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Imagine a world in which someone with way too much power mandated that all restaurants offer a discounted three-course meal every weekday for lunch. That dictator also determined how much you could charge for the meal and sometimes, which dishes you could serve. That’s how Spain’s menú del dia custom got it start, according to Joselito Casa de Comidas proprietor and Spain native Javier Candon. His Capitol Hill restaurant offers a modern interpretation of the prix fixe lunch.
In the 1960s, fascist dictator Generalisimo Francisco Franco sought to make Spain a desired destination for tourists. One strategy he used to attract millions of visitors was the creation of a forced “menú turístico” in 1964. Each restaurant throughout the country had to offer an appetizer, entree, dessert, and a glass of wine or beer for a set fee. Candon jokes that it’s a little like the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s bi-annual Restaurant Week. In Spain, the government split restaurants into four tiers depending on how upscale they were, which determined what they could charge.
Restaurant owners were told to display their set menus outside and serve regional specialties. Restaurants in Madrid, for example, served a chickpea-based stew called cocido madrileño. One main course had to feature fish, the other, meat. Tortilla española and gazpacho were common menú turístico selections because they could be made in advance and served rapidly. “People associated the meal with speed,” Candon says, noting that in the U.S. a prix fixe, multi-course meal is more often considered too lengthy for lunch.
In the 1970s, Spaniards began referring to the meal as the menu of the day or “menú del dia,” and when Franco died in 1975, enforcement of the law mandating restaurants serve the set lunch lapsed. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the federal law was lifted, leaving it up to each comunidad autónoma (similar to a U.S. state) to decide whether to do away with the requirement. Asturias, Aragón, and Navarra opted to keep a version of the law.
The menú del dia remained popular in Spain until the turn of the 21st century, when the “jornada partida,” which translates to “split shift” became less popular. Spaniards were historically known for working in the morning, breaking for a long lunch and a nap known as a siesta, and returning to work in the afternoon. “Most places in Spain now you go to work around 8 a.m. and finish at 3 p.m. and go home for the day and have lunch at home,” Candon says.
Places known for their menú del dia are clustered around universities, hospitals, and other centers where there’s work activity around the clock, according to Candon. “It’s a great price point for younger Spaniards,” he says.
Joselito’s menú del dia is also a way Washingtonians on a budget can experience the Spanish restaurant that opened in 2017. Candon modified the structure so that $22 gets you a choice of a starter and a main course. Those who want the full experience can pay an additional $5 for a dessert or $6 for a glass of wine.
Monday’s menu featured a choice between a fisherman’s stew packed with cuttlefish, mussels, and clams or a mango, tomato, and avocado salad with micro cilantro and yuzu dressing to start, followed by a main course of a hanger steak with fries or a tuna loin nestled atop onions and a black garlic hollandaise sauce. A vegetarian main dish is always available too. The portion sizes are designed to feel like a deal but also not spoil any dinner plans. It’s available Mondays through Fridays from 11:30 am to 3 p.m.
Joselito Casa de Comidas, 660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; (202) 930-6955; joselitodc.com