Dining in Mexico - Etiquette Tips to Know Before You Go
Conscientious visitors to Mexico may appreciate knowing some of the etiquette relative to dining so here are my observations after over three decades of travel to this fascinating country.
Probably the biggest difference between eating in Mexico as compared to its northern neighbors of the USA and Canada is dining is primarily a social event. In my experience there is always a lengthy period between the time you meet up for dinner and the time you actually start putting food in your mouth; this time is taken up by - the very important in Mexican culture - conversation and cocktails.
Note that drinking excessively is generally frowned upon in Mexico; pace yourself as appropriate for the situation. “Cheers!” in Spanish is “Salud!” (say “Sah-lood!” with the accent on the last syllable). Mexico is still a macho society and typically men only offer toasts.
Since I’m a gringo and grew up with the norm that “I’m at the restaurant, I’m hungry and I want to eat now”, I usually have a little something to eat before leaving to tide me over before meeting Mexican business associates, family or friends for a meal. I know from experience it will likely be a couple of hours after we get together before we actually eat whether at a restaurant or somebody’s house.
Also related to the start of a meal is determining what time to show up. You might be told that the restaurant reservation is for 7:00 or to show up at somebody’s house at 7:00. I don’t want to go into a discussion about the concept of Mexican time here, but if you don’t clarify the time and actually show up at 7:00 you might discover your acquaintances aren’t even there yet or your host is still in the shower. They might not show up for another hour or so. Best to ask, when given a time to meet, whether it is “Tiempo Mexicano” (Mexican time – subject to a wide standard deviation) or “Tiempo Americano” (American time – be there at the specified time).
Many Mexicans make some of their first impressions of people by how they are dressed. If you are going out to dinner with Mexicans or dining/visiting for the first time in a Mexican home then business attire is recommended unless somebody tells you otherwise. Fancy restaurants in the big cities often have dress codes where men are expected to wear a jacket and tie. By the way if you choose to bring flowers to your host’s home do not bring yellow flowers as these are associated with funerals.
Typically the main meal of the day is taken mid-day in Mexico although that is not a hard and fast rule. No matter what time of day dining takes place you can count on it taking a long time. Why? Again the social norm in Mexico is that dining is an event meant to be enjoyed with your family and friends. Rushing through your meal can be interpreted as meaning that you want to get out of there and not enjoy the company. Not good.
There will typically be somebody in the role of host. When asked to come to the table, wait for the host to invite you to sit. Before putting fork to food wait for the host to take his or her first bite. Waiters or the host may say “Buen Provecho!”. It is a way of saying “Enjoy your meal!” and the polite reply is “Provecho!” (“Pro-vay-cho” with accent on second syllable).
Something else that is a little different in Mexico is what you do with your hands at the dining table. Most gringos grew up with Mom telling them to keep hands and elbows off the table and put hands in lap when not eating. In Mexico the custom is to keep your wrists above or resting on the table, keeping your hands visible at all times and never in your lap. By the way elbows on the table are frowned on by Mexican moms, just like your own mom back home.
As mentioned before, the dining experience will likely take a lot longer than you may be used to. If somebody chooses to order a bottle of booze for the table, you will be sitting there until the bottle is empty. Pace yourself. As the main meal draws to a close try to remember to leave a little bit of food on the plate. Contrary to what your Mom told you about cleaning your plate and starving children somewhere in the world, finishing everything on your plate in Mexico is considered sort of rude.
Better restaurants will have bottled water available. I also don’t hesitate to eat salads in better restaurants (note that the salad course may follow the entrée) or worry about ice in drinks. Mexicans don’t want to get sick anymore than you do.
Following the meal you will likely be offered dessert followed by after-dinner drinks such as a cognac or other cordials. Then perhaps a round of coffee – Café Americano is your regular cup-o-Joe. Café Irlandes (Irish Coffee) with a shot of whisky is popular as well.
Taking care of the check is another part of dining out in Mexico that has a few differences from what you may be used to back home. First off it is typically considered tasteless to split the bill – we gringos call it “Going Dutch” and Mexicans call it “Going American”. If you are invited out to a meal you can generally assume that your host is taking care of the bill. If you invite people to a meal it is assumed you are picking up the tab for everybody. There might be some good natured arguing among friends and family about who is going to pay but ultimately somebody pays the entire bill.
In Mexico when dining out the table is yours until you decide to leave. It is considered very rude for a waiter to drop off the check until somebody at the table asks for it. To do otherwise implies that the restaurant just wants your money and to turn over the table. Tourists are generally unaware of this important piece of Mexican etiquette and frustratingly report on lousy service when it came time to pay the bill. If you want the check you must ask for it – the way to do it like a Mexican is to catch the waiter’s eye and make a hand motion as if signing something while asking for “La cuenta, por favor” (Check please).
When you eat in a sit-down restaurant in Mexico plan a before tax tip of 10% to 15% or even more if the service at a high class restaurant was extraordinary. However if you are in a tourist restaurant double-check to see if a service charge has already been included (“Servicio”). Bartenders in Mexico expect the peso equivalent of roughly a dollar a drink as tips. If you take good care of your Mexican bartender he will take good care of you, often buying you a round or providing complimentary snacks (“botanas”).
If circumstances are such where you feel compelled to reciprocate somebody for a meal, invite them to dinner to a nice upscale restaurant (French, Italian or a good Steakhouse are excellent choices; many Mexicans don’t particularly care for Asian cuisines but you can ask). To avoid any discussion about the bill just speak with the headwaiter (who probably knows some English in the better places) and ask that the check be discretely given to you when the time comes.