A special moment from our travels in 2003. The little dog is the star of the show.
It's a lovely evening here in Spain, and you walk into a nice restaurant for your evening meal (“la cena”). You ask the waiter for “the menu” and he says that they have no menu. What gives? All around, you see people happily eating and some are even holding menus and ordering. If you raised your voice would he (or she) understand? Is the waiter just being rude to foreigners? This confusion is typical of many you are likely to experience as a first-time visitor to Spain. The problem is what linguists call a false cognate or, more informally, a false friend. The Spanish translation of “menu” is “carta.” They also use the word “menú,” but it has a different meaning. The “Menú del Día” is the fixed-price, 3-course menú offered in midday by most restaurants. Sometimes the menú is offered in the evening, but that is an exception. (See Menú del Día elsewhere on this blog.) There may also be a Menú Degustació, which is an elaborate fixed-price menú with numerous courses, sometimes with a different wine accompanying each course. That menú may set you back €50-€100 and is a lengthy affair. It can leave you wonderfully satisfied and not knowing where or even who you are.
There are other special menús, such as “Menú Especial” or “Menú Temps de Flors.” In each case the “menú” is a fixed-price meal. If you want to see what you think of as a “menu,” ask for “la carta,” which is a list of all the appetizers, main courses, desserts, and drinks that the restaurant routinely offers.
I usually opt for a menú over “la carta" because it is a better value and offers plenty of variety. The price usually includes three courses, wine, and bread, which are all separate entries on the “carta.” (To remember that "carta" is the menu, think of "a la carte.")
So, what is on the menu? That will be your next challenge, but waiters are very accomplished at getting across the meaning of Spanish terms for food, using a mixture of a few English words and sign language.
One of my great joys of living in Catalunya is the quality of the food we eat. We can shop for the freshest food in our local markets and our restaurants are known worldwide for the quality of their cooking. My usual strategy is to eat breakfast at home, then go out in the middle of the day to one of my favorite local restaurants where I can get what we call the Menú del Día, the fixed-price lunch that nearly all restaurants offer on weekdays. This is a generous three-course meal that includes an appetizer, main course, dessert, bread, and water or wine. All this for €10-€18—a real bargain. After a meal like this, I don't need to eat much in the evening, So I snack or eat some of the local ham and cheese, a bowl of olives, or whatever appeals to me. I have scouted out many of the local restaurants and have a list of a half a dozen that I cycle among.
Even those of us with dietary restrictions can be accommodated at these restaurants. They have come to know us and what we can and can't eat, and make substitutions without complaint.
Since Girona is home to several Michelin-star restaurants, the quality of the cooking is exceptional. When we want to splurge we have our choice of three or four restaurants that aspire to be Michelin-star restaurants and offer truly gourmet fare. These meals will set you back €25-€50, but they are memorable.
There are, of course, several tapas bars where we can select what we want from a huge selection of small dishes set out on the counter. The waiters collect the empty plates and keep track of your bill. Another option we enjoy is a local fish restaurant called Arroz Y Peiz, which translates as Rice and Fish. There is a large ice-filled table groaning with fresh seafood near the door and the server hands you a glass of the local bubbly while you make your choices. You choose the fish and shellfish in the quantity you want and they prepare it the way you like. You can add a salad, a paella, and dessert if you like. We come away very satisfied. These options are a little more expensive than the Menú del Día, but they are enjoyable for a change. We treat ourselves to meals like these when we want a little something extra but are not in the mood for gourmet fare.
I can truly say that I have never been so well fed in my life, and with a little care about how much I eat, I’ve not even gained weight.