A common occurrence on most business trips is dinner with the clients or, if you’re the client, being invited to dine with your host. At such events, it’s always best to follow the lead of your host and, unless you have any dietary restriction, respect the culture of wherever you are by trying all foods and drinks presented to you.
Now, if your next business trip happens to bring you to the Costa del Sol, or the Sun Coast of Southern Spain, prepare yourself.
You’re going to eat a lot.
And you’re going to drink
Southern Spaniards can and will spend hours enjoying a good meal and good conversation with their coworkers and friends (and any passerby who happens to suddenly join in on an overheard conversation — these people are very friendly and very open to talking with strangers). Don’t worry about making too much noise or annoying the waitstaff with how long you’re at the table, either — unlike American culture, the common practice is to let a table of guests stay as long as they want and, unless they specifically ask for la cuenta (the check), the check will never arrive at the table like a hint to get lost. Knowing that, prepare yourself to relax, eat, drink, and enjoy life like the southern Spaniards.
The Spaniards typically start off a meal with a few rounds of cañas (about 8 oz. of whatever pilsner is on tap — Cruzcampo, for example). You’ll enjoy your cañas with green olives that have been jarred with garlic as you wait for the first round of food: salads. Ensalada mixta is a common starter salad at most restaurants and will only slightly vary from lettuce, carrot, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled egg, and tuna. Spaniards love olive oil so expect a plentiful dressing of olive oil on your salad (with a touch, comparatively, of red wine vinegar).
Next up might be plates of jamón ibérico — a cured, thinly sliced ham particular to the Iberian peninsula. If you get the opportunity to try jamón ibérico de bellota, the highest quality of jamón ibérico, do it — you won't regret tasting the salty, strong flavor that is Spain's treasured cured ham. Queso manchego, a cheese from the La Mancha region of Spain and made from sheep’s milk, usually accompanies jamón ibérico and goes great with that second or third beer you’ve been handed.
Before you move on to the next round of food, someone at the table will have started ordering wine. If you’re a wine drinker, you’ll love this part. Spaniards are quite proud of the wines the country produces in the Rioja and Priorat regions and are happy to share with newcomers and to talk about the different processes used to achieve their wines. Whichever wine is chosen for you will go nicely with the plates of flamenquín, secreto iberico (a cut behind the shoulder from the black Iberian pig from which they get jamón ibérico de bellota), rabo de toro (oxtail), or huevos rotos that will begin coming out en masse.
If your meal is on the beach, it's quite possible you're eating at what's called a chiringuito where they often have a small rowboat placed out front, filled with coal and large flames, over which they'll cook — and which you'll definitely want to try — espeto de sardinas, or sardines on a spit. Your hosts will most assuredly order gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) and quite possibly gambas al ajillo. If you happen to be in a part of the Costa del Sol called Málaga, be sure to request boquerones al limón, a lightly breaded and fried sardine that, when spritzed with fresh lemon, is absolutely delicious. (These are incredibly popular with the locals — so popular, in fact, that the people of Málaga have been nicknamed Boquerones.)
And, to top all of this off, expect a paella (best when ordered with a mix of seafood and meat) where the waiter will bring a large pan, called a paellera, to the table and you'll find mejillones, gambas, langostinos, calamaritos, almejas, pollo, and magro de cerdo (in order: mussels, shrimp, prawn, baby squid, clams, chicken, and lean pork) amidst a saffron-flavored rice.
Once you've completed your meal (and, mind you, this can be hours after it began), it'll be time for dessert and coffee. While your coworkers, hosts, and newfound friends are enjoying chocolate cakes and brownies served with vanilla or chocolate ice cream, you might want to take a moment to excuse yourself to the bathroom where you can free up some much required bladder space for the round of drinks that will be up once everyone’s finished their coffees. Digestivos, like Pacharán, are used to help the system more easily break down that meal you just ate. These are rather strong flavored liqueurs so don't be surprised if you grow some hair on your chest upon ingestion.
If the restaurant is still open at this point and your group doesn’t feel the need to change venues, your final round of drinks (yes, there’s still more, but don’t worry, we’re in the home stretch) will be copas. Copa, literally cup or glass, is also used to mean a mixed alcoholic drink. It typically consists of half a glass of whatever alcohol you'd like plus a mixer. Yes, you read that right — half a glass. Okay, that might be a slight (but very slight) exaggeration but the southern Spaniards have a heavy pour and they're proud of it.
If you can still stand and/or don’t have to be rolled out of the restaurant like Violet Beauregarde at this point, consider yourself a champion. If all goes well, you’ll close that deal that brought you to southern Spain in the first place. And if you do lock in that deal, have a great time at the celebratory dinner you’ll be invited to tomorrow night. For celebrations, your new Spanish friends will add cava (champagne) into the mix.