Madrid tapas (finger food and appetizers) originated in one of several ways, depending on different stories from history and folklore. The word comes from the Spanish language meaning a “cover.” The most common theory of how the word came to refer to food is from the practice of placing a snack such as flat bread or piece of flat meat (like a slice of chorizo) on top of a glass of wine to keep out fruit flies.
Most of the tapas bars in Madrid serve these appetizers and finger foods at stand-up counters and bars. This is traditional throughout Spain, and the bars are usually crowded—meaning you often have to place your plate on top of your wine glass in order to eat. The most beloved pieces of folklore contain anecdotes about King Alfonso X. One story says he was ill and doctors advised eating small snacks with his wine. The king actually made it a (very practical) law that is still in force today. Another story has the king visiting the beaches of Cadiz on the country’s southwestern coast, and the tavern owner protected the king’s wine from blowing sand by placing a slice of cured ham on top of the glass. Perhaps it is as simple as the discovery by tavern owners that a particularly ripe chunk of cheese set on top of a glass could mask the unmistakable aroma of bad wine. This traditional type of finger food is found in a number of Mediterranean countries (mezes in Greece and Turkey), and no self-respecting housewife in any of these countries will be without appetizers to offer guests, even if it is only a plate of olives.
Whatever story you subscribe to, you will find that tapas bars in Madrid provide some of the most authentic culture and dining traditions in the country. The bars (called tabernas) can be found everywhere, and tapas tours in Madrid provide some of the most popular things to do in the city, both for tourists and locals alike. A Madrid tapas crawl usually signals the beginning of the city’s nightlife. The dinner hour here, as it is throughout the Mediterranean, is late. Most people don’t sit down for the main evening meal until 10:00 p.m. or as late as midnight. Lunchtime is also late and is not normally eaten until late afternoon. So, Madrid tapas are traditionally available in bars before lunch (around noon) and before dinner (around 8:00 pm). After two to four hours of bar hopping and tapas tasting, it’s time for dinner, which is often accompanied or followed by flamenco dancing and music.
A typical night out on the town usually begins at one of the tapas bars in Madrid after people leave work. They meet friends for drinks and appetizers, often going from bar to bar to sample different local specialties. This is the origin of the tapas tours in Madrid that are today an integral part of almost all vacations. You don’t normally find tapas in regular restaurants, but just about every bar will offer a selection of as few as six or as many as a couple dozen dishes. They are traditionally bite-sized snacks in a wide variety. There are small fish and seafood dishes (mussels, anchovies, sardines, squid, etc.) soaked in vinegar or olive oil, tomato or mustard sauce. There will be several kinds of olives, bread, cheeses, meatballs, sausages, beef and pork chunks, chicken kebabs, spiced new potatoes, flat bread, and just about anything else that can be a finger food. Order a small beer (cana), glass of wine (chato), or grape juice (mosto) with your tapas. Some bars will give you a free plate of tapas when you order a drink.
You can find Madrid tapas just about everywhere, whether you’re shopping or sightseeing. It’s possible this city has more bars per capita than any other city in the world, so you just about trip over them wherever you are visiting. The most popular tapas tours in Madrid for tourists include the oldest neighborhoods (especially the Austrias Quarter around Plaza Mayor and just to the east around Puerta del Sol), which is also where you find many of the classic attractions. Organized tours are often led by professional guides with expertise in the culinary arts and history of the city, and they will provide background on the landmarks seen and the food and wine consumed.