“Life is short. Eat dessert first.”
I’ve heard that observation credited to everyone from Mark Twain to Katherine Hepburn. A little research reveals that it more likely originated with a little-known writer named Ernestine Ulmer, who actually put it slightly differently: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”
Regardless of its origin, my fiancée, Michelle, and I embraced the concept recently when we decided to take our honeymoon before our wedding ceremony. I had a whole bunch of miles on American Airlines about to expire, so we decided to use them rather than lose them, and took a two-week vacation — my first-ever no-work period of that extended length — to Europe.
I’ll be sharing some of our wine adventures here in the weeks to come, beginning with our first evening across the pond.
Today’s topic: tapas.
And what better place to experience those Spanish delicacies than in Barcelona, the first stop on our vacation?
We arrived in Spain around 8 a.m. and, of course, were beat from the long, little-sleep flight. We had booked a hotel right along the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Las Ramblas, and an airport express bus took us to within a block of it in just 20 minutes.
We dropped off our bags and took a stroll on Las Ramblas, window shopping and occasionally stopping for coffee or gelato. At 2 p.m., we returned to the hotel, checked in and crashed. Our plan: Catch a nap, then get up, have dinner, and return to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
We had been told that the best way to see Barcelona was to “start walking and get lost” — easy to do on the narrow, cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets that zigzag through the city.
We strolled past clothing stores, gift shops, bars and bakeries — lots of bakeries. Then we saw it: a tapas restaurant called Txapela. The bar seating looked inviting, and a large sign by the entrance, describing the various dishes in English, made us feel comfortable enough to go in.
We grabbed bar seats right next to the kitchen and, for the next two hours, got our vacation off to a fabulous start.
Our server’s name was Maria, and we soon learned that she wasn’t from Spain, but rather from Peru. The manager on duty, Yolanda, also had moved to Spain from Peru.
They provided us with paper placemats that mirrored that large exterior sign, with one exception: The verbiage was entirely in Spanish. I quickly discovered how little of the Spanish I’d learned in high school had been retained, and when it came time to place another order, I’d go outside to look at that sign and verify what we’d be getting.
On my third trip outside, Yolanda figured out what I’d been doing. She came up to us and said, “Don’t worry — I’ll explain.”
We told her that we were checking the sign not so much to see what we were ordering, but rather to avoid getting something we didn’t want. Neither Michelle nor I like real spicy food (we prefer to taste the food rather than the spice), and Michelle does not like sardines.
“No spice and no sardines,” Yolanda said. “Okay.”
From that point on, we trusted our palates to Yolanda and Maria, and we were not disappointed. Dish after dish was perfectly prepared and amazingly flavorful. We washed it all down with a bottle of rosé-style Spanish wine — specifically, the Rosado Lagrima from Castillo Monjardin. It was fruitful, refreshing and the perfect complement to the smorgasbord of flavors that were coming out of the kitchen on those small plates.
In a word, our evening at Txapela was amazing. It was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the United States which, when you think about it, is the point of taking a vacation in a distant land, right?
Here are a few things we learned on our tapas adventure — tips you can use the next time you visit a tapas restaurant/bar, either here in the States or in Spain:
- Communicate with your servers.
Tell them what you really like, and what you really don’t like. They will help you navigate what likely will be a massive menu, tailoring selections to your preferences.
- Sit near the kitchen.
It’s fun to watch the various tapas being prepared, and when they’re finished and placed on a tray, you’ll get first shot at them — at their absolute peak of freshness.
- Treat your servers with respect.
Say please (or “por favor”) and thank you (or “gracias”). Smile. Engage them in conversation. In too many instances, diners treat servers like servants. If you treat them more like friends, they’ll treat you the same way. Michelle and I will be talking about Maria and Yolanda for years to come.
- Try the specials.
Most tapas restaurants/bars prepare a few dishes that aren’t found on the menu. If a server suggests something, and it doesn’t stretch your dietary limits or preferences, try it. That’s what we did with a simple preparation of lamb on toast. The toast was lightly buttered, and the lamb was lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic salt — nothing else. We devoured it, and when Maria returned to take our next order, we told her we’d like two more servings of lamb. She smiled and said, “Not two. Four.” We didn’t know what she meant until she brought out our servings, along with two more — one for her, and one for Yolanda. They loved the lamb, too, and had decided to have a little snack with us.
We had been told that tipping was neither necessary nor expected in Spain. If we absolutely wanted to leave a tip, we were advised, we should simply “round up.” So, if our bill came to 24 euros, as an example, we could leave 25 — and the server would be very grateful. Well, after the experience we’d had at Txapela, thanks to Maria and Yolanda, we didn’t feel right leaving 35 euros for a 33-euro bill. So, after asking for the check, I handed Maria 45 euros and put up my hand, signifying that no change was necessary. Her face lit up immediately, and she then put up her hand, telling us not to leave. She took our bill and money to the cash register, then returned with a bottle of Cava — Spanish sparkling wine. She poured two glasses, placed them in front of us, put her index finger up to her lips as if to say, “Shhhhh…” and winked. That was her “gracias” to us.
It was an unforgettable way to begin an unforgettable vacation.
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