The civilised custom of not normally drinking alcohol without eating something to accompany it exists all over the Peninsula . However, tapas are not a Catalan tradition, and their popularity has risen and fallen over the decades. Recently, tapas bars and restaurants have come back into favour in a big way in Barcelona . New and increasingly sophisticated tapas bars seem to be springing up daily, and the quality and variety of food on offer is truly remarkable, from fried fish, shellfish and other kinds of seafood such as octopus or squid, stews, sausages, cold-cuts and cheeses, to baked or fried vegetables, potatoes, mushrooms, salads, asparagus, stuffed eggs and omelettes. La Catalana, an older establishment on C/ Mallorca , is justly famous for its extensive range. Similar displays can be seen at any time of day or night in the big new touristy bar/restaurants on Paseig de Gracia, Rambla de Catalunya and Gran Via.
The tapas custom comes from old Andalucia, where they were originally free titbits on a slice of bread served on top of the glass as a sort of lid to keep the flies out of the wine. ( Tapa means lid or cover). Nowadays in Seville , Cordoba , Malaga or Granada you can be offered an extraordinary range, each item on a pretty little saucer, and for no extra charge! However, in Catalunya, unlike old Andalucia, tapas are charged separately from drinks, and a tapeo may set you back more than the price of a regular dinner.
In other parts of Spain , tapa has become the catch-all word for several different types of servings: pinchos, montaditos impaled with toothpicks on slices of bread, slightly larger raciones, and porciones or full portions. Most bars will have some kind of tapas available at all times of day or night. In larger towns specialised tascas selling specific tapas such as cuttlefish or snails are grouped together in narrow streets in the old quarter, and it is a ritual to move from one crowded bar to another, sampling competitive offerings. There are several of these on Barcelona 's narrow C/ de la Mercé, parallel to and one street in from the old port. The Basques are famous for the excellence of their montaditos , and Basque-style bar-restaurants have sprung up all over Barcelona , putting out a splendid display from about 6:00 in the evening. There is usually a single price for all, or at most two standard prices, and customers are normally charged according to the number of toothpicks on their plates. Ordinary bars tend to have a considerably more basic and limited selection, although cheap Galician bar/restaurants often put on a good show. Even small village bars will have tapas , and this is often a good way to sample local produce.
Some Spaniards take the ritual of the tapeo very seriously, insisting that one must eat standing up; they say that the aesthetic of the rite resides in a demonstration of indifference to table and chair, and even to the food that, although delicate and tasty, is eaten in minimum proportions, rejecting for this occasion the verb comer [to eat] in favour of picar [to pick at, like a bird, or to itch]. Speech and gesture are given priority; gluttony and materialism are frowned upon. The art of eating on foot elegantly is given almost sacramental significance. Fortunately, this approach is no longer widespread!
When people meet for a drink, the minimum they usually ask for is algo para picar . This usually consists of aceitunas , patatas fritas de bolsa or de churreria (crisps), and berberechos (cockles), anchoas (anchovies), boquerones (young sardines) or gambas (prawns). Fuet is commonly served in Catalunya. Peanuts and pistachio nuts are sometimes available.
Aperitivo refers to such a snack eaten before a big lunch, and more importantly to a drink you can order to accompany it, sometimes called a vermút , usually a house-recipe martini-style drink containing some vodka or gin and one or two olives. Many Spaniards take una copita de vino or jerez seco (dry sherry), e.g. fino La Ina or manzanilla . Others are happy to drink beer.