When you visit any new city, foreign or domestic, you’ll find that oftentimes the biggest cultural differences arise in restaurants. Knowing how to act, how to dress and even whether or not to tip can be determining factors in the kind of dining experience you have.
Many restaurants in Madrid require reservations, particularly during lunch since that is the biggest meal of the day. However, you may need to make reservations for dinner as well if you are going to a more upscale, popular place. For many places though, a “reservation” just means arriving early and having your name taken down. For regular reservations, don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish. You can simply ask someone at your hotel or hostel to call ahead for you.
While dress codes have certainly become more lax over the years, you should still dress nice when dining out in Madrid. This means no blue jeans (regardless of whether you’re male or female), no sneakers, no torn or visibly dirty clothes, no Hawaiian shirts, casual T-shirts, shorts or anything that looks ultra-casual or “touristy”. Women have a little more variety in what they can wear— for most places, anything “fancy-casual” will do— but men should stick with collared or polo shirts and long pants. For chillier weather and fancier restaurants, a dark blazer or jacket is also recommended. Socks are never worn with sandals in Madrid, or Spain in general.
Even with foods that other cultures may eat with their hands (like fruit and pastries), Madrilenos (people from Madrid) do not generally eat anything without eating utensils while they are out in a restaurant. When in doubt, use a knife and fork. Things may take a little longer to eat this way, but in Madrid, you are supposed to take your time and enjoy meals!
What you talk about generally isn’t an issue, but if you are meeting someone for business, lunch by far the most acceptable time to talk shop. That being said, you should wait until after the coffee to start the actual business discussion (unless of course the person you are meeting with brings it up earlier).
If you are eating with a group of people, know that it is socially acceptable to eat off of each other’s plates. This is especially common if you all order different things, so it is best to be accommodating and share along with everyone else. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that if you're inviting Spanish friends to a meal and intending to include your spouse or significant other, it's best to extend the invitation to your friend’s spouse or significant other as well. If the spouse agrees to the invite, then it's okay for yours to come too. As in most cities, it is customary for the person who makes the invitation to handle the bill.
Don’t be surprised if you go to a restaurant at 5 p.m. for dinner only to find that it won’t be served for another few hours. Dinners in Madrid start at around 10 p.m. (for some it is as late as 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.), though most people have an evening snack at around 6. Lunch, the biggest meal of the day is typically eaten at 2 or 3 p.m., preceded by an aperitif at 1 p.m. and breakfast at 8 a.m. In general, meals are never rushed. Even the lighter meals are eaten at a leisurely pace.
While in Madrid, you’re going to hear the word “tapas” a lot when it comes to food. Tapas are essentially appetizers, and so when you go to a Tapas bar, it is customary for you to receive a small snack or appetizer (usually at no extra cost) along with your drink. Tapas can be anything from some chips to a small sandwich or even a miniaturized version of a Spanish meal.
Even after countries across the western world banned smoking from public establishments and restaurants, Spain continued to allow smoking in theirs. It is a common misconception that this continues, but don’t light up a cigarette just yet— as of January 1, 2011, all bars and restaurants in Spain have been smoke free. That being said, if you are a smoker, you can still go outside and smoke right out on the sidewalk.
This is a question many travelers find themselves faced with— to tip or not to tip? Unlike in the United States where tipping is considered not only polite but necessary in nearly all bars and sit-down restaurants, tipping is not obligatory anywhere in Madrid, much less in cafeterias and bars. Nevertheless, it is not impolite to tip, and if you received good service you may want to leave a small one to show your appreciation.