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EATING OUT

12 tricks some bars and restaurants in Spain use to overcharge you (and how to avoid them)

Spain is a relatively well-priced country to enjoy a meal out, but there are numerous sneaky tricks some establishments use to squeeze extra money out of customers, sometimes illegally. Here are the cons to avoid and when you shouldn't pay.

12 tricks some bars and restaurants in Spain use to overcharge you (and how to avoid them)
Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Eating out shouldn’t be about having to keep a close eye on everything that you may be charged for, in fact it’s often impossible to predict if there are any extra charges coming. 

However, some Spanish bar and restaurant owners do try their luck with different crafty ways to beef up the bill, some of them legal and others illicit.

Spanish consumer rights organisation Facua has for years been warning the public of the multiple ways Spanish establishments try to trick their customers into spending more money than they intended, popularising the hashtag #BaresParaNoVolver (#BarsNotToReturnTo).

It’s important to stress that the majority of Spanish bars and restaurants are known for being fair, welcoming and well-priced places, but a few are pushing their luck.

Here are some of the cons to look out for and when you’re within your right to not pay. 

Food that’s not on the menu 

When the waiter arrives to take your order, it’s common for them to ‘sing’ all the dishes that aren’t on the menu. 

According to Facua, these should be at least listed on the menu with a price or price per weight for the bar or restaurant to have the right to charge whatever they see fit. 

“If the price is exorbitant compared to everything else we find in the establishment’s menu, we shouldn’t have to pay it,” Rubén Sánchez, Facua spokesperson and author of the book Timocracía (‘Scamocracy’) argues. 

“You’ll have to decide whether you ask for a complaint form, or whether to leave without paying.

“If you decide to take it one step further and report the situation to a consumer body, the more explicit the evidence you provide, the better (copy or photo of the bill and menu). 

Alternatively, ask for a price indication for the unlisted dishes that you are thinking of ordering. 

Drinks that aren’t on the menu 

We’ve made this a separate category as you don’t necessarily ask for the menu if you’re only sitting down for some drinks with friends and family. 

If you are charged an amount that is far higher than you expected, you may choose to cough up what they’re asking for and never return, but if you do want to double check that you’re not being taken for a ride, the same law applies to drinks as to food: drink prices have to be listed on the menu or they don’t have the right to charge what they claim is the price. 

Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

Price according to market value

Often concealed under the acronym SM (Según Mercado) or PSM (Precio Según Mercado), the idea is that customers get charged for the catch of the day or other fresh produce based on market value variations at the source. 

Once again, it’s illegal to not include the price or price based on weight on the menu, so if they wanted to charge the new price based on the market value, restaurants have to reprint their menus. 

Extra VAT 

Some establishments add a 10 percent charge to the bill claiming that it’s VAT (IVA in Spanish). 

This practice is actually illegal in Spain, even if menus include the phrase “VAT not included”.

Spanish law states that menus must show the full price of the product, so you have the right to refuse to pay if this happens to you. 

You get charged for the tapas or the shots you didn’t ask for

Many restaurants in Spain offer customers a small digestif shot of mild alcohol (often Orujo cream or herbs digestif) at the end of their meals. Many bars also offer customers some nuts or olives with beer, in some cities like Granada this takes the form of full tapas. 

In the vast majority of cases it’s a gesture of good will and completely free, but Facua have received complaints from disgruntled customers who were charged for these products that they didn’t request.

Unfortunately, if you agreed to it and it’s on the menu, they do have the right to charge you for it.  

Bread

The same often applies to ‘el pan’ (the bread). You dig into the bread basket then realise the cost was added to your bill at the end.

Usually the price is not that high or worth worrying about.

Higher prices during peak times

This is a trend which is in its early beginnings in Spain, born from the need for cafés, bars and restaurants to make back losses incurred during the pandemic. 

It’s referred to as dynamic prices, whereby the price of a coffee, beer or paella goes up during peak season, similar to what happens with flight prices or accommodation during the summer season.

The price change system is supported by several Spanish hospitality associations and some restaurant chains such as Madrid’s Arzábal tested the system in 2020 to see if it had an “adverse reaction” from the public. 

They were able to increase profits by 30 percent and not just by hiking prices, also by prioritising easy to prepare meals during busy times, and lowering the price of products they had in abundance. 

Unfortunately, it’s too early to know whether this goes against Spanish law, but the rule of thumb is that if the price is listed, it’s legal.  

Charging extra depending on where you sit

Some bars and restaurants apply an extra charge for those sat at a proper dining table rather than at the bar. However, as with other examples listed in this article, this is only legal if they mention it on the menu and they have to specify exactly how much this fee is.

Photo: Life of Pix/Pixabay

The hidden menú del día

Many bars and restaurants in Spain have a menú del día (menu of the day) – the cheap three-course lunch beloved of Spaniards – but neglect to publicise the fact that they have one. 

Some try to hide their menus because of the belief that a law from 1965 – which stipulated that all bars should offer a menú del día consisting of a starter, main course, bread, wine and dessert – still exists. 

The truth is that it’s not been obligatory to offer a menú del día since 2010, but there’s nothing stopping you from asking if they have one. 

Service charge 

A €4,100 restaurant bill handed to customers at a glitzy Marbella restaurant went viral recently, not only because of the €1,000 bottle of champagne they ordered but also given the €372 service charge added at the bottom. 

The furore spurred the restaurant owner to go on national television and explain that this service is optional and that if customers ask why this charge is added they are informed they don’t have to pay. It was meant to be a replacement for tips, but the waiter who took the order reportedly chased after the customers to ask where his cut was. 

Service charges such as these are illegal according to Facua, which during the pandemic also warned cafés and bars that were adding an extra euro or two to the bill as “servicio Covid” that they were not within their rights to do so. 

READ MORE: Are corona service charges at Spain’s bars and restaurants legal?

Charging for cutlery, ice or tap water

Similarly to the example listed above, another Spanish restaurant went viral after charging customers €1.50 per knife and fork. 

This is just as illegal as charging patrons for cleaning the table or the table cloth. Under Spanish law it is illegal for restaurants to charge customers for anything that is considered necessary for the provision of service.

Some bars actually charge customers for tap water, a practice that is not actually illegal, as long as they include the price on the menu, which most conveniently forget to do.

As if that weren’t enough, a nice refreshing soft drink might be soured by the fact that some bars charge their customers for ice cubes, some even putting a price on each cube.

Supplement for well-done meat

This may seem ridiculous, but a handful of Spanish restaurants actually charge customers more if they want their meat well done. This place charged 30 cents extra – was it the extra use of electricity or maybe the extra time the chef spent over the grill? Who knows…

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FOOD & DRINK

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Not everywhere will offer you free tapas in Spain, but there are some cities where the tradition lives on. Read on to find out where they are, how you can get a free 'tapa' and the slight differences between each place.

Where can you get free tapas in Spain?

Tapas are an important part of Spanish culture, not only because of the gastronomical aspect but because of the social aspect of sharing dishes too. 

The word ‘tapa’ – meaning ‘lid’ – is thought to derive from a 13th-century law passed by a Castilian king requiring taverns to serve food with alcohol, perhaps in a bid to avoid inebriation of the serfs.

A ‘tapa’ was a small plate of ham or olives used as a lid to keep insects and dust away from a drink and usually came free. 

The tradition of free tapas has died out across much of Spain, but there are still some cities where it is alive and well. Most of these cities can be found in three regions – the eastern part of Andalusia, Castilla y León and Galicia. 

READ ALSO: Fourteen classic Spanish dishes to celebrate World Tapas Day

Granada

Granada is the undisputed king of free tapas in Spain, famed for its offerings which can be anything from a piece of Spanish tortilla to almost a whole meal, such as a mini burger and fries or small fried fish. It works like this – each time you buy a drink, you will be given a free tapas dish. If you order consecutive drinks in the same bar, each of the tapa dishes you get will be different. Free tapa will come with everything from beer and wine to soft drinks and sparkling water, but not with coffee or tea. Keep in mind that the price of drinks in Granada is slightly higher than in some Spanish cities, which helps to cover the cost of the food.

Calle Navas, Calle Virgen del Rosario and the area around the Cathedral offer some of the best tapas in the city. Remember that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, ask for una tapa vegetariana o tapa vegana. While most bars in the city should have a suitable alternative, some of the more rough and ready ones might not, or you may just get something simple like bread and cheese. One of Granada’s best-loved vegetarian tapas dishes is berenjena con miel (deep fried aubergine drizzled with treacle). 

READ ALSO: What to order at a restaurant in each region of Spain

Almería

Just southeast of Granada on the coast, Almería is another of Spain’s great free-tapas cities. The tradition is a little different here than in other Spanish cities because you get to choose your tapa instead of just getting a surprise. Many of the tapas menus here are vast and you’ll be spoilt for choice. It could be anything from a goat’s cheese and caramelised onion montadito (small sandwich) to paté on toast. Almeríans love their toast, so don’t be surprised if you find many different variations of topped toasts on the menu.

You’ll also have to speak up here, waiters will often come over to ask for your drink order, but not come back and ask for your tapa order. It’s best to tell your waiter what you want when your drinks arrive.

You may be able to get a free pulpo (octopus) tapa in Galicia. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

Jaén

The city and province of the same name to the north of Granada is also known for its tapa gratis when ordering a drink. Like in Granada, here you’ll be given the tapa of the house and generally won’t be given a choice in what you get. The prices of beers here are not as high as in Almería, but tapas portions are generally pretty generous, meaning you can easily have enough for dinner by going to just a few places.

Dishes here may include a plate of migas (fried breadcrumbs or flour with pieces of meat and fried peppers) or morcilla (blood sausage or black pudding). You can try asking for a vegetarian or vegan tapa here too, but the bars may not be as accommodating as the ones in Granada and may not have so many options, although they will try with what they have. 

León

It’s not just the eastern provinces of Andalusia where you can get free tapas. One of the best foodie cities in northern Spain that has carried on this tradition is León. Some of the most typical tapas dishes you may be served here include patatas leonesas (León-style potatoes), or morcilla de León (blood sausage or black pudding from León).

During the pandemic, a few bars in León started charging around €0.30 to €0.50 for tapas, but you’ll be happy to know that the majority of them still offer it for free. Bars will generally charge less for the wine, beers and other drinks here than in Granada too. The best places to go are around the famed Barrio del Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico. There are even some bars that will offer free tapas with your coffee order for breakfast here, which is unheard of elsewhere. 

Ávila

In almost every bar in Ávila you will be served a free tapa along with your drink. You’re unlikely to be served a simple piece of bread with a topping, here the dishes are almost like mini meals. Much of the cuisine here is based on meat, so you might expect a small plate of stewed wild boar or kidney with potatoes.

You will also find that they’re pretty big compared to free tapas in some other cities and filling too, but along with that, you will be paying slightly above average for your drink. The best street to head to for free tapas here is Calle San Segundo.

Alcalá de Henares

There may only be some bars left in Madrid that will offer you a free tapa with your drink, but head just east to the student town of Alcalá de Henares and you’ll find that they’re given out freely. Lots of places here will let you choose what you want too. You’ll pay above average for a caña here, around 3, but for that you’ll get a fairly decent tapa which could include patatas bravas, burgers or scrambled eggs with potatoes.

READ ALSO: Top ten Madrid bars serving free tapas, one for each barrio

Santiago de Compostela

When you’ve finally completed the Camino, what could be better than sitting down to a nice cold beer and plate of free tapas? The majority of bars here offer simple tapa such as a piece of bread with some type of meat on top, such as jamón or sausage or a small slice of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette).

Lugo
Another Galician place, known for offering free tapas is the walled city of Lugo. Here you’ll be given a free snack with your glass of Albariño wine or beer. Lugo’s tapas scene works differently from elsewhere too, here a waiter will come around with a tray of various types of dishes and you’ll select the one you like the look of best. These may include anything from pulpo (octopus) to empanadas (Galician-style pies), tortilla rellena (filled omelette) or anchoas (anchovies).

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