Restaurants offering fixed-price three-course menús have been a cornerstone of the country’s urban life for decades, but tourism, shorter lunch breaks and gentrification have put them under threat. What will it take to fight back?
Food is at the heart of Spanish culture. From social life to business deals, everything revolves around food – above all, lunch. How did Mariano Rajoy, then prime minister, react last year when faced with an unprecedented vote of no confidence? He went to lunch. For eight hours.
The three-course menú del día has been the cornerstone of Spanish cuisine and social life for generations. Consequently, the restaurants serving these menús – generally low on aesthetics and high on value for money – have been a feature of the urban landscape. Now, though, their existence is threatened by a combination of rising rents, changing tastes and working hours, tourism and gentrification.
The fixed-price menú del día (menu of the day) as we know it was introduced in the mid-1960s as the menú turístico (tourist menu) to ensure an affordable meal was within reach of all Spaniards. All of these restaurants had to offer one until the law changed in 2010.
These family-run establishments soon became a fixture for millions of Spaniards who had long days, typically working from 9am to 2pm and 4pm to 7.30pm, but who couldn’t go home for lunch.
But now working life has changed. Fewer people split the work day with a two-hour break for lunch. “People are realising that an hour is long enough for lunch,” says José Luis Casero, president of the National Commission for the Rationalisation of Spanish Schedules, which campaigns against the long working day, seen by many as outmoded and inimical to work-family balance.
Furthermore, a decreasing percentage of Spaniards have full-time jobs, or any job at all. Trade unions estimate that 33% of jobs created since 2012 have been temporary, and a high proportion are also part-time. Deliveroo riders and others in the gig economy do not get paid lunch breaks.
And then there’s the price. When the euro was introduced in 2002 a typical menú cost 1,000 pesetas, or €6. This quickly rose to €10 and now stands at €12-14, a rise of 100%.
Restaurants serving menús del día often make just enough to maintain the families that run them – the catering equivalent of subsistence farming. When owners retire the next generation can be reluctant to take over.
All over Spanish cities, what was once a Casa Pedro or Restaurante Carmen might be reborn as a kebab shop or, in tourist areas, a tapas bar. “There are certainly fewer menús del día in major Spanish cities than there were 15 years ago, but then again there are fewer Spanish and Catalan restaurants,” says Sally Davies, author of the Time Out guides to Madrid and Barcelona. “There’s been a huge proliferation of Asian and South American restaurants, in particular, and those are less likely to honour the menú tradition.”
There are now fewer Spanish and Catalan restaurants in Spain’s city that there were 15 years ago.
Twenty years ago a vegetarian risked dying of hunger in Spain; now many restaurants offer vegetarian or even vegan options. Sushi and kebabs arrived about 15 years ago, ramen within the last five and poke bol less than two years ago. While Michelin-starred chefs such as Ferran Adrià and the Roca brothers have thrust Spain into the gastronomic limelight, it is competition from below that threatens the menú.
Some are fighting back. When the owner of El Palentino, a classic bar de comidas in the Madrid barrio of Malasaña, retired, no one in the family wanted to take it on. Restaurateur Martín Presumido took over and refurbished the bar-restaurant to offer more upmarket food and its own line of liqueurs. The clientele has changed, with the previous mix of workers and those on their way out clubbing replaced by a more hip crowd.
While some complain it has lost its charm, Presumido insists its spirit remains intact. “People see changes in a place like this as an attack on their lifestyle,” he says. “El Palentino hasn’t changed – what’s changed is people’s perception. People see a place being fixed up and they think, ah, globalisation, the enemy.” While Presumido insists the restaurant business in Madrid is resisting globalisation, Narciso Bermejo, who designed El Palentino’s liqueurs and has many years of experience in the business in Madrid and Barcelona, says that money rules.
In central Barcelona, on top of rising rents, existing licences are changing hands at an average of €350,000 because the city authorities are no longer issuing new licences. Opening a new restaurant in the popular Ciutat Vella area would cost around €1m, Bermejo reckons. “We’ve moved from a profession that was more local and human,” he says. “Now the days are numbered for independent establishments.”
Joan Fumaz, head chef at LaVolta restaurant in Molins de Rei near Barcelona, agrees. “My bosses are investors,” he says. “You get a better return on your money from a restaurant than from a bank, maybe 6-7% compared to 1%.” Nevertheless, Fumaz believes menú culture has adapted and made a bit of a comeback since the financial crisis hit. “In 2006, the place I worked at didn’t offer a menú del día because we were all nouveau riche and ordering a menú was for poor people,” he says. “But it came back when companies withdrew staff credit cards. At LaVolta we offer two dishes for €12.50 – six dishes to choose from.”
Tradition also endures. Bar Restaurant Cervantes in central Barcelona has survived by not changing at all. Just around the corner from city hall and with mayor Ada Colau a regular, Cervantes has been a family-run restaurant since the early 1980s. It is now managed by the Esteve sisters: Gloria, Cristina and Gemma. The €13 menú of classic Spanish and Catalan dishes is chalked up on a board in Catalan. It changes with the seasons, but only slightly.
Posted on November 11th, 2019