Have you ever been confused between the menú del día, which is common all over Spain, and ordering à la carte, or “from the menu” as one would say in English? For English speakers, the word “menu” is usually the cause of any confusion but it’s really not complicated at all once you know.
For those of you who come to the Costa Brava on vacation eating out is a major part of your experience here, especially as you will probably do so far more often than you would at home. And for those who have chosen to move here on a more permanent basis one of the joys of life here is the local cuisine, aided by the fact that eating out tends to be far more economical than it is at home. This is particularly the case when it comes to the “Menú del día”.
Origins of el menú del día
The menú del día originated in the 1960s in Franco’s Spain, a time when the country was in an economic crisis. Supposedly Franco came up with the concept in 1964 (or at least he took the credit for it anyway!), with the idea of providing workers on low incomes with an affordable but nourishing midday meal during the working week. It is for this reason that the menú wasn’t (and still isn’t nowadays) typically available at weekends. You might occasionally hear locals say that the menú del día is about the only positive thing Franco did during all his years in power (or, here in Catalunya, mumble and mutter rather than utter out loud. Giving Franco credit for anything is pretty unusual around here!). It is legally no longer obligatory for restaurants to offer a menú del día but the majority still do.
Knowing what to ask for
Before we go any further it’s probably a good idea to clarify one thing and eliminate any confusion: if what you want is to order from the full menu, à la carte, then you need to ask for “la carta”. The menú del día is a set menu of three courses, usually only available in the middle of the day. If you ask your waiter for “the menu” expecting him to provide you with la carta, he will instead start explaining what’s on el menú del día that particular day. It might be a little confusing for foreigners (at least for the English-speakers) the first couple of times.
So what do you get?
A menú del día normally consists of three courses: El Primer Plat[o] (first dish) where you get to choose one of three dishes; El Segundo [Segon] Plat[o[ (second dish), again with three options; and El Postre (dessert). You will also be given bread and a drink, usually, water, a glass of wine or a caña [canya] of beer, all included in the set price.
Typical choices for your first course might include a salad, soup, or a small rice, beans or pasta dish. The second usually consists of a meat or fish dish or sometimes, but not always, a vegetarian option. Desserts can vary widely from place to place, sometimes home-made and sometimes not.
In most restaurants, the menú changes from day to day, depending on what is available or on what ingredients the chef wants to use up. For this reason, the menú is most commonly written on a chalkboard or whiteboard rather than printed out. Sometimes it might not be written anywhere but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no menú available – you may just need to ask the waiter. In fact, if the chalkboard looks like it was written in a hurry, or not written at all, it can be a good sign as the chef may have only decided what the menú would consist of once back from the market with fresh produce. This also explains why it is somewhat unusual to find the menú del día translated into any other languages. If you see a printed, translated and laminated menú with photos it might be best to try somewhere else as it’s likely a franchise and the food is likely to be processed and/or frozen. The best rule of thumb though is to look inside and see if the place is popular, particularly with locals – or even better, just ask a local!
Value for money?
So, how much should a menú del día cost? The average price countrywide is apparently €11.60 so, as you’d expect, prices typically range from €8/9 to about €14/15. As with restaurant prices in general how much you pay depends on location, quality and portion size. It’s not an exact science and there is always an element of trial and error. For example, you may find an excellent menú for, say, €10 and then try another for €14 which you don’t find as good. On the other hand, don’t be put off by a slightly more expensive menú as the higher quality of the food might be well worth an extra few euro and the portions may be more substantial – or they may give you a half bottle of wine rather than just a small glass, for example. Sometimes on a pricier menú, the coffee is included too whereas it usually costs extra or is interchangeable with dessert on a cheaper one.
Menú del día or la carta?
A trap that many foreigners often fall into is always opting for the menú del día as they can’t resist the great value for money, as they see it, and ignoring la carta. It’s always a good idea to look at both before deciding. After all, there’s not much point in ordering a €10 menú just because it’s cheap, and then eating, for example, a salad you don’t really want for your first course instead of ordering a single course meal that you would really much prefer off la carta for around the same price!
Going for a menú every time means you could be missing out on lots of beautiful local dishes as there are many that you will never see on a menú. One of the greatest things about Spain is Spanish cuisine, so by all means, enjoy your menú del día but don’t restrict yourself to that alone, or you will end up going home and telling your friends that the Spanish food you tried was “pretty decent and cheap” rather than “absolutely fabulous and very affordable”!
¡Buen provecho! / Bon profit!