Spain’s most popular lunchtime deal — the menú del día — was invented for the convenience of tourists. Ironically, most tourists are not aware it exists.
When visiting Spain you’ll save yourself a ton of money, and discover some wonderful food offerings, if you adopt the local custom of eating your main meal of the day between 1.30pm and 4pm and opt for the menú del día.
Opting for a menú del día will relieve you of the stress of:
a) not knowing what the final bill (check) will be before you sit down;
b) wading through a seemingly endless menu of dishes you may not be familiar with;
c) choosing a wine to accompany your meal.
Another good reason to try a menú del día is that you’ll encounter and rub shoulders with natives, as opposed to other visitors. Rafa Peña, the highly regarded chef at Gresca, says,
“In the evening 70% of our diners are foreigners, at lunchtime almost 90% are Barcelonins.”
On a good day, nothing beats a good, long, chatty menú del día with close friends or family.
So, what is a Menú del día?
Most restaurants in Spain, even Michelin-starred establishments, will offer a menú del día — menu of the day — a fixed-price lunch, Monday to Friday.
A menú del día will usually offer a choice of 5 or 6 first-courses, 5 or 6 second-courses, 5 or 6 desserts, wine, water (or beer or soft drink) bread and coffee, for an all-inclusive price of anywhere between 6,50€ and 30plus euros including service and tax.
Yes, you read that right — three dishes, a bottle of beer, or ½ a litre of house wine, water, bread and dessert and/or coffee for as little as £4.60 or $7.13!
Some establishments also offer an aperitivo, such as olives or pickled garlic, and/or a starter, and a third course, or two desserts and a chupito (a shot).
Some restaurants will offer an evening menu of the day — a Menú del Noche —although, as at weekends, these will often be priced at between, say, 3€ and 8€ more per person, and likely not include wine.
Some restaurants (maybe between a fifth and a third of restaurants open) will offer a menú del día at weekends — though it will usually cost between 2€ and 7€ more per diner and may not include wine.
You’ll also see other lunchtime deals such as a Menú Express or Menú Executivo, which consist of two dishes instead of three, or three dishes in place of four. As their names imply, these deals are aimed at business types and diners on the go.
Many people mistakenly believe that the popular menú del día came into being as a way for the dictator, Franco to ensure hardpressed workers had access to at least one good meal a day.
Why would Franco have concern for the dietary, health and nutritional needs of workers?
After all, since seizing power at the end of the Civil War in 1939 he’d murdered about 200,000 of them, setting aside the many thousands who died of hunger during Los Años del Hambre in the 1940s and 50s.
In fact, the concept of the menú del día was introduced to Spain on March 17th, 1965, when Franco’s Minister of Information and Tourism, Manuel Fraga, (who was to become known as a hardline Interior minister following Franco’s death) came up with legislation which incorporated the Menú Turístico.
Yes, what became known as the menú del día was brought into being by law to help drive development of the tourism and hospitality sector.
The law was part of a push to professionalise the hotel, catering and ancillary trades. Fraga hoped to position visitor destinations to take maximum advantage of tourist spending through legally enforceable quality control and thus deliver consistency of experience for vistors and tourists.
I managed to track down a copy of the Official Bulletin of the (Spanish) State of March 29th, 1965, which features a summary of the legislation. It is fascinating reading.
Accompanying legislation also laid down the law regarding the management of cafeterias, university and factory canteens, as well as restaurant and café cars on trains.
In brief, the legislation set out a restaurant status system and the minium requirements demanded of establishments according to their given status.
Restaurants were graded as being: Luxury, First-Class, Second-Class, Third-Class and Fourth-Class. Every restaurant was obliged to display a sign indicating their status: 5 Forks = Luxury, 4 Forks = First-Class, and so on.
- If you are a serious foodie historian, or a social historian with an interest in food…and you can read Spanish, well, you’ll have to read it. (If interested, subscribe to this website and drop me a line via the Contact Me page, and I’ll gladly send you a pdf of the legislation).
The legislation goes into extraordinary detail. Remember, this isn’t a nationally agreed voluntary code of good practice — this is the law; this is a political head of a government department ordering restaurants what range of dishes they are required to serve, and in what kind of ambience.
The law legislated for the quality of ambience as provided by interior decoration, amenities, furniture and tableware.
Here’s an example:
Article 16: Luxury restaurants are obliged to meet, as a minimum, the following conditions:
An entrance area independent of that for service personnel;
A vestibule or waiting-room in which you can install a bar;
A dining-room of adequate size and capacity to permit an efficient service according to the establishment’s category;
A public telephone booth;
Separate toilets (bathrooms) for men and women which are equipped with luxury fittings and supplied with hot and cold water;
A lift (elevator) if the establishment is on the second-floor or higher;
Interior decoration in keeping with the status of the establishment: furniture, carpeting, upholstery, tableware, dinner service, glassware, and tablecloths of great quality;
…and so on…concluding with:
…In all cases the first head of the dining-room must know English and French.
Air-conditioning in Spain…in 1965?
The law also required that the layout and design of all restaurants should be formed of a response to the idea of creating an ambience which corresponded to a particular region of Spain, or, in the case of restaurants serving a foreign cuisine, to the particular country. This dictat also applied to the personnel.
Presumably wait staff employed by Italian and German restaurants, (which were popular among a certain strata in the 1940s and 50s) had to look, and dress, like Italians and Germans.
Food and Wine:
So much for the dining-room, what about the food and wines to be served?
Well, again, the law was very specific about the range of food to be offered:
Article 26: In Luxury establishments — A first group of 10 starters and 4 soups or cremas (cold soups or purées).
A second group of 6 specialities based on vegetables, eggs or pasta.
A third group of 6 specialities of fish.
A fourth group of 6 specialities of meat.
A fifth group of 3 types of sweet or ice-cream, cheesses and a variety of fruits.
Article 27.1: Establishments in the Luxury and First-Class categories will offer a wine-list which will include internationally recognised prestigious brands.
Article 27.2: All establishments, of whichever category, will be obliged to include wines common to the country, white and red, which are pure, clean, with an honest palate, with an alcohol content of no less than 12º.
Article 29.1: The Menú Turístico will be made up by the client having looked at the menu of dishes which correspond to the category of the restaurant in the following way:
In Luxury, First-Class and Second-Class restaurants:
The client can choose a dish from the first group: another dish from the second, third and fourth group, and lastly, a dish from the fifth group.
Article 29.2: The Menú Turístico will include in the price the serving of approximately 80 grammes of bread and a ¼ litre of wine common to the country and having the characteristics as indicated in Article 27 of this ordinance.
The law also stipulated, again in incredible detail, the minimum range and quality of kitchen equipment, and ordered that Head Chefs working in Luxury, First-Class and Second-Class restaurants had a knowledge of English and French.
The Spread of an Idea:
The Menú Turístico was principally aimed at hotels and restaurants trading in the rapidly developing tourist destinations on the Mediterranean coast. However, the concept of an economical fixed-price menú became incredibly popular with natives, and soon spread right across the country.
By the early to mid 1970s the Menú del Día was pretty much available in every single town in Spain and Catalunya.
Today, most ethnic restaurants of every hue: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Nepalese etc also offer menús.
Ignorance is no excuse…
I’ve titled this article: The Secret Life of the Menú del Día — obviously it will not be a secret to the thousands of Spanish and Catalan workers in the hospitality industry who attended catering school in the 1960s and 70s; for they were required by another law to learn this law.
Likewise, you too now have no excuse.
Forthwith, if anyone ever tries to sell you the idea that the Menú del Día was engineered and promoted by the cruel dictator, Franco, in order to help put food into humble workers’ bellies — well, you can now confidently tell them where to shove it.
Such dangerous notions only add lustre to the deliberate myth-making of Francoist apologists, who will tell you that he was a benevolent, father-of-the-nation type figure.
Have no doubts — Franco was a cold, heartless butcher.
The law was amended in 1971, ’78 and again in 1980 — but was not finally removed from the statute book until January 10th, 2010.
A few of my favourite restaurants offering a good quality menú del diá:
- Bar Restaurante Palermo — Here’s my write-up. And here’s my Spotted by Locals write-up.
- Semproniana — Here’s my write-up and my Spotted by Locals write-up
- Cal Boter — Here’s my Spotted by Locals write-up.
- Can Kenji — Here’s my Spotted by Locals write-up.
- Goliard — Here’s my write-up: 10 Good Reasons to Go with Goliard and Spotted by Locals write-up.
- La Rita — Here’s my Spotted by locals write-up.
- La Singular — Here’s my write-up: Several Sound Reasons to Seek out La Singular and Spotted by Locals write-up.
- Morryssom — Here’s my Spotted by Locals write-up.