Why Spain is Great #1 – Honesty in Spanish Bars

Tapas, Pintxos, San Sebastian, Basque Country

I was recently asked just what was so great about Spain, so I’ve decided to dedicate a mini-series this summer to answering just that question. First up, the honesty system…

It never ceases to amaze your average Brit that you can walk into most bars in Spain, order as much as you like to eat and drink, and pay nothing until you are about to leave when, quite often, the barman will ask you to remind him what you had!

Clearly there is massive room for abuse here. Had 5 cañas one night but only want to admit to 4? The worn out guy in the sweat-stained shirt who’s been working since 7 am isn’t going to notice… but as far as I know, this system is rarely exploited.

The most amazing example I’ve seen of the honesty system in practice was in San Sebastian.

You walk into a bar there and find the bar top covered in plate after plate of incredible tapas, or pintxos as they are known up there (see photo above), help yourself to as many as you like, and then casually inform the barman (who hasn’t been taking a blind bit of notice of your eating habits) just how much you’ve had. You then pay him and leave.

Can you imagine how much that system would be abused in other parts of the world if suddenly introduced over night? Yet in Spain this has been going for years. The bar owners trust the customers, and the customers basically act honestly in return…

…Except for those that feast outrageously then ‘do a runner’, or a simpa as it’s known in Spanish, but that’s a tale for another time… All in all, the honesty system is without doubt one of those things that puts the ‘great’ into Spain. Would you dare to abuse it?

36 thoughts on “Why Spain is Great #1 – Honesty in Spanish Bars

  1. Ken

    That picture makes me feel so so hungry.

    In a few minutes time I will stroll down to my local cafe here in Chester to take lunch. A cheese and tomato toasted sandwich is a much as I can expect to have, my doctor forbids the “full English”

  2. Denise

    I agree: it’s one of the truly wonderful things about Spain. The few times I’ve made a mistake (like thought the other person had paid, whilst they thought I had paid, and in fact we’ve walked out without paying), I’ve always gone back and sorted it. Not because I’m a goody-two-shoes, but because I think it’s such a wonderful system, and so great that a system based on trust can still work, that I never want to have the slightest responsibility for it dying out from abuse.
    In fact, these days, when I go to another country where I’m expected to pay immediately, I even feel slightly insulted by the implicit lack of trust.

  3. ValenciaSon

    I would think that keeping that system is incentive enough to remain honest but I know too many folks don’t share that view.

  4. M Doherty

    I’ve lived in Spain for two years and am just set to return to Scotland. Of the things I will miss, one will be the honesty and trust in bars, restaurants etc. I think trust breeds trust and when we mis-trust we can expect a different result.

  5. gary

    @Ken – Good job your doctor wasnt in Madrid a fortnight ago ;-)

    I occasionally go for a frink with a friend in the village he lives in outside town, food and drink are very reasonable and we get to run a tab (not quite the same I know..). On more than one occasion we have had to return the next day to pay up because we forgot to sort it the night before.

  6. Chris

    This is something that I love about Spain as well, but it shocked me when I first got here. In fact, the first time I ever came to Spain back in 2003, the whole “honesty system” seemed so strange to me that it was if the concept didn’t even fit into my head. I would go into a bar and order something, and then be totally perplexed as to why the barman didn’t ask me to pay right then and there. It never works like that in the USA.

    Luckily, as time went on I got used to going to bars here. I still don’t know why the whole “honesty” thing isn’t abused more; I guess it has something to do with the feeling of “trust” given to you by the bar owners like some other people have mentioned in their comments.

  7. Ramses

    Lol, I never thought of this. Guess I became a bit too much of a Spaniard ;-). Yet, it is a great system indeed. Not because it’s there, but because it actually works!

  8. ArielleRDJ

    What a wonderful system that (not to go on a tangent) really gives me more faith in the rest of the world. Trust and loyalty are such important qualities in a country (or city, or neighborhood)! On a similar note, when I traveled throughout Europe I was shocked by the honor system used with regards to paying for public transportation, although I didn’t really notice that in Spain.

  9. Jon

    Does the honesty thing work in both directions?

    My Spanish friends check the bill with a microscope, and they warn me that I should do the same. They are convinced that the waiter frequently adds a few items that weren’t ordered or delivered.

    They run a hotel w/ bar, and they go nuts every night in summer trying to keep track of who is sitting where, who bought what, and who is paying for it all.

  10. follonera

    Sólo una apreciación. La palabra “pintxo” es la adaptación ortográfica que usan los vascos para referirse a la original castellana “pincho”, que procede del verbo “pinchar” y que alude a la forma en la que se consumían las tapas… “pinchando” con un palillo para tomar las pequeñas porciones en que se servían los manjares.

    En conclusión: se dice PINCHO, PINCHO, PINCHO… palabra castellana.

  11. Hollis

    Gary, I thought you were referring to a “free drink” (e.g. order a drink; leave without paying) as a “frink” but I think that was a typo!

  12. Ayse

    I was quite impressed with that observation, too – not only at the tapas bars but at other shops, too. I figured that the capitalism and its greed habits have not been quite well-established in Spain, yet. However, I am not sure how long they will be able to hang on to this virtue; there seems to be a resentment about the influx of immigrant, who don’t share their respect for honesty.

    Jon, for the extra charges in a restaurant bill, I guess it is expected to encounter these consequences of not keeping a good track of services and maybe an effect of non-Spanish waiters. I did not notice it to the degree of what you see in Italy. The Spaniards don’t seem to be as entrepreneur minded as Italians. The lack of tipping might also be a factor on how the bill gets to be devised.

  13. Graham

    I really like this system too. Here in Valencia and many other places you have the system where the bill is the number of sticks multiplied by the cost of them on Pinchos. Once you introduce this concept to people they always look on the floor to see discarded pincho sticks but there never are any because everyone is honest about it.
    I love it
    BTW Best in Valencia is Taverna de la Reina in Plaza de La Reina. Cheap and great quality.

  14. Ayse

    graham,
    i have been to taverna at the plaza and you are right they serve some of the best tasting tapas i ate in the region.

  15. iago

    You know, things are a little bite different. Most of the waiters knows perfectly how many beers have you drink, they ask just to make you feel honest and check if you’re a cheater ;)

    Seriously. I don’t think about it as some kind of trust system. Remember that in Spain we spend (too) much time at the bar and normally you take more than a drink. It’s much better to pay all once when you leave. For us (I’m spaniard), it’s the way it is and we feel really disappointed when people ask us to pay when you order.

  16. Anwar

    Hola, follonera.

    Cuando Ben escribió un mensaje criticando algunos aspectos de la burocracia española Ud. nos hizo todo un Máster sobre el colonialismo y ahora que Ben dice algo positivo de la sociedad española prácticamente se queda mudo. ¿Qué pasa? Por mi parte me gustan sus comentarios porque aportan otro punto de vista. Quisiera que dijera algo más significativo. ¿Verdad que no nos dejará con sólo un triste comentario sobre las tapas?

  17. Andy

    How come many british owned bars is Spain dont seem to appreciate this system and continue to ask for payment on every order?
    I prefer to pay at the end rather than keep putting your hand in your pocket every time you order a drink.

  18. gary

    @andy – because they’re serving the British who by and large also have no concept of the system, and by the end of the night quite alot of them would be incapable of recalling just how many drinks they actually had ;-)

  19. Parubin

    I find it very annoying when asked in a bar to pay for each order. Most places in Spain you can always open a tab without even asking for it, except maybe the very crowded touristic places.

    This is, indeed, one good thing about bars and pintxo-eateries in Spain.

    btw, Follonera, ‘pincho’ and ‘pintxo’ is exactly the same thing, no matter if Castillian or Basquizied-Castillian, it’s the same stuff and everyone understands.

  20. follonera

    Sí. ¡Qué importa la ortografía! Si en otros tiempos quemaban sostenes, quememos diccionarios, asaltemos las academias de la lengua, guillotinemos a los académicos. ¡Liberémonos de las ataduras que frenan nuestra involución!
    Qué más da b que v; they’re, there o their… tronchos que berzas.

    Como decía Rafael Alberti: “yo era un tonto y lo que he visto me ha hecho dos tontos”.

    ¡Biba la hijnorancia kon premeditacion i halebosia!

  21. Parubin

    @ Follonera :
    But you are mixing different concepts as this is not an ortographic mistake. ‘Pincho’ is Castilian-Spanish and ‘Pintxo’ is the basque word for it, which clearly comes fom Castilian-Spanish.

    The basquizied word is widely accepted and commonly used in the whole of Spain (or at least in the northern non-basque provinces such as Rioja, Navarre and even Cantabria) to acknowledge the small appetizers served on sliced bread. It can be indistintly used both ways without it being considered a mistake, let alone a sign of ignorance as you suggest.

    There are a few examples the other way around, i.e. Castilian-Spanish versions for food originally named in another different language of Spain.

    For instance : Bread with tomato and garlic rubbed over and seasoned with olive oil and salt is a Catalan appetizer called ‘Pa Amb Tomaquet’ (literally ‘bread with tomato’ in Catalan language). This popular Spanish preparation is commonly referred to as ‘Pantumaca’ in the rest of Spain, which is roughly the phonetic transcription and version taken in Spanish.

    Would you also go as far as to consider this a linguistic atrocity? Well it’s just the same distinction as pincho – pintxo, but the other way around.

  22. follonera

    Hola, Anwar.

    El día que se traten aquí los problemas endémicos de España, no dudes ni un segundo que seré la primera en echar sapos y culebras contra mi país… hay mucha tela que cortar.

    En este mundo, si no practicas el arte del disimulo y el toreo con la mano izquierda; si no escondes tus ideas bajo un manto de eufemismos y palabras huecas, te tachan de provocador malicioso e insolente. Si hablas claro, parece que buscas gresca. La franqueza no vende.

    En cuanto a las tapas, no puedo decir gran cosa. De las sensaciones y los placeres conviene no hablar… que se escapa el gato.

  23. follonera

    Parubin, es un problema ortográfico en la medida en que para expresar el sonido “ch”, se emplean grafías ajenas al castellano.

    Tú mismo me das la razón con el tema del “pà amb tomàquet”. En castellano se adapta ortográficamente como “pantumaca”, sin embargo, en catalán se mantiene la forma original. Lo ridículo sería que los catalanes utilizaran “pantumaca”, que es lo que sucede con “pintxo/pincho”.
    Y de ahí viene mi queja: se exporta una palabra a otro idioma, y simultáneamente vuelve a importarse con una nueva grafía. El colmo del absurdo.

  24. Pippa

    @ follonera: si has leido lo que ha escrito Ben, literalmente pone “or pintxos as they are known up there”, y está hablando de San Sebastian, lo que me parece totalmente correcto, pinchos en Castilla y pintxos en el Pais Vasco.

    @parubin: Estoy de acuerdo contigo, pero en Cantabria solo pasa en Castro Urdiales y Laredo (Cantabria oriental) porque está lleno de vascos, en el resto de Cantabria son pinchos.

  25. Pippa

    Before P (and B) it is always m, never n, so “sin pagar”, when you make it into one word, the n is changed into m

  26. Ben Post author

    @JM, well, I believe the n is changed to m in simpa for pronunciation reasons, the same as the town Ciempozuelos near Madrid has an m in cien – basically you can’t have an n before a p in Spanish.

  27. Graham Tappenden

    Germany has a similar system in bars and restuarants, which may be the reason that German tourists get on so well in Spain ;-) But there is a difference: our bars have touch-screen computers where the staff do keep a record of what has been consumed at each table, so that at the end of the evening they can make sure that everything has been paid for. Just in case the patrons’ memories are not working…

    When I worked at the large computer show in Hanover (CeBIT) this used to confuse the British visitors no end. So the bar staff would go to the Germans at a large table first, cross off what they had eaten and drunk, and then divide the rest of the bill by the number of Brits at the table – Spanish style!

  28. Justin R

    It is a wonderful system, but in my Andaluz pueblo it does have one slight flaw.

    Here the bill is usually wrong and has to be sent back – just as often for items missing as for random items added.

  29. follonera

    Pippa, por si no lo sabes, los mensajes se pueden editar y rectificar. Con las nuevas tecnologías, lo de “quod scripsi, scripsi” no vale gran cosa, jaja.

    ¡Feliz verano a todos!

  30. Richardksa

    It’s a great system and on more than one occasion the barman has told me I had drank less than I offered to pay for. So honesty goes both ways.
    However, occasionally I want to pay “up front” as I want a quick drink and leave without waiting to attract the waiter’s eye, get the bill etc, and this seems very difficult to do. They don’t seem to understand the concept.

  31. Yomismo

    @Follonera, tu nick hace justicia a todos los posts que publicas hija…

    Anda, tranquilizate una miaja, que para un fallo que hace el tio este del blog vas tu y lo unico que te ha faltado es insultarle. Asi que, como diría un ingles… Chill out man…

  32. SpanishFootsteps

    I agree, a truly great system, although i do wonder if some establishments miss out on revenue due to forgetful staff or patrons. We have a local bar where settling up at the end of a long evening out didn’t always add up, so we now pay per round.

  33. Wannabegafapasta

    I think that this “honor system” works because we Spaniards spend a lot of time in Bares, it’s our meeting/socia gathering place “par excellance” so we feel like being blasphemous if we do not behave honestly. :D Of course, a common Spaniard may well do a footer if he/she thinks he/she isn’t receiving a proper treatment or isn’t being attended when trying to pay the bill.

    It makes an appalling contrast, however, with the Spanish behavior regarding public properties/services (trains, buses, tax payings…), where we try to abuse, avoid or, directly, cheat the Estate with no complaint.

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