Your Guide for Dining out in Spain Presents: Customer Service in Spanish Restaurants
My family and I have been sitting at our table for ten minutes now, trying to catch our waiter’s eye and order something to drink. Meanwhile, he darts around the dining room, seeming to ignore our every attempt to get his attention. Finally, he arrives. “Ready?” he asks, “What do you want?” We order our drinks, but before being able to request dinner menus he disappears in a flash.
A few minutes later our conversation is interrupted by “thump, thud, thump!” Five beers are slammed down on the table, dripping condensation, and the waiter has again disappeared. Is he angry with us? Eventually, he returns and we are able to order both food and another drink. Yet when the food comes (plate by plate) we’re missing forks and one of us has to get up and grab them or we risk eating a cold steak.
At the end of the meal the waiter clears about half of the table and we spend another half of an hour trying to obtain, revise, and, finally, pay our check. In the end we leave, frustrated, and leave only a 10% tip to let the waiter know we were unhappy.
The above situation is my overly dramatic (though not at all improbable) version of what many tourists experience when dining out in Spain. Customer service in Spain often seems lacking when compared to the standards we have set in the US. “The customer is always right” isn’t quite the motto here. Let’s address this issue with a few common questions I’ve heard about the service here in Spain.
Why are the waiters so rude?
They aren’t. They are busy, overworked, and underpaid. They can’t make conversation when they have to serve a dining room of 15 tables alone, so they work quickly without stopping to chat. The also do not work for tips (explained below) and therefore have much less incentive to suck up to patrons.
Why didn’t my check come at the end of the meal?
Unlike in the US where waiters are trained to drop the check immediately (to make it convenient for the customer to pay when they are ready) in Spain you must ask for your check. Here, it would be considered rude to bring the bill before being asked. People often continue talking well after they finish eating and only ask for the check when ready to pay and leave.
How much should I tip my waiter?
When dining out tipping is almost never necessary, and usually not even expected. The waiters work for a monthly salary (of about 1,000 € for full time) and do not depend on tips like the waiters do in the US. However, if you go to a restaurant where you’ve made a reservation, a 5% tip would be considered a nice gesture. In all other cases you can just round your bill up to the next euro when feeling generous. It may seem strange to leave only 10 or 20 cents, but Spaniards do it all the time. Of course, as someone who spent 7 years as a waitress, I’d say that leaving a tip is never a bad idea, especially in Spain where the waiters work long hours for very little pay.
Suggestions for Dining out in Spain:
Some of the best eateries in Spain don’t take reservations. Show up early to get a table, or be prepared to wait. Some may put your name on a list while others leave it to patrons to sort out who came first. Key phrase: Perdona, quién es la última? (Excuse me, who is the last in line?)
Don’t be afraid to sit down at a dirty table. This may be rude and even unthinkable in the US but it’s fairly common here. Claim your spot and then wait awhile until the waiter has a chance to come clean off the table. Never rush him over, however!
Don’t expect English. Many menus are not even translated, those that are still prove difficult to make sense of, and most waiters do not speak very good English. Do your research beforehand. I’ll never forget going to a nice restaurant when studying abroad, desperately craving a steak, but thinking they didn’t have any after seeing the menu. I ordered something else and then watched as the entire table next to ours received big juicy steaks. That night I learned the words solomillo and ternera!
Be patient. Dining out here is a longer experience. Enjoy it. You’re not in the US for a reason— embrace the Spanish culture. And enjoy the delicious food!