Thoughts on my first meal out, Spanish bars and restaurants

Spanish version of of the Italian restaurant to give an idea of the atmosphere  – I had no camera at 12!
It wasn’t until I was twelve that I ate out for the first time and I remember it well.  Our family went to the local Italian restaurant 2 miles up a grim dual carriageway leading out of our suburb of London. I think it was called San Carlos;  it seemed terribly posh with its pristine white tablecloths and single stemmed roses in slim vases.
Mommy boarding the Holland American liner to England
Mommy boarding the Holland American liner to England
The occasion was my mother’s 45th birthday and the waiters flirted with her outrageously. She was a beauty, truly, very flirtatious, and never wore a scrap of make-up. Maybe a strip of lipstick, that was it. Above is one of the few photos I have of her from this time.  We were immigrating to England from America as my father had been offered a prestigious university post. As mom boarded, the ship’s photographer took this snap.

It was at this fancy Italian place that I tasted alcohol for the first time, just a sip of champagne. I thought the alcohol tasted vile, so much in fact that I gagged at even its smell for the next 16 years and did not discover its pleasures and vices until the age of 29. 
Gorgeous freshly grilled prawns from "nos costas".
Gorgeous freshly grilled prawns
Mom ordered grilled prawns followed by filet mignon “au poivre”, cooked rare, and so I did too. Dad looked nervous, no doubt re the bill that would come! The prawns were a revelation and I had never seen or tasted a piece of beef like that before. Truth be told,  she used to send me to the pet store to buy our meat. It was very tough and actually old horse, but cheap! Perfect for feeding a family of six and giving you a sore jaw.
I found the  occasion spellbinding and I have been hooked on restaurants and filet mignon ever since, that is when I get the chance and budget allows.  I also now know that “au poivre” is actually a French pepper sauce. So a faux-Italian restaurant and all the better for it.
Not even sure what these are - but delicious!
Not even sure what these are – but delicious!
Going for a meal is not a big deal for me anymore, especially not in the mountains of El Maestrat where the menus del dia hover around the 14€ mark, vat included.  For that you get a starter, salad to share in the middle, a main course, bread, the house wine, coffee and/or dessert. Quite frankly I cannot buy its equal as cheaply in the supermarket, certainly not when cooking for one and factoring in the fuel needed. Besides eating out in Spain is always a lively, noisy affair and you are not even expected to tip!
Nothing like the atmosphere in a noisy tiled Spanish restaurant!
When I arrived in 2010, in the midst of the economic crises, the menu del dia was only 6 or 7 euros. I lived off-grid in a tiny casita with no fridge or sink. Heating was via a small corner wood burning stove with a triangular grate the size of a folded napkin on which I could fit a chicken leg without pan – at most. A smokey messy affair but quite fun once in a while. The rest of the time  “eating out” became a regular habit. The meals were very generous and lasted me until the next day as well. No, I did not ask for a doggie bag.  I was simply too full to eat for at least 48 hours afterwards. Anyway, I can think of worse ways to spend a few hours of an afternoon. And, as you will see from the photo below, wine was and is of the utmost importance! In fact there was a time that neither beer nor wine were classified as alcohol! Or so I was told…
The importance of wine in Spain
During the first two years here my lunchtime haunts were mostly frequented by workmen, interspersed with the occasional suits (travelling salesmen?).  I came to avoid the nights because the restaurants were simply gloomy or even closed.  In the cold months the bars were freezing and less than inviting at any time; a few diehard males  scattered across bar stools, smoking their heads off.  So if I entered for a glass of wine, I had to refresh my clothes, and preferably myself, outside for two days to air. Although smoking in hospitality establishments was banned from January 2, 2011, this was not appreciated and in my village notices were posted clearly on the doors “smoking is allowed here”. Eventually of course they all fell in line and annoyingly the smokers monopolised my favourite space – the terraces!
The days of smoking in bars, Spain
The days of smoking in bars, Spain The days of smoking in bars, Spain
It took me a while to cotton on to Spanish customs –  they really only eat out at night during the fiestas (mostly summer, but not always) and at weekends.  The bars are only full of a weekend, after voting or a funeral – lol.  Less so when it is perishing outside. Extra staff are hired to help as needed and the menu del dia price hiked.  Or even not on offer, so beware! Times have changed for many reasons you will all be familiar with. In the meantime only the tough have  survived.
The cyclists keep their costly trophies at the back
As Atzeneta is the thoroughfare for weekend people from Valencia and Castellon en route  to  Vistabella and the famous mountain Penyagolosa, its bars and particularly Casa Ramon are crammed with men in cycling and motor bike outfits, helmets included. If the time of year is right, the hunters are there too, not to forget the walkers.  Though the winds of change are blowing fast, this still remains a predominately male domain, at least in the mountains.
A family ocassion
With each year though, the presence of females increases;  families and couples returning to their roots and inherited fincas for the weekend, young women filling the bars with their babies and prams, drinking coffee or Radlar (beer with real lemon juice, 0.5% proof).  You can count on the occasional  maverick having a jolly good time with her mates along with the scattering of foreigners that have settled hereabouts, There is no doubt that the gender balance is gradually shifting more towards the middle.
The female sex is venturing out increasingly into Spanish bars
Enter Covid. Well, it was a grim time, but it is definitely over, even at the Centro de Salud and the farmacia where  today I saw the owner wearing bring red matt lipstick and no mask.  Totally fantastic! A side effect of this pandemic is that many of the fincas in el campo that nobody wanted before have been either sold, or the families are actually doing them up!  This means that even a bad builder has work. It does not mean that the bars and restaurants that used to compete with Casa Ramon are open, or if they are open, they can compete. Casa Ramon upped its game during Covid and made a mint. As for the rest? Well the managers change time and time again. Some last longer than others.
Bar in el campo
Bar in el campo
A local business man in the know explained it to me.  if you rent a bar or restaurant in el campo, you cannot make money. Full stop. You need to be an owner like Ramon of Casa Ramon. Full stop. In Atzeneta the bars are chiefly owned by solicitors and such residing in Castellon who can take it or leave it, and also locals who realised that renting out their bars makes more money and is much easier than running them. The penny drops as the ecstatic new renters realise that a bar in the mountain is not a bar in the city.  They cut the quality or ditch the tapas altogether to make ends meet . And Bob’s your uncle – their places end up half-empty, mostly patronised by lingering  pensioners nursing a coffee or small beer. This cannot possibly pay the rents. So the bar closes, then a new manager comes along in due time. And so the merry-go-round continues.
A few pensioners nursing a coffee or beer all afternoon
At the moment most are from South America and let me say, I admire their cheerfulness and that they try.  Even if they are professionals, they do not have the financial means on top of their surprising rents for places that quite frankly could do with some makeovers – especially in the restrooms. Isn’t this the landlord’s responsibility?
Hats off to the cheerful South Americans
On a side note,  the old people’s bar is truly the most beautiful spot in the village with a gorgeous tree shaded ample terrace. Inside it is cavernous, but almost always empty and  is rarely open past noon, not even during the summer fiestas! You can order soft drinks, beer and red wine here.  Apparently local pensioners do not drink white wine. As far as I can make out, the locale is kept for special oldie (me!) occasions or town hall events such as voting.  For some unknown reason a kitchen is not permitted there even though there is clearly room for one. And the loos are better than anywhere else.  Altogether very odd as almost any other old people’s place in El Maestrat serves food and drink. Such a shame!
A snippet of the old people's terrace. I should be there!
A tiny segment of the old people’s terrace. It has lots of empty tables now.  I should be there!
All the foreigners pray that this changes one day.  There is a good chance I may be dead by then, but who knows?   After all  my mother is 96 now and still going strong, albeit in a wheelchair, but hey hoo. She is happy!
Mom at 95

P.S. a curious snippet of information. Franco introduced the menu del dia rule so that everyone could afford to eat out. It has outlasted him and his odious regime. Me thinks a little better than the short lived “eat out to help out” – and spread Covid – introduced by Rishi Sunak in 2020 when he was chancellor.


  1. Ingrid Spiegl
    December 5, 2023

    Love this blog so much; your first meal out (miss you in Liverpool), seeing your mum looking quite splendid, and your village changing, I hope for the better. You describe the atmosphere in words and photographs that have transported me to Atzeneta; thank you. x

    • stephanie de leng
      December 5, 2023

      I hope you come back! When my very old village house is restored. Ojala or even mañana. Hope to see you soon. x

  2. Fet de ferro
    December 5, 2023

    Estar leyendo es como ver una película de la búsqueda de un mundo nuevo donde de refleja la aventura de la vida encontrando multitud de formas de vivir, de sentir y sumar en la vida . Pueblos pequeños donde queda quizás más pureza, todo se ha detenido pero no el tic-tac del reloj, unos quedaron y otros se fueron buscando una vida mejor en la gran ciudad. Me alegro de ver los están reconstruyendo lo abandonado. Me alegro que quien llego de otro país le interese nuestro pasado.Fotos mágicas que reflejan la leyenda. A galopar…

    • stephanie de leng
      December 5, 2023

      Muchas gracias para este commentario!! especialmente de un españolo.

  3. Elliot Ephraim
    December 5, 2023

    As much as I enjoy living the “country life” here in Connecticut, I find myself a bit isolated from my neighbors whom I only meet occasionally at the post office. Well, knowing how my neighbors vote and how we “muricans” are so divided, I’m not so sure that I would enjoy sitting at a bar with one of them talking about things while tomando una canya, BUT the thought of tomando una canya in Atzeneta with a “regular”, however,does appeal to me. Those people that I see depicted in Stephanie’s remarkable photographs are people that I would love to get to know. She captures their quality of being the “salt of the earth”.

    • stephanie de leng
      December 5, 2023

      I totally get where you are coming from Elliot! That is why I am here. A simple but meaningful life, without too many tourists and lots of local contact. So nice to go down to the village and be greated by almost everyone, with a few conversations that last a while in-between. This from me who has seen everything in her life and turned her back on it. Thank you for your input.

  4. Norman Kenny
    December 3, 2023

    Very nicely written enjoyed it xxx

    • stephanie de leng
      December 4, 2023

      thank you so much

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