An American Walks into a Portuguese Restaurant
A funny thing happens...
I happened to walk into a Portuguese restaurant this week with a Portuguese man who has been living in the US for many years. He was leading a small tour group throughout Portugal and only had 60 minutes allotted for lunch. I suggested he let the server know. His puzzled look told me he had been living in the States too long.
You will notice several differences when you dine in Portugal. The first we noticed was what time people ate. Lunch typically started no earlier than 12:30. The evening meal was in the evening…typically no earlier than 19:30. (I am reminded of my parents, who were in their 80’s at the time, visiting Denise and me in Florida. They still owned their home in Delaware and were spending a week with us. My mother started fidgeting at 16:30 (4:30 pm). I thought she needed her evening cocktail. But no, she was worried because I wasn’t setting the dinner table. When I hadn’t started preparing dinner by 17:00 (5 pm) I think she thought I had lost my mind. “What time were you planning on eating?”, she asked. “Oh I don’t know…6:30-7,” I responded. I spoke American then. But I digress…) My point is, my mother would have had a difficult time adapting to Portugal.
Of course, later meal times are not unique to Portugal. I can’t speak with authority about the whole of Europe…but those countries we have visited dine later than most Americans. We have adapted…though we typically are the early diners. 19:30 or 20:00 in the evening. Our Portuguese friends put up with our need for the first seating…the early bird special so to speak. If we have a late lunch, we skip dinner entirely…well we actually have some cheese, crusty bread, and wine (at home) instead. We are so continental.
The second difference also relates to time…i.e. how long the meal will take. I was having lunch with two American’s last weekend. One had been in Portugal for just a few months, the other was on a scouting trip. When the meal was not delivered to the table within minutes of our order I had to remind them we were in Portugal. If you want fast service, there are McDonald’s and Burger King (both unfortunate additions to the Portuguese restaurant scene). Otherwise, assume there is no hurry. Mealtime is more than a time to consume calories…it is a time for social interaction. People can, and do, actually speak to one another during a meal. It is possible… really, I have seen it with my own eyes…to have a meal without looking at your cellphone or your watch.
And even if drinks and food are delivered quickly to your table, in nearly every case a check will not be. Typically you must ask the server for your bill. Even if you answer “no thank you” when dessert is offered, the server seldom places the bill on the table until requested. The expectation is that you will linger, talk, laugh…savor your time with one another.
[Note: when we were coming out of Covid lockdown restaurant serving times were limited. Twice during these weeks, we were told somewhat apologetically that they would need the table again at 21:30. But this is not typical.]
So far, we have found the servers to be incredibly honest. I don’t mean to suggest that American servers are not honest, it is just that a majority of a server’s compensation is derived from tips … as such, servers have a tendency to increase the check. Perhaps their employer instructs them to, but in my experience, if I asked the server to help me choose between Option 1 or 2, they would most often choose the more expensive of the dishes. In my experience, the server in Portugal doesn’t consider price when offering advice. They also tell you when you are ordering too much food. During a recent lunch, the server suggested we didn’t need a second appetizer. “I think you will have too much food. Why not just start with this…”
(Please note: I am not criticizing American servers. When I was a mere teen I tried my darnedest to be a waitress. I had the gold polyester uniform with the white apron and a hairnet on my head that made me look like Ruth Buzzy. I was perhaps the worst waitress of all time. I could never get the order right. I once served a BLT to a Hasidic Jew that requested a lettuce and tomato sandwich. I added insult to injury, by removing the bacon and trying to serve it to him again. I was a stupid kid...and had not yet taken Comparative Religions. Because I was a nice kid, i.e. I showed up on time, the restaurant tried to work with me. They gave me fewer tables…I couldn’t handle it. They put me on the sandwich counter…there was some improvement, enough to keep me employed. But I sucked! So suffice it to say, a good server is a very talented person. They can make a meal wonderful or miserable. They should be better compensated!)
Speaking of Tipping
Finally, let’s talk about tips. In the States, my base for mediocre service was 20%. Denise, who was once a server at her parent’s restaurant, often argued with me. She felt that 20% was for good service and that generally, I tipped too much. So when moving to Portugal I was conflicted. I was used to tipping at least 20% but knew that that was not customary in Portugal. I will admit that my tips are more in the 10% range today…only tipping more when the service is truly exceptional. I wonder what do other American expats do? Let me know…