I might be one of the few people who over thinks impressively about eating out, but in the United States, there are so many considerations that you have to take into account whenever you go eat at a restaurant. When you walk in, will you seat yourselves or will the hostess seat you? Can you sit at the bar/is food served at the bar/are you allowed to sit at the bar if you’re not 21? Where are the menus located – will the waitress bring you one or are they at the table or do you have to go up to the counter and grab one? How do you pay – does the waiter bring the check to your table or do you have to go up front to pay? Who can pay – does the waiter automatically split the check? Are they able to split the check? Are you able to pay in card or do you have to pay in cash? How much do you tip? What do you do with your plates when you’re done – do you leave them at the table or do you bus your trays yourself?
There are so very many factors to take into consideration that for the most part, we assume and we take for granted. We know the restaurants that are near us, we know the different styles of restaurants, and for the most part we are able to follow our old patterns and social cues in order to figure it out. There might be a few times when you’re eating at a new restaurant and you might trip up, but for the most part, everything is pretty much already sorted out for you. You know your culture, you know your location, you know your restaurants, and you know your foods.
However, I had the most difficult time going to Chile and eating out. I didn’t want to look like the idiot American who didn’t understand the culture of eating out, but yet, I stuck out like a sore thumb. All of those questions ran through my head every time I ate out. I was not familiar with the culture of eating out, I didn’t know how the wait staff operated, and I didn’t know the food.
Walking into a restaurant, sometimes you would have a waiter tell you where to sit but for the most part, you sat yourself. You could sit wherever you wanted, and eventually a waiter would come and bring you a menu. You could get a drink, but water isn’t free like it is in the United States, and it’s more common for the water to be carbonated than not carbonated, so when you ordered water, you had to order “agua sin gas” or water without carbonation. The waiter would come back with your drinks, take your order (which always seemed to have avocado or mayonnaise on it – Chileans in my area love that stuff), and then return back with your food. That would most likely be the last time you saw your waiter for the duration of your meal. It was not common to have your waiter check in every 15 minutes to make sure you’re doing okay. You would generally have to flag them down to get your check – if you paid at the table. The hardest part of eating out for me was always the check. It was always unclear to me where you paid – depending on the level of elegance of the restaurant, you could pay in so many different areas or the waiter could bring you your check. It was also a hit or miss as to whether or not they took card or your specific type of credit card, so for the most part I paid in cash (although the nicer restaurants seemed to be able to take card the majority of the time). It was also a tossup as to whether or not they could/would split your check for you. One of the nice things about cash is you can just throw it into the pot of money if they can’t split your check, or you can pay your friend back if they paid for the meal. It was also difficult to figure out how much you should tip, if you should tip at all. Sometimes it was hard to figure out that percentage rate, so I just went with the standard American tip, and that ended up working out even if I overtipped.
Meals in Chile also took longer. Life there is a lot slower and more relaxed – people take time to sip their drinks, sample their food, and enjoy peoples’ company. It’s very different from the United States, where waiters rushed you out the door to make room for the next table and where you sit in silence and just devour your food. It was a good change of pace, and definitely a learning experience.