Virtually unknown outside of Andalucia, these ubiquitous rural eating places arose from bygone days when much of the region's seasonal work was done by itinerant labour.
Cheap, hearty meals were thus much in demand as the few restaurants that were available, tended to be expensive. Some enterprising country housewife saw the opportunity and decided to provide 'Ventas' – meals for sale and the idea was quickly taken up by others and the 'Venta' was born.
Ventas are still wonderfully good value today, not just for the food, but also for the atmosphere with long scrubbed wooden tables, large noisy Spanish families and a charming informality.
The price can be up to half what you would pay at a conventional restaurant and the portions are so generous that it's sometimes hard to manage more than a first course which could be a light stew, soup or egg dish such as 'revuelta' which is scrambled eggs with the addition of prawns, ham or asparagus added.
Desserts tend to be restricted as they are in most Spanish restaurants, if you see the words casera or hecho en casa following the name of the dessert (invariably a caramel custard or similar), then this is to be recommended as it will be home-made, ideally following a recipe which has been in the family for generations, and undoubtedly delicious. The alternative are commercially packaged ice cream desserts which tend to be tasteless, overly sweet and as expensive as the main meal.
Most ventas have a perfectly good house wine, generally a Valdepeñas which you can sample before selecting if necessary. If you don't like it, then choose a reasonable Rioja and you can't go wrong.
The most poplar time for the Spanish to eat at ventas is at the weekends, particularly on Sundays. The Sunday day trippers are known locally as 'Domingeros'.
Some knowledge of Spanish is useful as, unlike the tourist restaurants on the coast, these menus will not be in a dozen different languages. Take a small Spanish dictionary along if your knowledge of the language is poor as you may end up ordering something very surprising, especially among the fish dishes which are often quite extensive.
Ventas do vary from one to another and it is worth visiting a few to discover one that you really like, in terms of food and atmosphere. During the winter months, many will have a roaring fireplace and it is quite easy to spend several hours (as the Spanish do) sipping wine, savouring the food and chatting to friends and family.
Service can be slow and there is no point at all in getting up tight if you have to wait. Instead, absorb your surroundings, relax and remember that all good things are worth waiting for…
Travellers Ventas and Road side Halts
As well as the ventas scattered throughout the countryside of Andalucia, many are located along the major highways, primarily designed for long distance truck drivers. If you happen to be travelling between cities, then this is where to stop for your mid-morning breakfast – or any other meal.
However, don't expect to be ushered to a table and given a choice of eggs over easy and hash browns. The usual venta bar reveals little more than a few pre-wrapped doughnuts and sticky cakes and, later in the day, several dishes of tapas.
The typical breakfast in Andalucia comprises 'tostada' (toast) which you can have with margarine, 'margarina' (forget about butter, you will be presented with your very own Flora tub!), olive oil 'aceite' (if you haven't tried it, do so, with a little salt the flavour of a good olive oil soaked into toast is unbeatable!).
Tomatoes, garlic and olive oil (tomate, ajo y aceite) is another possibility and also delicious and so much healthier than butter and marmalade! Coffee (café), or chocolate generally don't present too much of a challenge when ordering.
If you are lucky, you will get the real home made chocolate which you can stand a spoon up in and is particularly delicious with churros, those deep fried and delicious doughnut twists.