There are a few things about us that remain, well, American. I like ice in my drink. I’m particular about my showers. And, I like to eat on what I would consider a “normal” eating schedule. Sometimes I feel a little Leave it to Beaver when I am looking to eat at 6pm. No place plagues us more that Spain when it comes to the time to dine. It’s the one main frustration, well, let’s call it adventure: the adventure that is when to eat in Catalunya.
When to Eat in Spain
We’ve traveled to Spain numerous times. As soon as I think we’ve figured out this whole late eating thing, situations arise that remind that I am still an American when it comes to dinner time. Ideally, for me, dinner is around 7pm. That is late for us. That’s an evening out for us. Even better would be dinner around 6 or 6:30. It gives us time to do something after, and to digest our food before bed.
During our last trip to Barcelona in 2014, again when I thought I had the dining schedule down pat, I learn more specifics on the eating rules. I continued to struggle with the whole concept of when to eat in Spain.
During our more recent, lengthy stay in Costa Brava, though, these rules and norms seemed to diverge even more so from my very American eating habits. And, it seemed even after traveling full time for three years, I just couldn’t seem to wrap my head around when to eat in Catalunya.
It’s not like I enjoy always being the first ones in the restaurant. In fact, we pride ourselves on being able to adapt to the local culture, as best we can, wherever we are. But there is something about the rules on when to eat in Catalunya. They, once again, threw us for a loop. It’s similar when we travel in Italy, and god forbid we try to eat dinner like an Argentine.
An “Early” Dinner at Michelin Star Casamar
Our one big splurge during our time eating in Catalunya, was at the Michelin star restaurant, Casamar. We had met Chef Quim, and his sister Maria, at our traditional seafood lunch. And, because Eric is now collecting Chef friends, we wanted to ensure we visited the restaurant.
We happened to be in the town of Llafranc having coffee our friend Jeff from Adventures in Culture. I ran up the hill to Casamar to make a reservation for a few nights later. When they asked what time, I tried to play it cool. Really I did. Although I desperately wanted to ask for a 7pm reservation, I asked for 8pm. I was promptly informed that they don’t open until 8:30 pm. So, 8:30 it was.
When we arrived, about 8:20, the hostess sat us for a drink on the patio, as the spring chill descended. We perused the menu. I really did want to order the tasting menu, which included about 7 courses and was relatively reasonably priced at 70 Euros a person. After all, we were there to splurge.
Of course, there was a large part of me that knew I could not sit down to a seven course tasting menu at 9pm. I was already tired. Eric was dragging. So, we conservatively ordered only a starter and a main course.
Of course, the Costa Brava hospitality shown through that night, as Chef Quim sent out additional tastes, and entire courses, with his sister Maria saying as she delivered each one “my brother said you just have to try this.”
It was an amazing experience, but when we rolled, yes rolled, out of Casamar at about 11:30pm after having consumed at least 8 courses, I was stuffed. I was so stuffed that I couldn’t even sleep that night. This part of me is still very American.
Los Americanos at Hotel Aigua Blava
The day after our Casamar extravaganza, we hunkered down at Hotel Aigua Blava. We indulged on the plentiful buffet breakfast. We snacked in the afternoon on some meats and cheese we had picked up the day before at Pastisseria Serra. And, we hoped for an early dinner.
We mentioned during a conversation with Esther, the Hotel Aigua Blava marketing manager, that we planned on eating early for a change. Our goal was to order a few tapas from the hotel’s all-day menu. There was no way, after our 8+ course menu at Casamar the night before that we could start another lengthy meal at 830 or 9. Eric was aiming for dinner at 6. His goal was to be in bed watching Modern Family no later than 7pm. This is a glimpse into the less glamorous side of our lives as travelers.
Esther offered to have Chef Lluis prepare us a special tapas menu, a pica pica. He even agreed to prepare it for 7 pm, a little later than Eric hoped, but it was worth it. The food was amazing, and inventive, like the full tasting menu we had with Chef Lluis the week before.
The best part, though, was listening to the other hotel guests during our meal. My Spanish is not great, and my Catalan is non existent, but I was able to understand the gist of a lot of conversations involving words like “Americanos” and “especial.”
Essentially, guests were asking what time the restaurant opened for dinner. Servers replied 8pm, while the guests saw us sitting there eating. When the guests gestured to us, the servers informed them that we were American. That seemed to end the inquiry.
At one point, a couple asked for the tapas menu, while seeing a tray of our special pica pica. I don’t blame them, our dishes were amazing. They were promptly told that our dishes were special. When the head chef arrived for dinner, he had a brief conversation with some of the servers, wondering why we were sitting in the dining area well before 8pm, and, of course the words Americanos and especial were thrown out again.
I generally don’t often play the American card, particularly because we pride ourselves on adjusting to the local culture as much as possible. But, in this case, I was totally okay playing Los Americanos, the people who just can’t eat at 9pm each night. The people who want to digest their food before bed, and get a good night sleep. That night, we were American, and we were special.
A Late Afternoon Lunch in Cantallops
After spending a bit of time eating in Costa Brava, we tried our best to adjust to when to eat in Catalunya. We spent more time eating larger meals at lunch, when many restaurants offer a menu del dia, a set menu of two or three courses, with wine, for a discount price. That left us eating light for dinner, either stopping for some tapas, or having something small at our apartment.
Sometimes, though, we had activities planned in the afternoon which got in the way of our big lunch plans. A perfect example when we attended a weekend Emporda wine festival. We left the festival in the early afternoon, on a Saturday. We didn’t think there would be any problem finding something to eat. We were mistaken. It was hard to find a place open at 4pm on a Saturday. We figured the one Mexican restaurant in town would be open, but it had just closed the kitchen. We ended up eating a kebab, just under the wire. Even the kebab shop closed at 4:30.
We did not want the same thing to happen after our wine tasting and tour at Masia Serra, in Catallops. We were in a tiny town, at the base of the Pyrenees. The next stop was France. We finished our tasting around 2pm, and knew that by the time we drove back to our apartment it would be well after 3pm. Too late to find a lunch. But there seemed to be nothing in the area surrounding the winery.
We asked Silvia, the owner of Masia Serra, and she suggested Restaurant Can Pau, on the far end of the little village. We said our pleasantries, thanked Silvia for the visit, and raced our butts to Can Pau. Although Silvia called ahead to let them know we were coming, we were afraid they would close the kitchen in the 15 minutes it took us to find it.
They were open, and there were loads of people outside. We were the last people to enter for lunch that day, and had an absolute amazing meal. We skipped a starter and each order an impressively sized meat dish. At that point, I was stuffed, with meat and wine, and ready to go home. But, the server walked by with a tray of desserts that looked amazing.
Even without an ounce of space left in my belly, I ordered the coulant. Luckily Eric ordered his own, because it was one of the most amazing desserts I ever had. A warm and gooey chocolate cake, with warm chocolate fudge in the center. At this point, I was very happy that we were freaking out about when to eat in Catalunya, and asked for the local recommendation.
Tips on When to Eat in Catalunya
In the end, we never went hungry. But, there were times that I felt that we were overeating, or hoarding food, so that we would not be caught off guard. So, here is what I learned about when to eat in Catalunya.
- When it comes to Spanish food, there is a complicated series of meals that are eaten throughout the day, including an early breakfast, a late breakfast, lunch, a snack, and finally dinner or tapas.
- Lunch often starts at 1pm, finishes around 3pm, and is the main meal of the day. Order a menu del dia to save some money.
- Plan ahead for Sundays and Mondays. Many places are closed on Sundays across Europe. If you are in a touristy area, then the day with the most closures may be Monday. Ask around about what is open each day to be prepared.
- If you are stuck and hungry between 3pm and 7pm, there are a few options. Look for a bar that might offer bocadillos, or simple sandwiches. Or, a cafe that also serves gelato.
- Dinner time starts late, perhaps around 8pm for people looking to grab a few tapas. Or, it could be as late as 10pm for a full dinner with friends.
All of these are starter tips on when to eat in Catalunya, and can be applied for when to eat in Spain in general. But, every time I travel to Spain, and just when I think I’ve figured it all out, I’m still left hungry, looking for dinner at 6pm, or seeking out a Sunday lunch. So, don’t take my word for it, look to an expert. Here’s a great guide from Lauren at Spanish Sabores, on when to eat in Spain.
What are your tips on when to eat in Catalunya, or Spain, or Italy, or anywhere else?
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.