Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Food for thought: our restaurant behavior says a lot about us

Some of you aren’t going to like what you’re about to read, and I’m sorry about that. 

We’re going to discuss restaurant etiquette: yours, not the owner’s, waiter’s or anybody else’s. 

After 35 years of writing about food and restaurants, cooking and eating, I’ve observed countless hours of restaurant behavior from both sides. 

Besides basically eating for a living, I’ve worked in kitchens and waited tables, run “front of house” and managed, harvested and sold produce at farmers’ markets. I’ve had quite a bit of time “behind the scenes” with owners and chefs, waitstaff, cooks and prep staff. 

So here’s the thing: If you really want to be a member of your adopted community in Mexico (or anywhere else for that matter) trust me when I say the tips below are an important part of that integration. 

Waiter and waitress
Those restaurant servers are somebody’s sons and daughters; tip like they were your own. (Depositphotos)
  1. Should/Shouldn’t. This is a biggie, and that’s why it’s No. 1: Don’t tell the owner what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do. Just don’t. Whether it’s what they “should” serve on the side, how the menu or hours or décor “should” be changed or umpteen other things that you know better than they do, hold your tongue unless asked. 
  2. Show Them the Money. Tip as though the server is your son or daughter working their way through school. Especially in Mexico — where the minimum wage per day for an 8–10 hour-shift is $207 pesos (that’s about US $10.82, $14.49 CAD) – tips are their livelihood. And those propinas are split with everyone working that shift; not only the waiters, bartenders and hostesses, but all the backstage folks you don’t see: cooks, dishwashers, maybe a night watchman or cleaning lady too. Be generous. You can afford it. What’s normal here? 10% is basic, 15% for good service and 20% because you can. 
  3. The Language Thing. We understand that you want to practice your Spanish, and that’s admirable. However, chances are your accent, pronunciation and/or vocabulary aren’t perfect. So if your server doesn’t quite understand what you’re saying the first time, please, please just say it in English.

    This is a restaurant, not a language school, and the majority of waiters in towns with expat populations or lots of tourists have been hired partly because they can speak and understand English – much better than most of us speak Spanish. Case in point: When we say
    sin azucar incorrectly, it’s often unintelligible – a mumbled sound – to a native Spanish speaker. Then, when we’re furious our limonada is too sweet, we blame it on “bad service” instead of “bad Spanish” – which is the real problem. 
  4. My Way. On a special diet? Suffer from food allergies? Want your meal made special – different than what’s on the menu? Expect to wait a little longer and, quite possibly, for there to be a mistake. Why? Because in a busy kitchen, it’s easy for a cook to forget and make a standard whatever-it-is. Whether you send it back or eat it anyway, try to be gracious; it won’t kill you. And if it will, what are you doing going out to eat? See #1 again. 
  5. Loose Fingers. It used to be that publishing an opinion or critique of a theater production, movie or restaurant was reserved for, well, professionals. With social media, though, anyone can post anything, anywhere.

    Having a bad day? Think your meal wasn’t as perfect as it coulda/shoulda been? Don’t head for your computer; instead, ask for the owner or manager and politely explain your issue. Nine times out of 10 they’ll be happy to remedy the situation on the spot without you having to trumpet your dissatisfaction to the world at large.

    Your casual critique of your less-than-perfect soup posted on TripAdvisor or a local Facebook page can cause a restaurant to suffer hugely — and needlessly. 
  6. Patience is a Virtue. Don’t like to wait for your meal? Simple solution — don’t go at busy times. One more thing: just because you have a reservation for, say, 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, does not guarantee you quick service.

    Look around you: is every table full? Maybe that big group of 15 showed up without a reservation and the kitchen is in a tizzy. Order a drink and relax. Still can’t accept this? Wondering why the owner doesn’t plan better, have more staff, etc.? Go back and read No. 1 again. 
  7. Groups and Parties. Going out with a group of four or more? Special occasion? Call ahead. Make a reservation. Show up on time. Please. Have a few more or less people than you said you would? Alert your server and be appreciative of them accommodating your needs. (See No. 2.) Going to the theater afterward or have a tight schedule?  Order simple entrées, no appetizers and don’t ask for separate checks.
  8. Dogs. Why, why, why do you think it’s OK to bring your pet to a restaurant here, something you would never do in Canada or the U.S. or wherever else you’re from? It’s not cute when they sit on the chairs, not charming when they lick your plate clean, not OK when they bark and whine and tangle themselves up with the table/other customers/ your waiter’s legs.

    Dog in cafe
    Back home, dogs in restaurants are very much the exception. Here too, so don’t try to tell the restaurant owner it should be the rule. (Benevolente82/Shutterstock)

    Hard as it is to believe, not everyone likes dogs — and they don’t belong in restaurants. If your dog can’t stay home for an hour while you go out to eat, that’s what you should be addressing – instead of trying to explain to the restaurant owner why he “should” allow dogs (especially yours) in his establishment. (See No. 1.) Have an actual professionally trained service animal? None of this applies to you.

  9. Water. In Mexico, everyone pays for purified drinking water. Everyone, everywhere. Restaurants too. And for a small business trying to make ends meet in a challenging economy, the extra five or 10 garrafones of water every few days can really add up.

    Why do they bring you a bottle instead of just a glass? Because it’s easier, because they want to, because some picky gringos in the past complained about non-purified water-in-the-glass. The real question is, why do you have a problem with this?
  10. Last Call. It’s 11 p.m., you finished eating an hour ago and are hanging out with your friends, swishing the last sip of a now-warm cerveza in your glass. By now, you’re on a first-name basis with your waiter, and he’s laughing at all your jokes. Out of the corner of your eye you see them starting to stack chairs.

    Please leave now. Say good night and go home. Crawl down to the next open bar. The people who have just been serving you have been working for eight or more hours and have a long bus ride ahead and a family waiting at home. The restaurant is closed. End of story. 

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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