Growing up in western Pennsylvania my introduction to tapas came late. In fact, the first time I heard the name mentioned was during my sophomore year of college (1997) when Howard Stern promoted a New York City tapas restaurant on a daily basis. Even then, it took me a handful of listens to figure out that he was saying “tapas bar” and not “topless bar,” it was, of course, Howard Stern.
During the next 15 years, I tried tackling the tapas phenomenon in the United States; Venice, Italy (where it’s known as Cicchetti); and even Spain. But honestly, I just didn’t get the allure. Then last month, on a trip through Palamós, Spain, Beth and I met up with regional expert Alba Plana of the Costa Brava Tourism Board, who, along with a few her friends and colleagues, set out to help me finally understand the culture of tapas.
At the start of our tapas crawl through Palamós–a seaside village in southern Spain revered for its fresh seafood and fish–I expected to eat well, find out more about tapas, mingle with the locals and most of all have some fun. What I didn’t expect was to fall madly in love with this Spanish tradition, which reportedly has its origins in Andalusian taverns where sherry drinkers would use slices of meat or bread to cover their glasses to keep fruit flies away.
Our tour consisted of visiting three of the city’s finest tapas bars—Godard, Tauèrnes Urtau and El Galeo. Each one provided an amazing selection of tapas, wine, cerveza and aperitifs. And like all good local spots, each of them brought their own charisma and character to the table. Throughout the tour, as we sampled at one place and then moved onto the next, I began seeing tapas in a whole new light.
Each tavern loaded their countertops with fresh tapas that ranged in price from 1 to 3 euros with the cost being distinguished by how the bar presented the bite-sized cuisine. For example, at El Galeó, wooden skewers were attached to the simplest tapas, while the more specialized pieces were placed on different style plates. Throughout the evening, you ate what you wanted, when you wanted, finally paying at the end of the night when all of your plates and skewers were counted.
By the end of the evening, as I savored the last few sips of my 1 euro draft beer, I realized my tapas experiences of the past had been hindered by me trying to pigeon hole tapas it into something it wasn’t, like an appetizer fueled happy hour at TGI Fridays. Indulging with Alba and her friends, I finally got tapas, and for the first time in my life saw it in all of its glory: a relatively inexpensive social dining experience that melds scrumptious local cuisine with good conversation and a festive atmosphere; in other words, my perfect night out.