If you’ve spent at least one hungry afternoon roaming around most cities in Spain, you’ve probably passed by dozens of chalkboard signs lining the streets advertising a menú del día, or menu of the day. The special menu, usually three courses with wine and coffee included, has a history that runs deeper than your convenient lunch deal.
In 1965, Spain’s infamous ruler, Francisco Franco, implemented a law requiring restaurants across the country to provide a hearty and affordable lunch to workers. The order also acted as a tool to attract tourism in Spain. The requirement lasted until Franco’s death in 1975—but many restaurants maintain the custom today.
In his book, Menú del Día: More Than 100 Classic, Authentic Recipes from Across Spain, author Rohan Daft traveled around Spain for four months both eating the offerings of daily menus across the country and exploring the tradition’s history. Daft discovered that during the mid-1960s Spain was experiencing an industrial boom thanks to construction along the Mediterranean that was intended to invite tourism and give the economy a boost. Franco’s Ministry of Information and Tourism created the menú turístico, which eventually became known as the menú del día. All restaurants were obligated to offer a three-course lunch option that included items from the à la carte menu, encouraged cooks to shop at their local food markets for ingredients, and demanded that the price of the menu didn’t exceed 80 percent of the cost of ordering each dish individually.
Over 50 years later on a recent trip to Barcelona, I caught onto the practice quickly when I realized that it was easier to find a full Spanish meal during lunch hours than it was at night. Dinner is for tapas and cocktails, but lunch is leisurely and makes my regular office lunch of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner look pretty sad.
For anywhere from 12 to 20 euros, I ate venison, gazpacho, an entire fish, savory bread pudding, paella, a jamon and heirloom tomato salad, braised pork trotters—the list goes on. Each meal was served with the option for a glass (sometimes a carafe!) of house wine, a pint of Estrella beer, or a bottle of mineral water and ended with a generous portion of dessert, typically with an included espresso.
Spain remains one of the few countries in Europe to continue the tradition of long lunches, and Barcelona nearly shut down for several hours during the afternoon for siesta. After all, an indulgent mid-day meal often requires a post-feast nap. For me, however, it was the fuel I needed to get through a day of exploring Park Güell and La Sagrada Família or biking through the Gothic Quarter. But beware that not all menús del día are created equal, and some are tourist traps. In Barcelona, my favorite lunches were eaten when I ventured outside of heavily touristed areas like Las Ramblas and El Born (where the chalkboard signs showed blurry photos of the food) and into neighborhoods like Gracia and Eixample where the locals were. My three favorites were at Semproniana, La Pubilla—a 20-minute walk from La Sagrada Família—and Gresca. All offered something different and ranged in price from 14 to 20 euros.
In Spain, menú del día is more than a meal—it’s a way of life.