How Paella is Served in SpainPaella may be served in one of the following ways in Spain:
As a part of a 'menu del dia' (read about menu del dia in Eating in a Restaurant in Spain). The paella will have been cooked earlier in the day and will be reheated for you, probably in the microwave.
As tapas In Granada in particular, paella is often served as free tapas (a good place to get it is at Bodegas Castañedas). The paella is made fresh and is served as tapas until they run out. Often very good but as it is given free, it won't have very expensive ingredients (e.g. saffron). Read more on Tapas in Spain
As a serving from a large paella cooked earlier in the day Many of the cheaper bars in Valencia and Alicante will make a paella earlier in the day and serve portions from it throughout the day, like with the 'menu del dia'. There will often be a sign saying 'Hay Paella' (literally, 'There is Paella'). If you can catch it while it is fresh, it might be good.
From frozen Sold in chain restaurants (see below). Avoid.
Freshly prepared The best restaurants will prepare your paella freshly for you. See below for more on this.
For details of the types of paella you will see in Spain, see this page on The Origins of Paella & Types of Paella Available.
How to Get a Good Paella
Most big cities will have some good places to have paella. An ‘arroceria’ is a type of restaurant specializing in rice dishes, so paella will always feature highly there.
You could try your luck with the cheaper serving from a large dish as part of either a 'menu del dia' or a separate 'racion' (see above), but you're better off getting one cooked fresh.
But how do you know if your paella is fresh? You could just ask the waiter, but if you don't speak Spanish there are two golden rules that you must follow when choosing a restaurant for paella.
See also: How to Spot Good Restaurants in Spain.
Two Golden Rules of Ordering Paella in a Restaurant in Spain
- Avoid chain restaurants
There are restaurants all over Spain that have signs outside offering paella from one of the big paella makers – ‘Paellador’ is one such maker. Avoid these places like the plague. These paellas are bought frozen and are as good as you could buy from the frozen department of your local grocery store. The restaurant itself might not be a chain restaurant but the paellas are mass produced and not your authentic dish. It is easy to spot such vendors. See the picture at the top of this page for an idea of the type of place to avoid. Instead, go for a place with a simple blackboard outside or an obviously private company.
- Eat for two!
By that I don’t mean you have to eat double the quantities (although you can if you really want to!) but always eat at a restaurant which specifies a minimum of two people. Paella dishes are usually quite big - individual paella dishes exist but they are not the idea size to make a paella. The smallest practical dish is for two people. Restaurants that specify a minimum number of people therefore almost certainly make their paella fresh. They bring the entire dish to your table for you to help yourself. If they don’t specify a minimum of two people, they probably make a huge paella which serves them all day, reheating small amounts for each sucker that walks in wanting authentic paella.