Tapas Are Tops*

This past Monday, Sal and I grabbed dinner with friends. Over some glasses of sangria, our friend Susan said she had a restaurant idea that I would love: “It would be called Flights & Bites, and, you know, we both love to try a lot of things, so there would only be flights and tapas-style dishes.”

I said, “I LOVE IT.”

While I don’t think we’re going to make Flights & Bites a reality (please don’t steal that name, though, anyone), it reinforced my already strongly held belief that tapas-style meals are the best kinds of meals.

Who doesn’t love to try a variety of tasty foods in one meal? Growing up, my parents and I typically traded bites when we dined out, and once I started taking Spanish classes in high school and learned about tapas, I was firmly in Camp Small Plates. “Oh, we can have salty triangles of cheese, beautiful waves of jamón, marinated mushrooms, AND croquetas?” I’m onboard.

Then I spent a semester in Madrid. I was still a very shy person and so didn’t get out too much (REGRETS, I’VE HAD A FEW), but when I did, it was always with a small group of friends that happily split a ración of jamón and manchego and a jarra of sangria. There really is something to be said for eating from the same dish as your fellow diners, whether they’re family, close friends, or new acquaintances.


Una ración de jamón y un vaso con vino. Foto por Scott Challener, mi cuñado.

And what I love most about tapas is that it doesn’t need to be fancy. Just arrange those triangles of cheese on a plate, and you’re good to go. That’s why I’ve been so interested to see how tapas are interpreted and presented in the US. In my (still limited) experience (I’m no expert on tapas or Spanish food), tapas are really like bar food. You have a few bites to go with your drink. If you’re with a bigger group, maybe you get a ración. But nothing is overly fussy or too artistically plated with swoops of sauces or whatever. And it’s great! However, I’ve also experienced tapas that are taken to another level. Next-level tapas where the server brings out a giant, gleaming white plate with a tiny pile of food in the center. It’s beautiful, it’s delicious, but I can’t share it. I can’t share the experience with the people sitting around the table.

This is not to denigrate those fancy tiny tapas. They have their place, and I often enjoy them. It’s simply not always for me, which is fine. But I’d love to encounter more of the bar food-style tapas. This is why I was thrilled to learn the Bon Appetit named Morcilla in Pittsburgh among its top ten best restaurants of the year. I’ve never been to Morcilla, but the write-up and the photos gave a pretty good indication that this spot was about honoring the barroom origins of tapas. This is why I was excited to go with my parents in April to a new place in Princeton called Despaña. There, the menu reflected the classic tapas, and the plates came out with plenty to split among the three of us.

The Spanish have a word: sobremesa. It refers to the period after a meal that you spend around the table, talking, joking, digesting, finishing up the last few bites, maybe sipping some patxaran. We could use more of this here in the US, I think, and tapas, to me, are a wonderful way to promote it.


*I’m so sorry.

Featured image from El Xampanyet, a restaurant in Barcelona that I dream of returning to.


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