Anyone that knows me, knows I love food; and when you travel I find that food is one of the things that leaves the biggest impression ... at least on me. After all, eating is one of those things you do more than most activities, and in Spain it may even dominate sleep in number of hours per day.
Before I traveled to Spain, friend's opinions of the food of Spain ranged from amazing to horrible. One of my absolute favorite restaurants in Seattle is a Spanish Tapas place just down the street from my house, so I was pretty excited for anything that even was of resemblance.
More than the quality or style of food in Madrid, what left the biggest impression upon me was the schedule of how the Spanish people eat and how much meal times dictate the the flow of the day. In the states, we are very accustomed to being able to get a wide variety of food whenever you want it. Not the case in Spain. To illustrate, I'll walk through a typical day of eating in Madrid:
9am :: Madrilenos do not go to bed early, so the day begins late. And breakfast is a rather simple affair. The typical meal in the morning would be a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) - often a mix of hot and cold milk - a croissant, and a glass of orange juice. For more of a gut bomb, one might get churros (fried bread - see below). Eggs are not common for breakfast in Madrid.
Cafe and pastries
Noon :: Hope you aren't hungry, because if the place is a lunch cafe they won't even be open for another hour, and probably not serving for an hour and half. If the place was open for breakfast, you might get lucky with a limited menu and a strange look.
2pm :: Madrilenos like to eat a late lunch, and this is the most important meal of the day. The classic lunch is ordered from the menu del dia (meal of the day). First, a drink (wine, beer or soda - drinking at lunch even as a business person is very common ... no taboo here!) and of course some pan (bread). Then start with a first course - gazapacho being my favorite (cold tomato soup). For the second course, maybe some fish and patatas fritas (french fries), but likely it will be some form of pork. Finally, you get a postre (dessert) or cafe to finish. Or with a smile and a wink to the waitress, both :) My choice: Flan and a cafe cortado (espresso with a little milk on top).
One of my favorite lunch spots:
4pm :: Don't bother the service business ... while the siesta is proclaimed to be dead by many, especially the lawyers in Spain, this time of the day is a time to slow down and prepare for the night.
7pm :: Cana and Tapas time. Cana (Supposed be Canya but I don't know how to put the squiggly on top of the n) is a small beer and the tapa was invented as a small plate of food placed on top of the beer so that people wouldn't drink on an empty stomach. Brilliant! Many places carry this tradition on with a free tapas. The freebies might be olives, potato chips, or even Chorizo or Bocarones (fried spanish anchovies). But the list goes on with just about anything open for Tapas. There couldn't be a better institution than the tapas for seeing a city. Just walk around getting drink and a little food for hours as you take in the sights.
10pm :: Again, a late meal. You are probably not that hungry at this point after many tapas and drinks, so sharing some Paella with a group is common or getting what are called Racions (big tapas). The small peppers where one of my favorites and squid cooked in its own ink was also very good. btw, Spain eats more seafood than any other country per capita. And only 2nd to Japan in total amount.
Paella with my Valencia friends
A little video clip I took from my room around 10pm one night. We would often open the windows (cuz it was hot) to enjoy the street music. I even threw money out the window a few times :) Notice that there isn't an empty seat, even this late on this non-significant street.
1am :: The night isn't even close to being over so maybe a treat to keep you going. Churros con Chocolate:
Well, mix in some school, studying, and some sight-seeing and you get my typical day. I also took full advantage of the siesta to survive this schedule!