Eating in Sevilla is fun and affordable. People from Madrid and Barcelona find it a wonderful value. Make a point to get out and eat well when in Sevilla.
The general system is to eat family-style, sharing everything. Smaller tapas are served at the bar, while larger portions called half-raciones and full raciones are at the tables. While raciones work great for small groups, individuals and couples get more variety with tapas. Fortunately, many places are easing up on the "tapas only at the bar" rule. You can always ask -- many places are easing up on this rule, and if things are slow, they'll let tapas eaters sit at a table.
A clear eating trend in Sevilla is the rise of gourmet tapas bars, with spiffed-up decor and creative menus, at the expense of traditional restaurants. Even in difficult economic times, when other businesses are closing down, tapas bars are popping up all over. (Locals explain that with the collapse of the construction industry here, engineers, architects, and other professionals -- eager for a business opportunity -- are investing in trendy tapas bars.) Old-school places survive, but they often lack energy, and it seems that their clientele is aging with them. My quandary: I like the classic típico places. But the lively atmosphere and the best food are in the new places. One thing's for certain: If you want a good "restaurant" experience, your best value these days is to find a trendy tapas bar that offers good table seating, and sit down to enjoy some raciones.
While you can find tapas somewhere just about any time, the best action starts late. Restaurants generally serve lunch from 13:00 to 16:00 and dinner from 20:00 until very late. Spaniards don't start lunch until about 14:00 and dinner until after 21:00; at these times, the top tapas bars can get extremely crowded with locals, and it can be tough for English-speaking tourists to find a place -- or even order. Tourists wanting to avoid the crush have clear windows of opportunity: If you go early -- around 13:30 for lunch or 20:30- 21:00 for dinner -- you'll get better service and a place at the bar.
For a different twist on a tapas bar, find an abacería. This is a neighborhood grocery store that doubles as a tapas bar. I found a great one, which will star in the next edition of my Spain guidebook: Abacería Casa Moreno is a rare, classic abacería (an old-time grocery store that also serves tapas). Squeeze into the back room, and you're squeezing back in time -- and that includes a steep language barrier. It's standing-only. Help yourself to the box of pork scratchings on the bar while choosing from an enticing list of €2.50 tapas. They're proud of their top-quality jamón serrano and queso manchego, and serve hot tapas only at lunch. Rubbing elbows here with local eaters under a bull's head surrounded by jars of peaches and cans of sardines, you feel like you're in on a secret (Mon-Fri 8:00-15:30 & 19:30-22:30, closed Sat-Sun, 3 blocks off Plaza Nueva at Gamazo 7, tel. 954-228-315).
My guide demonstrates how quality ham, sliced thin, will stick to the plate when upturned. I'm not sure what that has to do with quality, but one thing I am sure of: When in Spain, life's too short to eat mediocre jamón. At least a couple of times, pay extra for the best ham on the list.