TAPA means TOP, and if we consult the dictionary, we can find, among other definitions: “Spanish aperitif served in bars or similar establishments to eat with the drink.” It is a typical Spanish custom and the important thing is to drink AND to eat.
Typically (unless you look like a tourist…) you don’t have to ask for it because it is expectable that you get it in the moment you walk into the bar.
But what is today served as a tapa is not at all similar to what it used to be a long time ago. Everybody knows that hygiene standards were somewhat different in the past and the tapa actually originated from that. When the taverns were full of insects and flies going around the only way to protect the drinks was a small plate on top of the glass. As this system wasn’t very appealing to customers it became usual to decorate it with an olive (or a piece of sausage if it was a “posh” place).
Over time, this small dish developed into what it is these days – a little pleasure in great variety of form and taste.
Every Spanish bar has a certain selection of tapas, smaller or bigger. The paradise of the TAPASFORFREE is undoubtedly Andalusia (although growing tourism seems to be a temptation to many bar owners to charge an extra coin). In Castile historically you don’t have to pay for tapas and in the rural areas and in the neighbourhoods of the towns the bar keepers are always generous. In the North the food in general is marvellous, and while in the Basque Country you normally have to pay for tapas, they are often delicious.
There’s huge variety: Small dishes of olives (MANZANILLA or CAMPO REAL usually), chips, dried fruits; PULGAS or TOSTAS made with a piece of bread and anything imaginable on top; as well as larger plates to be shared among several people, called RACIONES, with meat or salads or the typical cuisine of the area (which are never for free).
So the little plate of food with the beer or the wine is in principle included in the price, but you have to pay in the moment you feel like eating something more elaborate.
For Spaniards, it is all about socialising with friends in bars while enjoying these little delicatessen.