Mexico Life

Food for thought: restaurant etiquette for those who want to integrate

Being polite and considerate when eating out is basically about being a grown-up

Some of you aren’t going to like what I’m about to write, and I’m sorry about that. In fact, if you’re one of those people who pride themselves on knowing everything about everything – and aren’t open to hearing otherwise – it might be best if you just stopped reading right now.

This is about restaurant etiquette – yours, not the owner’s, waiter’s or anybody else’s. It’s about good manners and being polite and considerate; basically, being a grown-up.

After 30 years of writing about food and restaurants, cooking and eating, I’ve observed countless hours of restaurant behavior from both sides. I’ve worked in kitchens and waited tables, run “front of house” and managed, grown, 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. I guess you could say I’ve been a part-time professional eater for three decades.

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 etiquette tips below are an important part of that integration.

dog in restaurant
Not a good idea.

• 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/hours/décor should be changed or umpteen other things that you know better than they do, hold your tongue unless asked.

• 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 eight to 10-hour shift is about 103 pesos (that’s US $5.10) and 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? Just like the U.S.: 10% is basic, 15% for good service and 20% because you can.

• The language thing. We understand you want to practice your Spanish, and that’s admirable. However, chances are your accent, pronunciation, and/or vocabulary, collectively or individually, aren’t perfect. So if your server doesn’t quite understand what you’re asking for 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 foreign populations or tourists have been hired partly because they can speak and understand English – much better than how 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.

• My way. Want your meal made special – different than what’s on the menu? Are you on a special diet, or do you suffer from food allergies? 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 thrown the onions/garlic/bacon in as usual, or bring you a standard sandwich on plain bread instead of toast. 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 eating out?!) Also, please see No. 3 again.

smoking in restaurant
Another bad idea.

• Loose fingers. It used to be that publishing an opinion or critique of a theater production, movie or restaurant was reserved for, well, professionals – or at least those judged professionals by others in the business. With the advent of the internet and social media, though, now anyone can post anything, anywhere.

Having a bad day? Grumpy as all get-out? Think your omelet/steak/Caesar salad 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 what’s bothering you. Nine times out of 10 they’ll be more than happy to remedy the situation on the spot without your having to trumpet your dissatisfaction to the world at large. Your casual critique of your less-than-perfect soup posted on TripAdvisor or Yelp can cause a restaurant to suffer hugely – and needlessly.

• Patience is a virtue. Don’t like to wait for your meal? There’s a very simple solution: Don’t go at busy times. Or come back later. And one more thing: just because you have a reservation for, say, 7:00pm 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 has totally thrown the kitchen into a tizzy. Order something to drink and relax. Problem solved. Easy. Still can’t accept this? Wondering why the owner doesn’t plan better, have more staff, etc.? Go back and read No. 1 again.

• Groups & parties. Now that we’re on the subject . . . going out with a group of four or more? Is it a special occasion? Call ahead. Please. Make a reservation. Show up on time. Have a few more or less people than you said? Have tickets for the theater afterwards? (Order simple entrees, no appetizers and don’t ask for separate checks.) Alert your server and be appreciative of them accommodating your needs.

• Water. Sigh. Try to remember: in Mexico, everyone pays for purified drinking water. Everyone, everywhere. So do restaurants. 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 water-in-the-glass. The real question is, why do you have a problem with this?

• Smoking. The laws in Mexico changed several years ago regarding smoking in restaurants; legally, it’s not allowed inside except in designated smoking areas. So why don’t they say anything when you light up? And why do they bring you an ashtray? Don’t ask those questions; their purpose is to feed you, not teach you how to be a polite, law-abiding citizen. Just do the right thing, which means not smoking except in the smoking section.

• Last call. It’s 11:00pm, you finished eating an hour ago and are just 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 stacking chairs on the side of the dining room. Ahhh, but it’s OK if you stay another 15-20 minutes longer, isn’t it? NOT! Leave now, please. Say good night and go home. Crawl down to the next open bar. They’ve been working for eight-plus hours and have a long bus ride ahead and a family waiting at home. The restaurant is closed. End of story.

• Dogs. (Have an actual professionally trained service animal? None of this applies to you.) 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.

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, my friend – instead of trying to explain to the restaurant owner why he “should” allow dogs (especially yours) in his establishment. (See No. 1.)

• All about me. OK, so you go to the same café every day during your entire four or five-month stay in Mexico. By now, you and the owner/waiter have shared personal information and really are friends. But you know what? During the breakfast, lunch or dinner rush, with every table full, he doesn’t have time to chat about the weather, your latest ailment or to gossip about your neighbor.

Throw in one cook calling in sick and he doesn’t have a minute to spare. Really a friend? Be considerate. Remember, he’s working (hard), you’re not. He’ll come back and talk when he can.

Janet Blaser of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, has been a writer, editor and storyteller her entire life, and feels fortunate to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. Her work has appeared in numerous travel and expat publications as well as newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, is available on Amazon. Contact Janet or read her blog at whyweleftamerica.com.

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