bars will offer a Menu del dia (menu of the day); usually a 3 course set lunch for a fixed price (this can start as low as 7 euros, In Arcos. However, it tends to be around 12/13 euros here in Catalonia). As a general rule, I would say you get what you pay for (there is always an exception that proves every rule and our favourite, El Destierro in Arcos, proves this).
A menu del dia is an excellent, low risk opportunity to try new restaurants and to get a great deal.
Two of the first (only) words of Catalan I know are “cuina casolana” (cocina casera, in Spanish), meaning home cooking. This is what I always look out for on the front of a restaurant. I consider this to be a very good indicator from the outset that I am going to get what I consider to be “real” food!
I also look for places that are busy from early on. (Our favourite eatery in Palafrugell, El Timo gets busy before 1pm, which is pretty early by local standards).
I always figure that places with a good combination of people; elderly folk, business people and people in high vis clothing are the best go for. The fact that everyone seems to be local (and well known in the place) is a good sign that they are repeat customers.
To give you an idea of what a Menu del dia can comprise of, here are our current favourites;
El Timo in Palafrugell offers a set lunch Mon – Fri for 12 euros. It offers exceptional value because of the choice and quality of dishes (usually 6/7 choices of starter and main course). The menu includes starter, main, dessert, bread, water, carafe of wine (or alternative choice). I promise you, you won’t need to eat again till breakfast time! The hosting is warm and friendly, the lead staff member speaks at least 4 languages and the service starts early and is long (till 3.30), so they can usually fit you in. At the weekend they offer a special menu at 19 euros with even more choices and complexity of dishes. Highly recommended.
Our other top choice is Marisqueria Freidura El Destierro at the other end of the country, in Arcos de la Frontera. Similarly, they offer homecooked fare and a very friendly welcome. This is a mecca for fish lovers (don’t come if you’re not one!). You will be given a mixed salad to share, followed by a choice of hearty starters (On a recent trip I tried and excellent white bean, chestnut and prawn stew). To follow you will choose from a wide range of fried fish (the local Cadiz speciality). You will be given a small, complimentary dessert. For all this you will be charged the princely sum of 7 euros. They also special in excellent rice dishes (outside of the menu del dia), which you need to order in advance.
Happily most places will offer coffee instead of dessert, if you prefer. (El Destierro doesn’t offer coffee, at time of writing, but you may be regaled with a digestif, if you’re lucky!)
Finally, a very important aspect of dining in Spain the “sobremesa” basically a relaxing period spent chatting around the table; aiding disgestion and alleviating stress!
Final, final thing….dont be surprised when you are eating for someone to walk into the restaurant, or to lean over from the next table and say “Bon profit” or “Buen aproveche”, basically “enjoy your meal” – a very pleasant and common expression!!!