MADRID, March 29, 20121—All restaurants are different and it is bad to generalize, but I’ll do it anyway. I’ve been in Spain for three months and already have at least some idea of the standard procedure for dining out in Spain.
I always find a table outside, where it is most agreeable. For one, there is no better complement to your gazpacho than a generous waft of car exhaust. Secondly, eating on a sturdy, level table only makes eating a bore. I find myself waiting for a while before a server generally looks in my direction or decides to approach me. It is understandable though, since I often enjoy going to restaurants simply to watch others eat.
Who is supposed to be the “waiter” here?
Now, I would not say I am the most patient person in the world. In fact, when I flip through television channels and there is a lag of about .2 seconds longer than usual, I read a book. I can flip a page in half the time.
Due to my impatience, I realized that the most effective signal for grabbing a server’s attention involves flailing your arms above your head. Mission accomplished.
In America, seating yourself is almost a crime. This is because American servers carve up restaurants, claiming small sections as if playing a game of Monopoly. Ever try to get a different waiter to attend to you? It is almost impossible. If they don’t completely ignore you, they will usually just tell you they will find your original server. In my opinion, it is much easier to find a side of honey mustard than to track down a moving person.
An American waiter wants you to know that he and only he will be your server and often states that: “Hi, I’m John and I’ll be your server today.” They clearly don’t do this out of cordiality because never has anyone said to me: “Hi, I’m John and I’ll be your server today. What’s your name?”
Anyway, Spanish waiters couldn’t care less where you sit or if you know their name. Sometimes, they just say “Díme” or “tell me.” Why the frankness? It is not customary to tip in Spanish restaurants. Basically, a Spanish server cannot make money from claiming the frequently fought over “Boardwalk.” They just have to wait until they pass “Go.”
The Spanish server will eventually approach your table to take your order. I almost always order the menú del día, a first course, second course, dessert, wine and bread, which you can get for cheaper than €12. Sure America has specials of the day, but these are usually whatever the chef finds unmarked and undated in the walk-in. Why do you think the soup of the day is sometimes all-you-can-eat? They are racing the expiration date on that one.
Otherwise, the daily special is something that they will make a lot of money on. Have you ever noticed that “chef’s salads” are usually nothing more than lettuce, tomato, onion and maybe that dry carrot-confetti stuff? If you have ever seen a chef, you know that they rarely eat salads. Think about it.
In the United States, water is a standard component of a meal and tap water is always available, served in a large cup with ice and, sometimes, even lemon wedge. Spanish restaurants hate to serve tap water and almost always bring you bottled. Once, I asked for water for the table at one restaurant and I had to ask the waiter twice to go back for more since he brought one small cup at a time. I understand that there is a drought in Spain, but all they have to do is turn a knob, not pump a well. A waiter in Toledo told me that their water was not even drinkable. I’ve seen people purify water on “Survivor” on a deserted island without a Brita filter. If it’s possible on reality television, it must be possible in reality.
I have not risked asking for ice yet.
Spaniards are cheap with their “napkins” too, which I quote because they are nothing of the sort. Imagine the cheapest American napkins possible, the ones you can see through. Spanish napkins are far worse; the material is somewhat between wax paper and tissue paper. Crumpling a Spanish napkin makes an audible sound and they often end up on the ground, crumpled and disowned.
I do welcome the simplicity that Spanish restaurants offer. If you order a salad, they don’t give you a list including: Ranch, Caesar, Italian, Bleu cheese, Thousand island, Balsamic vinaigrette, Honey mustard, French and Greek. In Spain, you get oil and vinegar. If you ask for beer, they will just bring you beer and Coca-Cola is just that, while in America I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone say: “I’ll have a Coke Zero, decaffeinated, from a can, top open for 13 seconds for optimal carbonization level, shaken not stirred, with a bendy straw, a rosemary sprig and ice. Could you make that vanilla-flavored?”
Regarding service style, neither country is better, merely different. Now, if I had to give one tip about dining in Spain, something that would save you a lot of trouble, it would be—
Oh wait, I’m not required to give one.
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