Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dining Differences

And yet another post on cultural differences...

Yesterday when eating at a restaurant with my parents, four major differences came to mind when I think about dining out in a Spanish restaurant as opposed to an American one.

1. They "go Dutch"
I have probably mentioned this before, but I will say it again since it fits into this list... The Spanish always split checks evenly at restaurants. It isn´t just my host family, either, since I remember discussing it with my grammar teacher in Alicante. Whenever we go to a restaurant and the check comes, we look at the amount, round up to the next euro, then split it by however many people there are at the table. 30 euros for ten people? Okay, everyone hand over your 3 euros. It doesn´t matter if I only had the coke and that person had three beers and patatas bravas. You don´t want to come off as cheap, trying to split every penny into random amounts so I pay 1.25 and that person pays 5.87. It´s just not how it works. Honestly, it is really nice, since it takes the annoying 10-minute math ordeal out of the way, and the coming up short (wait, you only paid 8 and you need to pay 11. We're short by 3.75. Who didn´t pay?) is never an issue. And it just seems classier. You don´t come off as the cheapie who is saying they at the salad and only needs to pay 5 dollars and the t-bone steak dude needs to pay his proper 18. I will admit, I am definitely the cheapie in the states. Yet here, I don´t feel bothered at all by this tradition. The dining out experience is about chatting with friends, catching up and having a good time. It´s not about saving money or eating less or more. The focus is on the company, and paying the bill in 30 seconds allows you to enjoy it more.

2. No sharing
I love sharing food. Unless, of course, I have the best pulled pork sandwich ever on my plate. Then you need to keep your hands off or I´ll bite off a finger.
When I eat dinner with friends or family, there is always some sort of sharing involved. "This salad is amazing! Wanna bite?" "Don´t mind if I do!" There is always reaching across the table for a french fry, a sip of that fruity cocktail, a dip in that yummy sauce...
Same with my family. We eat at a restaurant and often switch plates around towards the end. My dad purposefully never orders the same as someone else at the table because we plan on trying a bit of everything and he doesn´t want to limit us to one less dish of options!
Here in Spain (and other European cultures) this is a bit unheard of. In Switzerland, my parents and I did our usual plate rotation, and the waiter came by and thought something was wrong since my mom no longer had her pasta, I no longer had my ravioli, and my dad no longer had his veal. We must have switched our plates because we all were disappointed with what we got, right? I tried to tell the waiter we were just trying a bit of everything, but he stared at me with a blank face: a combination of confusion, language barriors and cultural barriors.

3. No Leftovers
When I went out with Cristina and her friends to a pizza place, I had a couple slices left that I wanted to take home. I asked for a carry out box for the leftovers, and Cristina and her friends were like, "Um, they might not have that here." Yes, plenty of restaurants do carry out...but they usually don´t do those "leftover boxes" that we are so used to. The waitress said "Let me see what I can do" and came back from the kitchen with a full-size pizza box for the two slices. That´s the best they had, since sometimes people order pizza to go. Can you imagine going to any sit down restaurant in the states, having leftover food and being told "I don´t know if we have anything for you to take that home in." Seriously, that would be unheard of.

4. No personalization
As someone who has worked as a waitress at a restaurant and at a Coldstone creamery, I can tell you on behalf of all waiters/waitresses everywhere that personalization is the bane of any server's existence.
"I´ll have the crazy tacos. Are those spicy? Yes? Then no spicy sauce. And can you swap the cheddar cheese for mozzarella cheese? And no refried beans, can I have extra chips in its place? I know the rice is pre-mixed, but can someone pick out the green peppers? I hate green food. And no mole sauce, of course. I'll have french fries if you can't do the rice thing. And can I have a side of BBQ sauce and ranch sauce on the side if you DO bring french fries? And I'll have a Diet coke, no ice, with two lemons and a lime."
Yes, seriously, people do this. Hell, I order a side of BBQ with pretty much everything I eat that has red meat, pig meat, or fries.
And when a restaurant is super busy, that one person will ruin the entire order of everything because you have to enter that into the computer, then run to the kitchen and let the chef know that you may or may not murder the lady at table 6, but to call an ambulance just in case.

I have never once heard anyone order anything super specific. They just order, and they are done. "Hi, we'll have patatas bravas, grilled eggplant, morro, and three Cokes." Done. Food ordered. Never, ever, ever, with all the people I have gone to restaurants with over the three times I´ve been here, has there ever been a person who took more than 5 seconds to say what they want to eat. As we would say to campers "You get what you get and you don't get upset!"
I also like this, because then it´s a fair way to judge your waitress/kitchen speed. In the states, NO DUH it takes 45 minutes to prepare your different cheese, no sauce, extra chips, no peppers, non-marinated chicken tacos. If you order straight off the menu, you get your food faster, and then can judge your waitress fairly on her laziness, crankiness and 20 minute smoke break.

Oh, and side note: We order morro everywhere we go as an appetizer. Remember in that one food post about the crunchy, chewy, fried gross mystery meat that I ate and had to swallow whole with a chunk of bread so as not to gag?

That was morro.

And morro is fried, chopped pig snout.

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