Friday, April 20, 2012

A to Z: Restaurant Culture Shock

What's the etiquette for restaurants where you live? Never thought about it? If you've traveled to different countries, you've probably noticed there are some variations.

Before I came to Curaçao, I considered myself culturally sophisticated. I'd been to Europe, lived outside Mexico as a child, grew up with a father who was essentially a citizen of the world and valued the different much more than the average Mexican.

I was naive, and spoiled. Because, for all that traveling, I hadn't really stepped out of my comfort zone.

The "we're not in Kansas anymore" moment for me arrived a few months after moving to Curaçao. I realized that the bad service that left me aghast here wasn't all negligence and lack of manners--some of it was cultural.

In Mexico, when you're at a restaurant--and it doesn't really matter how expensive--the service is outstanding. If you've been to Mexico you know what I'm talking about (or you can read this post). Waiters hover unobtrusively, changing ashtrays a split second after a millimeter of ash lands in them, refilling water glasses swiftly and without spilling a single drop, at your side the moment you look around for them.

Yeah... That doesn't happen in Curaçao. Here, if a waiter hovers, it's to interrupt an obviously important conversation with "is everything all right?" as soon as you've put a forkful of food into your mouth. If you needed something--if, say, you'd been looking around for someone for the past ten minutes to ask for extra mayo or a spoon for your pasta--you now have no choice but to silently gesture or shake your head. Needless to say, they'll walk away before you have a chance to swallow that mouthful and actually speak. And it'll be impossible to catch their eye again.

It can't be on purpose. Right?

But it's not just that. It's the little things. Like, for example, how soon empty plates are removed from the table.

If you live in the US or Mexico, you're probably used, like me, to having your plate taken away a few seconds after you put your fork and knife down together on it.

Here? Plates are left on the table forever, sometimes even after the check is paid. No, really.

It's not laziness or bad service. Turns out, it's rude to remove empty plates from the table. For Dutch people (and for Curaçaoans, by extension), removing the plates equates cleaning up, which equates "get out of here".

That's taken some getting used to.

At dinner parties, for example, at someone's home, the same principle applies. Empty plates, smeared with sauces and the last bits of whatever the meal was, are left on the table as a sign that the party's still going on. At my place, I clear stuff up immediately--and then have to explain and get people to sit back down, because they think I want them to leave.

As weird as that is for me, I do get it. I actually know how they feel.

In the US, it's common practice in restaurants to get the check without asking for it, once you've said you don't need anything else. The first time that happened to me, once I was old enough to pay checks myself and thus notice when the leather rectangle was delivered to the table, I was flabbergasted. So rude, to kick people out like that.

Yeah, you guessed it: in Mexico it is most certainly not done. In Mexico, one asks for the check, and until you do, it is not brought to the table. Because it is considered a dismissal, a veiled request for the customer to leave. A few decades ago, restaurant waiters and managers might have been shot over a gaffe like this.

So... I do my best nowadays, when I have people over for a meal, to clench my hands under the table and not look at the dirty plates on the table. I'm getting better--last time I managed to leave them in place for five whole minutes.


  1. Oh golly have you sought out counciling for your Asperger's ?

    I bet you are dying to clear away the table aren't you?

    I guess that if you were engrossed in the conversation going on then you wouldn't be so het up over the flat ware being still in attendance.

    Hey what do I know, I'm like you, half expecting everyone to know me and my culture...

    Having traveled extensively too I understand that in Spain for example, they never rush you and even when you ask for the check, they take an age.
    Britain is completely different. You come in, eat and leave within about 30-40 minutes. And woah betide the waiters if they make you wait for a second. Its only at Macdonalds where the ettiquet slips....woops...!!

    Hope you got my other message.
    Hugs and loads of love.


    1. Hey there,

      Thanks for stopping over at the blog earlier today :) Haha--did you mean OCD? Asperger's syndrome is somewhat different :) My boyfriend would love it if I had a bit more OCD characteristics, haha, but unfortunately it's limited to quirky stuff like clearing empty plates.

      I did get your "other" message, via G+, and I replied--I'm assuming you didn't get my reply, so I must've done something wrong. Sorry about that!

      Have a great day!

  2. Really interesting to read. My husband hates it when a waiter grabs his plate away when he has only paused for a moment to say something. He considers that very rude of the waiter. And it can be annoying. I suppose it's what you grow used to... Thanks for sharing. We've visited Curacao and enjoyed our stay there.


    1. Monti, you've been here? That's so awesome--it's so rare to find people who've been to Curacao. Mostly I get the clueless look and a "is that Brazil?" Hahaha. To be fair, when I came here, I *also* thought I was going to Brazil--had never even heard of the place.

      Indeed, restaurant etiquette varies everywhere, and it has a lot to do with personal preference. Glad you stopped by and joined the conversation!

  3. Interesting look a cultural differences. We Americans can be an impatient lot. When I go out to eat I'm not interested in a dining experience. I go because I'm hungry. Feed me, bring me my bill, and let me go. I've got things to do and I don't need to be sitting in a restaurant.
    However, if I with friends and want to linger around the table for awhile I don't want to be rushed out. When dining out I'm paying for food and the service that goes with it. If it's not carryout then I expect the waitstaff to cater to my whims and look after me with great care. I tip well when this falls into place.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

    1. Lee, so true--the more hectic the lifestyle, the lower the standards of efficiency in service. Still, like you say, if you're out with friends having a *gezellige* evening (check my post for G), you want to take your time, do what we Mexicans call *sobremesa* (linger over the table once the meal is done, chatting), and an "efficient" waiter might get in the way of that.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your input :)

  4. I'm a Brit living in South Africa and my big bug bear here is the speed at which plates are removed once the last forkful has entered the mouth. In England it is considered rude to remove a plate until all the diners have finished. Here the plate is gone the nanosecond the plate is clear. I guess it's a clash of cultures but thankfully the best restaurant in town and our favourite is owned and managed by a Brit who has trained his staff properly.

    No doubt I need therapy too.

    1. That's good insight, Dino--so England is like Holland, no plates removed until "the end", and South Africa is much more Mexican (and American, maybe, too?) in its etiquette. It's hard, isn't it, to keep it from getting to you even though you know they're not being "rude" on purpose. I've learned to control it, but it still bothers me. When you find a therapist to "cure" you, please let me know--I obviously need the same treatment :D

      Glad you stopped by!

  5. I so would love to go to Curacao!

    I really dislike hovering waiters and waiters who grab your plate the moment the fork rests on the plate.

    I had a good laugh about the waiter only be there if you put your fork in your mouth. I had one such waiter once, the moment I walked out of the restaurant the giggles got me, and I giggled all the way home.

    he made me think of Manuel of fawlty towers fame

    1. You definitely have to come, Sylvie--I think you'd like it :) Aside from crappy service, there's lots of cool things here (and gorgeous beaches). Haha--yes, the waiter arriving just as your mouth is full is a classic, and the comparison with Manuel--"I know nothing, I'm from Barcelona"--is PERFECT!

      Thanks for stopping by :)

  6. It has bothered me, in the past, when the check comes ridiculously soon. And I'm talking about the waitstaff putting the check down with the meal! Makes me order dessert. I'm serious. I will order dessert if they do that -- and if I have the time, I'll linger over the coffee.

    1. Whoa--with the meal??? That I haven't seen (yet), but I'd definitely order dessert, a couple of liqueurs with coffee, and then maybe another dessert just to pick at, haha!

  7. Interesting insights into cultural etiquette. My dad's a stickler when it comes to restaurant service. He may have to be warned about Curacao!

    J.C. Martin
    A to Z Blogger

    1. Haha--definitely warn him about Curacao :D

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Dropped in for the A to Z...

    Those little differences in expectations are a minefield, aren't they?

  9. I would love to be in Curacao! I hate it when my plate gets whipped away (Canadian / North American style), and have no problem at all with them being left on the table. Mexican waiters sound...eerie, in a way, like it's a whole art there. Amazing.

    A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist

  10. I must have a bit of Dutch in me then because not only do I dislike having my plate cleared (because it feel disruptive) but I also don't like to ask for the check (just leave it unobtrusively at the edge of the table for me). Yeah, I'm a paradox!!! But I've never thought about the cultural differences... it's been a long time since I've traveled internationally (unfortunately).

  11. Five whole minutes huh :) we'll you are making progress. Never thought about the difference in restaurant culture.

  12. I've never really thought of serving differences, it's certainly interesting.

  13. another -good to know- post for when I start traveling the world :)- I am so behind on reading/commenting/visiting blogs, but made a point to peruse yours, you always have such great information.


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