November 11, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

So you’re visiting Madrid, exhausted from dodging the thousands of people haphazardly wandering the streets, your ears are slightly ringing from the honking horns and booming Spanish voices, and all you want is something decent to eat in a respectable establishment. But every time you peek into one of the tons of tapas bars in Madrid, you see trash on the ground. Yes, trash. If you’ve been to Spain, then you know this is an entirely feasible scenario.

I know what you’re thinking – sure, sensory overload, exhaustion, hunger, but trash on the floors of restaurants? The pot has left you, Tortuga Viajera (a Spanish way of saying you’ve lost your mind). Now imagine if I told you those are actually the respectable establishments that you indeed want to stop at! Again, no joke – I still have my pot. Welcome to one of Spain’s very, VERY unique customs.

Madrid is filled with these tapas bars and “cafeterias,” which are basically a cross between a restaurant and a bar. They are the go-to spot for a coffee, snack, drink or basic Spanish meal. The bar usually features a selection of snacks out on display, tins of useless paper-thin napkins, and a smattering of ashtrays (not as of January 2nd when smoking in public places becomes illegal in Spain! Woohoo!!). Perched on barstools are often my favorite Spaniards, the grandpas, who are usually busy perusing a newspaper or just chatting it up with their buddies.

What you notice next is that when someone uses one of those completely ineffective napkins, they just go on and throw it on the floor. Then Gramps finishes his cigarette and drops it on the ground right below him like it’s no big deal. All right, so maybe it sounds a little gross and seems to have no justification whatsoever – but wait, it does! Because, logically, the best cafeterias should have the biggest crowds, and therefore the largest amount of trash on the ground. So this seemingly lazy Spanish tradition has just made it easier for you, the tired and hungry traveler, to find some good grub!!! Surely this is exactly the reason that the natives don’t simply just throw their dirty napkins in the garbage. Silly Spaniards, you thought you had us fooled when really you were just being thoughtful! (Ok, so maybe it’s really just an old, useless tradition, but I prefer to charm it up a bit, don’t you agree?)

So there you have it, the trash mystery is solved and now it’s possible for you to spot the best places to grab a quick drink and bite to eat in Spain (well, unless it’s right after lunch and they’ve already cleaned up, in which case, flip a coin!). I should mention, it was no small task trying to take pictures of trashy floors. You can imagine the looks I received when entering bars, only to frantically inspect their floors and then take pictures. I wish I could have gotten more, but the dirty looks (ha! Get it? Dirty!) were getting a little old.

Aside from my enthusiasm in giving you such a tip, I’m posting this blog as a part of the next Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Carnival, which will be hosted by yours truly! Tune in next week for a round up of unique customs around the world.


6 Responses to “A trashy tip for finding good Spanish food”

  1. Jason Says:


    How nice the Spaniards are for their trashy Michellin-esque rating system. “Look honey, not only is it three stars, but there’s tons of trash on the ground. Let’s go!”

    Thanks for the tip and great post.


  2. Erin Says:

    Ha ha! Fortunately (hmm, or perhaps unfortunately), only the tapas bars and cafeterias seem to follow this tradition. For regular Spanish restaurants, I guess we will all just have to rely on old-fashioned and uninteresting methods for determining a good place versus a bad one. What a pain. Stars and word-of-mouth are so uninventive and boring.

  3. Sabrina Says:

    How funny 🙂 The more trash on the ground, the better the food! I’m glad you wrote this. If I went to Spain before reading this I would have totally missed the good eats because I would have intuitively avoided the trash-on-the-ground places 🙂

  4. Joseph Hernandez Says:

    What a fun/weird/cool cultural tradition. I agree with Sabrina: had I not known this before going to Spain, I would have been skeezed out.

    Good luck with BlogSherpa! Tell me how it works out for you.

  5. Erin Says:

    It’s funny how the trash would logically be a total turn-off for most, but once you understand it, you might actually seek out the garbage! It’s such a subtle Spanish tradition, which probably goes unnoticed by most, but the truth is that in the end it can easily impact one’s experience and perception of the country. Viva la basura!

  6. Kaley Says:

    A little known practice in the US, but oh so common here in Spain. Took me a bit to get used to it as well.

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