Forget Michelin-starred restaurants and fine dining: in Seville, you may well have your best meal standing in a packed bar. Andalucía’s fiery capital has long been renowned for its tapas and still today the evening tapeo (tapas bar crawl) is central to much social life in the city.
But what is an authentic Seville tapas experience like? What can you expect to eat, and what’s the etiquette in those crowded tapas joints?
What are tapas?
Tapas are essentially small plates of savoury bar food. Originally they were simple snacks served with drinks – a bowl of olives, perhaps, or a slice of tortilla. But over time they became increasingly elaborate and nowadays many tapas resemble micro-portions of refined restaurant dishes. In fact, the term tapa (the singular of tapas) is as much an indicator of a dish’s size as its content.
According to culinary legend, the tapas concept dates to the 13th century when King Alfonso X ate small morsels of food with his wine, apparently on his doctor’s orders. Others claim it derives from the habit of farm labourers to eat snacks during long days in the fields. The name tapa – which means lid in Spanish – is said to refer to an incident in the early 20th century when a Cadiz waiter placed a slice of jamón (ham) on a drink ordered by King Alfonso XIII to keep the dust out.
Seville’s trademark tapas
Ham is an evergreen local favourite. A particularly prized variety is jamón ibérico made from acorn-fed pigs raised in the Anadalucian village of Jabugo. Another popular meat tapas is solomillo al whisky, pork loins cooked in whisky sauce.
Cold soups are a much-loved Andalucian speciality that appear on menus in spring and summer. The best-known is gazpacho, a blend of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and garlic, that’s usually served in a glass. A variation is salmorejo, a creamy tomato soup garnished with shavings of jamón and crumbled egg.
Seville’s Moorish past can be detected in several tapas. Two standout examples are espinacas con garbanzos, a wholesome vegetarian combo of spinach, chickpeas and cumin, and berenjenas fritas con miel, soft creamy aubergines fried and topped with honey.
Pescado frito, fried fish, is one of several popular seafood tapas. Originally developed by the city’s Jewish community, it’s now a traditional staple of the annual Feria de Abril fiesta.
What to drink
There are no hard and fast rules, so it’s very much a case of whatever you fancy. Sevillanos are enthusiastic beer drinkers, and you’ll rarely go wrong ordering a glass of the local brew, cruzcampo.
For something more refined, dry sherry pairs well with many tapas. Try a glass of chilled fino with olives and ham or a manzanilla with a plate of buttery grilled calamar (squid).
Wine is an obvious choice and while purists might blanche, one of Seville’s most popular summer drinks is tinto de verano, a Sangria-like mix of red wine and lemonade served over ice.
There are said to be around 3,000 tapas bars in Seville.
The classic model comes with rows of hams hanging over the bar, ceramic tiling, and fading bullfighting posters on the walls. It might have a few token tables or upturned barrels to drink off, but it’ll generally be standing room only. Tapas, typically costing around €3 a shot, will be listed on blackboards or handwritten signs.
Alongside these, there are a growing number of smart gastro bars – a trend for gourmet tapas has swept the city in recent years. Tapas served at these places will often be more sophisticated, typically featuring seasonal ingredients, spices and local fruits. They’ll be prepared with surgical precision and arranged like mini-works of art.
Eating tapas is a wonderfully casual way of eating but to do it right there are several things you’ll need to master.
First up is the timing. Sevillanos tend to eat late and bars generally serve food from around 1pm through to 4pm and then in the evening from 8pm to 11.30pm or midnight.
Then there’s the ordering. If you’re standing, as tradition dictates, you’ll need to order at the bar. Try to avoid the rookie mistake of ordering too much. Old hands will take it slow, ordering a drink first, then mulling over the menu before asking for a single tapa or possibly two. When they’re finished they’ll either order more or move to another bar.
If you’re at a table – and many places now offer tables and waiter service – eating presents fewer logistical problems and you might opt for something more substantial. Most tapas are available in larger sizes as either medias raciones (mid-sized portions) or raciones (full-plate servings).
As a general rule, pay at the end, either directly at the bar or to your waiter.
The success of a tapas bar crawl depends on having many bars within easy walking distance of one another. Fortunately, Seville is ideally set up with clusters of bars in its central neighbourhoods.
Right in the heart of the city, the Barrio de Santa Cruz boasts a huge number of bars, many in the tightly-packed streets around Calle Mateos Gago. One such, Café Bar Las Teresas, is a textbook old-school bar known for its jamón. Over on the other side of the cathedral, Mamarraccha cuts a much more contemporary dash with its urban decor and fusion tapas.
To the north, La Brunilda in the Arenal district is another of the city’s new breed of gastro bars. Since opening in 2012, it has built a stellar local reputation on the back of its inventive culinary approach.