When I sit down at a restaurant in a foreign country, I usually have one thought on my mind: How am I going to screw this up?
That’s especially true if I’m dining with family and friends. My girlfriend’s family is from Mexico, and on a recent trip to the state of Michoacan, I obsessed over etiquette for the first several days. I wanted to make a good impression -- and I didn’t want to look like a tourist. That made me a less-than-ideal traveling companion.
“Am I holding the fork right?” I asked my girlfriend, holding up a piece of carne asada with a trembling hand. “Do Mexicans even use forks for this stuff? Should I cut the meat more? Does the waiter hate me?”
“Put your hand down,” she replied. “You look like an idiot.”
I did, indeed, look like an idiot, but to my credit, I was holding the fork correctly.
Over the next week or so, I tried to study the ins and outs of Mexican dining culture without driving my companions insane. If you’re traveling to Mexico and you’re hoping to enjoy a few nice meals without committing a serious faux pas, take a deep breath: It’s not that complicated. Here’s everything you need to know.
1. Be Prepared To Eat Later
Mexicans eat dinner at around 7 p.m., sometimes later, depending on the part of the country, so if you’re used to eating earlier, you’ll probably be famished by the time you sit down for your final meal of the day. That’s a good thing, since the dinners tend to be fairly hearty, but if you’re dining with others, don’t be surprised if they show up late.
Punctuality isn’t especially important in Mexican culture, especially in urban areas like Mexico City, where buses often run a half-hour behind schedule. To some degree, that also extends to restaurant service. At some establishments, we waited 45 minutes or more for our bill, and our Mexican hosts didn’t fuss; they were enjoying the food, cervezas, and company.
That’s an important cultural trait to keep in mind when dining out. Chances are you’ll spend some time waiting for your food and bill. Relax and try not to rush the service.
2. Understand How To Tip
In many parts of the world, tipping is considered unnecessary or downright rude. That’s not the case in Mexico; you’ll want to tip for good service, especially if you’re eating in a restaurant frequented by tourists.
That said, you don’t need to tip as much as you would in an American restaurant. Ten percent is considered a decent tip, and 15 percent is appropriate for exceptional service. Don’t worry about tipping at roadside stands, and try to use cash wherever possible.
If you’re confused about whether tipping is appropriate, ask one of your fellow diners (or, if you’re not traveling with any Spanish speakers, go ahead and tip anyway).
3. Mexican Dining Etiquette Is Relaxed, But Know The Rules
Generally speaking, American tourists don’t need to worry about offending their Mexican hosts with minor etiquette mistakes. Our cultures share most of the same table manners, though if you’re eating at an especially fancy restaurant or celebrating a special occasion, you might want to brush up on the basics.
Keep your knife and fork in separate hands and don’t switch them (and don’t hold your fork up in front of everyone, asking whether you’re doing it the right way). Put your napkin on your lap, just as you would in an American restaurant.
Most importantly, don’t eat until your hosts tuck in -- Mexican people often want to say a blessing or present toasts to their guests. It’s a nice gesture, but it loses some of its luster when the guest has a mouthful of torta.
4. Learn A Few Basic Spanish Phrases
In resort towns, most restaurants have English menus, but you’re in another country -- don’t expect the locals to speak your language fluently. By speaking a little bit of Spanish, you’ll show respect to the servers and the restaurant, and you’ll have a much easier time.
We’re not going to get into a full crash course on Spanish in this article, but other than gracias and por favor, you’ll want to know the words for water (agua), “I want” (quiero), “the bill, please” (la cuenta, por favor), and “excuse me” (disculpe or perdon).
Even if you speak mangled Spanish, your servers will appreciate your attempt to fit in, and you won’t be one of those American tourists who points at the menu and grunts (yes, they exist, and yes, I was traveling with a few of them).
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Bottled Water
If you’re seriously considering a trip to Mexico, you probably know that you’re not supposed to drink the water. What you might not know is that the locals refuse tap water, too. Unless they have access to a private well or other source of clean drinking water, they buy the bottled stuff.
With that in mind, ordering bottled water (una botella de agua) won’t make you look like a foreigner. Ice is usually safe, especially at restaurants and resorts, since it’s typically made with purified water.
While we’re on the subject of Mexican plumbing (a favorite subject of mine, and one of the reasons I’m not invited to many dinner parties), know that some smaller Mexican restaurants don’t offer public restrooms, and some charge small fees to use their facilities.
6. Ask About Local Favorites
Mexican cuisine is spectacularly versatile, and every part of the country has its own specialty dishes. While you might be tempted to order tacos or fajitas at every meal, resist the urge. (Fajitas, by the way, were probably invented in Texas, though they’re now popular in some parts of Mexico.)
In Northern Mexico, you’ll want to try the burritos and rich cheeses like requeson and cuajada. You can’t leave Guadalajara without trying birria, a meaty stew with chili peppers. Michoacan and other Bajio states have morisquesta, a sausage and rice dish, while the Gulf region is known for its seafood and Caribbean-inspired fare. We’re just scratching the surface -- every region has an outstanding variety of options for every palate.
To truly dive into the country’s culinary culture, ask your hosts or servers for recommendations.
7. Prepare In Advance If You Have Dietary Restrictions
I love trying to speak Spanish (heavy emphasis on “trying”), but given that Mexican restaurants typically work with massive amounts of ingredients in relatively small spaces, I wouldn’t trust my mediocre language skills if I had serious allergies.
The Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization offers free chef cards in Spanish for travelers with allergies and dietary restrictions. Download and print the card, and you’ll be able to travel with confidence.
While we’re on the subject, if you don’t like spicy food, be sure to tell your server. Speaking up can save you from some torturous dining experiences, though if you love spicy food, you’ll be right at home.
8. Insist On Paying The Bill (And Don’t Split Checks)
If you’re dining with others, you should try to pay, even if you’re a guest; the host will probably refuse your offer, but it’s a polite gesture. If you actually do want to pay, you might have to insist several times before the matter is resolved. For Americans, this can be slightly frustrating, but it’s part of the culture.
Don’t try to simplify the situation by going Dutch. Outside of resort areas (and even within some resort areas), restaurants don’t split bills, and asking for separate checks will confuse and irritate your servers. Settle up with your friends after you’ve left the restaurant.
Eating out is one of the most exciting parts of traveling, and Mexican dining culture isn’t too difficult for Americans. Whether you’re dining with your fellow travelers or Mexican nationals, a little common sense goes a long way. Provided that you observe the local etiquette and plan to spend a significant amount of time at the restaurant, you’ll be just fine.