Although etymologists agree that the word "tapas" comes from the Spanish word tapar, which means "to cover," that's where agreement on the origin of the Spanish snack-stravaganza ends.
Seminal cookbook The Joy of Cooking claims that "tapas" originally referred to slices of bread or meat used to cover glasses of sherry served in Andalusian taverns. The covers -- especially the salty meat -- served the dual purpose of keeping flies out of the sherry and encouraging patrons' thirst. My handy Food Lover's Companion backs up this theory. Although it's the most popular theory currently in play, there's more to the history of tapas than just sherry.
Places serving tapas-style dishes predate restaurants, and were once one of the only places people could get food outside of their own homes prior to the 18th century. "France was the birthplace of what we now call the restaurant," write Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari in Food: a Culinary History. "With the exception of inns, which were primarily for travelers, and street kitchens...where in Europe at that time could one purchase a meal outside the home? Essentially in places where alcoholic beverages were sold, places equipped to serve simple, inexpensive dishes either cooked on the premises or ordered from a nearby inn or food shop, along with wine, beer, and spirits, which constituted the bulk of their business."
Taverns such as these, Flandrin and Montanari note, "existed not only in France but also in other countries. In Germany, Austria, and Alsace, Brauereien and Weinstuben served delicatessen, sauerkraut, and cheese, for example; in Spain bodegas served tapas."
In keeping with the tavern tradition, a good tapas restaurant should ideally feature an excellent selection of beverages -- especially wine -- and a cozy, relaxing atmosphere. Tapas restaurants aren't fancy; they're familiar. And these days, tapas dishes should be appropriately sized for sharing with friends. The days of a meal fitting on top of your glass are long over.
As with a few other entries on this list, neither Vinoteca Poscol nor Giacomo's are traditional tapas restaurants. They do, however, offer excellent Mediterranean food -- Italian, in this case -- in tapas-sized portions. Vinoteca Poscol's portions get even smaller during happy hour, when elegant two- or three-bite sandwiches are served with wine at the bar. Both feature terrific wine lists, and Giacomo's sports a patio that's relaxing by day and romantic by night.
9. El Meson
The first of two Rice Village tapas restaurants on our list, El Meson offers both traditional Spanish tapas and paellas alongside Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and picadillo a la criolla. With its dark wood and booths lining the walls, the spacious restaurant -- run by Peter Garcia, who inherited the family restaurant after his father passed away in 1992 -- has the feel of a neighborhood taverna. The extensive wine list includes choices from the New World as well as the Old, all of which pair nicely with the equally extensive list of Spanish cheeses.
8. Mi Luna
Eighty selections of hot and cold tapas are served family-style at this Rice Village stronghold; order according to the number in your group. Mi Luna favorites include shrimp in lemon-garlic olive oil, manchego-stuffed chicken breast and pork tenderloin in wild mushroom-thyme-sherry sauce. A few entrées are there for those who never learned to share, but a better alternative to tapas would be to sample from the extensive paella menu.
Who knew a restaurant tucked into a suburban medical center could be so sophisticated? Merche is a cross between Spain and Italy when it comes to cuisines and has everything from a large al fresco dining area to a fireplace and a water wall. It's a popular date spot, with plenty of elegance to spare. Merche features a tapas menu, wood-fired pizzas, cigars, an extensive wine list, private dining option and plenty of classic dishes at surprisingly affordable prices.
One of the city's best Spanish restaurants is outside the Loop -- way outside the Loop. But the trip to this oddly located Spanish paradise is entirely worth it. You'd never know once you're inside that Rioja is bordered by some rough apartments and a Fuddrucker's; it's a little slice of Alicante in Houston. And while the paella here is very good (not stupendous, but better than you'll get anywhere else in town), the real treat is the tapas menu. On weekdays, Rioja offers a phenomenal lunch deal: three tapas for $13.95. The patatas bravas and the jamon serrano will make you feel as if you're right back on the Costa Blanca.
Veteran restaurateur Youssef Nafaa has created an authentic taverna and tapas bar where guests can party late into the night. With lots of dark wood and wrought iron, it's the perfect place to watch flamenco dancing on weekends. The menu is extensive and features traditional hot and cold tapas like tortilla española, mushrooms sautéed in sherry, potato croquettes, sautéed shrimp in garlic sauce and grilled octopus, to name just a few. Andalucia also serves wonderful paella and the best and strongest sangria in the city.
Gerry Sarmiento owns the equally popular Mezzanotte Ristorante, right next door, and offers his fans an entirely different experience with Piqueo than at his longtime Italian restaurant. The menu here is fully Peruvian in tapas-sized portions, with an emphasis on more than just ceviches. You can get everything from gaucho steak to Peruvian-style mussels and homestyle Peruvian beef stew.
3. Oporto Cafe
Oporto Cafe offers unusual wines and great snacks in a hip, relaxed, cozy atmosphere -- an atmosphere that owners Richard Di Virgilio and Shiva Patel have also perfected at The Queen Vic, their other venture. Oporto's wine list features several selections from Italy and Portugal along with very shareable portions of interesting dishes such as linguiça, the Portuguese sausage, empanadas, meatballs in a saffron-tomato sauce and a bacalhau (salt cod) croquette. Lunch includes excellent pizzas and panini (try the Italiano, with lots of meats, provolone and arugula).
2. 1252 Tapas
The Uptown Park location of this suburban import (the other two 1252 Tapas locations are in Cypress and The Woodlands) features a sleek menu of traditional Spanish tapas and a much more urban vibe than its far-flung counterparts. Get the tabla alfonso x if you go with a large group so that you can taste 1252's array of Spanish cheeses and cured meats, or get experimental if you go on your own: morcilla (blood sausage) with apple and Dijon mustard sauce and pulpitos en su tinta (baby octopus sautéed in its own ink) are two favorites. Sangrias and other Spanish standards like empanadas and roasted asparagus are also good bets. And for dessert, 1252 Tapas offers some of the best churros around as well as clever dessert cocktails that you might normally pass up elsewhere.
Named after an island in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain, Majorca in Midtown is creating food that was inspired by those islands: tapas. Chef Hicham Nafaa's extensive menu includes typical Spanish classics like paella, albóndigas (meatballs) and gambas con arroz (prawns with rice). In typical tapas fashion, most dishes are small and meant to be shared. On weekends, Majorca offers no-cover live flamenco music, which can be enjoyed while you're sipping a delicious, cinnamon-spiced, house-made sangria. Sunday brunch here is also one of the best values in town, an all-you-can eat Spanish/Mediterranean spread with bottomless mimosas for just $14.95, which can be enjoyed on the lovely patio with live music.