El Palo is a beachside suburb of Malaga, just a 10 minute bus ride outside the city centre. It bustles in the summer months when Malagueñans flock to take respite from the city bustle in their custom-built getaway homes and huddle round beach-based Chiringuito picnic tables whilst tucking into fresh sardines, barbequed on skewers stuck into sand-filled old fishing boats. In the winter it’s quieter for the main part, at least as far as the beaches go. But the grilled-fish-infused smoke still rises from those old fishing boats and boy, does it smell good filtering through that fresh sea air.
From the lengthy promenade and man-made silver-grit-and-balding-grass beaches, you can see the distant, hazy image of Malaga’s centrepiece, the One Armed Lady (the cathedral that was destined for two towers but ended up with just one due to some disagreement with the English by some accounts). It reminds you that you are a stone’s throw from a sprawling metropolis, but have managed to escape to grab a breather from the bibbing horns and laid-back hombre verdes.
At the far eastern end of the El Palo promenade, right opposite the sparkling Mediterranean and satisfyingly shaded from the beating afternoon sun, sits Restaurante El Tintero, a vast wrinkly plastic-windowed marquee capable of seating around 500 hungry diners.
Restaurante El Tintero is an eatery with a difference. Yes, they seat you and ask you what you’d like to drink. And that’s where the similarity with any conventional restaurant ends.
Your drinks arrive, along with a basket containing bread, serviettes and cutlery. Then before you know it, the whole bizarreness of the experience begins to unravel around you.
Charging around you, emanating from all directions, are white-shirted waiters with very loud and quite songful voices. Their arms laden with plates of fish, they are calling to all of us wide-eyed, in-awe diners, ‘gam-bas; gam-bee-tas; dor-a-da; lu-bee-na; langos-tee-nas; cala-mar-eeees.’ They are beating the aisles between the neatly laid-out tables, showing the latest fresher-than-fresh ocean delights that have been despatched from the kitchen for immediate consumption.
Hungry? Then shout! As loud as you can before the camarero passes, otherwise one of your fellow diners will lay their hands on the plate you’re after. ‘Aqui, aqui!’. Give me that dish! And how you gloat when the one you want lands on your table! It’s like you’ve won the lottery, or found hidden treasure!
The atmosphere is furious. No physical fights break out, but arms are waving, hands are beckoning and voices are raised and each table’s mouthpiece gets louder as the dishes sweeping past their noses get more interesting and desirable.
Great, deep-filled bowls of ensalada mixta veined with leaking beetroot go by, whilst pork pinchos and even chicken and chips make irregular appearances to keep any non-fish lovers happy. But this is primarily a fish lover’s place. ‘Pul-po; chip-ir-on-es; len-gua-da; pa-ell-a;’.
It’s loud in there, but convivial. And exhilarating, because you feel you’re in a special place that not very many people know about. Just you and the 498 people around you who are merrily tucking into their fishy feasts.
At first, you tend to wolf your food down so you can make sure you’re ready for the next wave of outpourings from the kitchen in case you miss something you really want. But then you start to mellow and realise that the dishes don’t stop a-coming at all. You may have to wait for the particular one you want, or one that takes your fancy; but that’s part of the fun. The buzz and hum purrs, and calls of Spanish fish names come in peaks and troughs until every so often, it all stops. Silence descends on the marquee and your ears pop with the sudden lack of sound. Then long-haired, vast fore-headed Guitar Man strikes a chord, glances around his arena, and plays a short selection of Spanish classics before setting off with his hat. Don’t dare give him less than a Euro, he frowns, and it’s not pretty.
Now the noise is back up and the camareros return to pacing the aisles advertising their edible wares. As your plates and glasses stack up on your table, your stomach swells and your head dizzies from a sweet cocktail of wine and atmosphere, you start to realise that it will soon be time to leave. So what now?
You need to flag down the waiter in the blue shirt with the notebook. If you want your bill and you see him, grab him while you can and watch carefully as the mathematics go on behind his furrowed brow. He’ll count your plates and note their size and colour (silver platters are the most expensive), tally up your glasses and then scribble your bill, rounded down to the nearest Euro, on your tablecloth. Then you pay and leave and walk outside into the dazzling sunlight and take a deep breath as you realise what’s just happened.
You’re in. You’ve experienced an intrinsic Spanish tradition, something that very few people will ever share. And boy does it feel good.
Tips: Don’t arrive before 2pm as the atmosphere doesn’t build up before then. Don’t eat too much, tempted as you may be. Don’t worry if on arrival you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, you’ll soon be swallowed up into the ambience.
Restaurante El Tintero, El Palo, Málaga. Open all year for lunch and dinner. And the dining experience of a lifetime.