Being able to confidently order food in public can serve as better proof of your Spanish fluency than any official exam. To pass this trial by fire you'll need to know not only the right words, but also the unspoken cultural norms of the country you're in. Since most textbooks tend to completely ignore this crucial information, we'll explore it in depth here.
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Unfortunately, the only cultural norms I know like the back of my hand are those from Spain, so this article will be much more Spain-centric than I'd like. This is not a big deal, because the basics are the same in every flavor of Spanish. If you do most of your food-ordering in a different country, you should get hyperlocal translations from one of your native friends to sound 100% native. That's what I've done with a few of my Mexican, Colombian and Peruvian friends (see the bonus dialogue section at the end). If you have any other local translations, feel free to share them in the comments.
So, for the rest of the article, let's assume you're somewhere along the coast of Spain, it's early night (10pm) and there's a gentle breeze. You and your friends have just picked a table in a terraza (bar/restaurant with outdoor seating) overlooking the sea, and a man wearing black pants and a white short-sleeved shirt comes up to you with a notebook in hand.
Regardless of whether you're standing inside or sitting outside, the first thing you should do is greet the waiter and your fellow patrons (let them know you got this Spanish thing down). You can start with:
—Hola, buenas."Hi, good (ones)"
—Muy buenas. Ahora mismo os preparo una mesita."Very good (ones indeed). Right now I prepare you a table (diminutives are just affectionate flourishes)."
Buenas works as a stand-in for buenas tardes (good afternoons), buenas noches (good nights), and also for buenos días (good (days / morning)), even if it doesn't make any sense because días is masculine. You can use buenas anytime you want to acknowledge someone's presence without necessarily getting into a full-on conversation about how their weekend went.
Pro tip: If you want to expand your greeting repertoire, notice how other people greet the waiter and write down any confusing or unfamiliar expressions. They might range from the casual ¿Qué pasa, Paco? (What's up, Paco?), to the more formal Hola, buenas noches a todos (Hello, good nights to everyone).
If the waiter doesn't explicitly ask you what you'd like to drink or eat, proactively tell him:
—¿Nos pones dos cañas y un tinto de verano, por favor?"Do you put us two (glasses of beer) and a summer red wine (glass), please?"
—¡Marchando!"(Marching / Coming right up)!"
Pro tip: Don't order sangria. Look up a recipe and make it at home yourself. If you're outside, copy the locals and order tintos de verano.
We'll talk about it more in the tú vs. usted section, but you must convince your English mind to stop reaching for have (as in "Can I have…?") and focus on using poner and traer (¿Me puedes poner/traer una cerveza?).
There is a subtle difference between these ordering verbs:If you're ordering real food or drinks, you can use both, poner or traer.If you're ordering other things that are far away from the waiter (the menu, the check, a fork, a slice of lemon), use traer.
(Also, if you're asking for things that are close to the waiter, use dar.)
If you prefer using tomar for ordering real food or drinks, do not ask for permission (¿Puedo tomar…?); instead, say what's going to happen:
—Buenas, pareja. ¿Qué vais a tomar?"Good (ones), (couple / two people). What are you going to have?"
—Yo voy a tomar un té, gracias."I'm going to have a tea, thanks."
—Y a mí me pones un cortado."And (to me) put me an espresso"
¿Usted o tú?
This distinction is highly country-specific, but let's highlight a few universal points:No one will feel deeply insulted if you use tú instead of usted, so relax and have fun with it.Instead of putting all your creative energy on appearing polite, focus on noticing how the waiter addresses you. Once you develop the ability to pick up on whether you're being tuteado (addressed using tú) or not, you'll instantly know which one you should be using.If you're much more comfortable saying either tú or usted, practice using the other one. Once you're equally comfortable with both, you'll have no problem switching, and all the politeness-induced anxiety will magically disappear.
Besides conjugating verbs with usted, you can squeeze in a lot of politeness into your interactions by disguising your commands as questions:
—¿Me traes un vasito de agua, cuando puedas?"Bring me a glass of water, whenever you're able?"
In English, it's much more common to make polite requests by talking about your innermost wishes and desires (can I have…?, may I have…?, could I have…?).
"I"-focused requests sound pretty weird in Spanish (¿podría tener…?, quisiera tener…, me gustaría tener…); instead, we focus on what we want the other person to do (¿me traes…?, ¿me puedes traer…?, ¿me podrías traer…?).
Anyway, the default in most bars and restaurants in Spain is to use tú, so let's stick to that for the rest of the article.
No sé qué pedirI don't know what to order
If you never got a menu, or if you're overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) by the number of choices, you can always ask the waiter:
—Perdona, ¿nos traes la carta, por favor?"(Forgive / excuse me), do you bring us the menu, please?"
—Aquí tenéis. Si no habéis probado las croquetas de chipirones, os las recomiendo."Here you go. If you haven't tried the baby squid croquettes, I recommend them to you."
—¿Vegetariano no tenéis nada?"Vegetarian (dishes), you don't have anything?"
—Vegetariano tenemos la torta de champiñones y el calabacín al horno."Vegetarian (dishes) we have (are) the mushroom cake and the (zucchini at the oven / baked zucchini)."
To explicitly ask for recommendations, notice what the waiter said above (os recomiendo…), and turn it into a question: ¿Qué nos recomiendas? (What do you recommend to us?).
To get useful recommendations, you should always provide a constraint:
—Estoy entre el pez espada y la lubina. ¿Qué me recomiendas?"I'm between the swordfish and the European sea bass. What do you recommend to me?"
—Las dos están muy buenas. Pero la lubina es la especialidad de la casa. La hacemos al horno, con un poco de hinojo y sal. Os va a encantar."They are both very good. But the European sea bass is the house specialty. We (make it at the oven / bake it), with a bit of fennel and salt. You're going to love it."
Who's doing the ordering?
Once you're ready to order, you have two options: fending for yourself or speaking on behalf of the group.
Ordering for yourself is pretty simple: just say para mí and whatever item you've chosen.
—Para mí, una presa ibérica.."For me, the pork shoulder steak."
—Una presa ibérica… ¿Y para ti?"A pork shoulder steak… And for you?"
—Para mí, la tortilla de trufa."For me, the truffle omelette."
—Y una tortilla de trufa… Muy bien. Ahora mismo os traigo un poco de pan."And a truffle omelette… Very (well / good). Right (now / away) I bring you (a bit of / some) bread."
Ordering when you're the chosen representative of your group is not that hard either—just tell the waiter what's going to happen:
—Mira, vamos a pedir tres raciones para compartir."Look, we're going to order three portions to share."
—Perfecto. Vosotros diréis."Perfect. (You will say / let me know) (what you want)."
—Pues una de pulpo, una de huevos rotos y ¿paella tenéis?"(So, it's going to be) one (portion) of octopus, one of broken eggs, and paella do you have (it)?"
—No, lo siento. Solo los domingos."No, (I feel (bad about) it / I'm sorry). Only (the / on) Sundays."
—Vale, pues entonces una de salmorejo."Okay, so then one (portion) of (tomato and bread purée)."
Pro tip: If you see a menu like the one above, you'll sometimes be able to order things in three sizes (from smallest to largest): una tapa (a snack), una media ración (a half portion), or una ración (a portion). When people say "vámonos de tapas" (let's go eat some tapas), what they actually mean is "vámonos de raciones" (let's go eat some portions).
¿Cómo va todo?How are things going?
—A ver por aquí… ¿Les falta alguna cosita?"Let's see around here (in this table)… Are you missing any little thing?"
Pop quiz: is the waiter asking you in usted-mode or in tú-mode?
You should respond appropriately:
—¿Me podrías traer otro tenedor, por favor? Es que se me ha caído."Could you (tú) bring me another fork, please? (The thing is) that it has fallen (from me)."
—¿Me podría traer otro tenedor, por favor? Es que se me ha caído."Could you (usted) bring me another fork, please? (The thing is) that it has fallen (from me)."
I recommend reserving podría (conditional, usted) for very polite requests (or for asking favors that make you feel slightly guilty), and making puedes (present, tú) your default, since it sits somewhere in the middle of the politeness ladder:
—¿Le podría decir a su hijo que deje de tirarme patatas fritas?"(conditional, usted): Could you tell your son to stop throwing (at) me French fries?"
—¿Le puede decir a su hijo que deje de tirarme patatas fritas?"(present, usted): Can you…"
—¿Le puedes decir a tu hijo que deje de tirarme patatas fritas?"(present, tú): Can you…"
—Dígale a su hijo que deje de tirarme patatas fritas."(imperative, usted): Tell your son…"
—Dile a tu hijo que deje de tirarme patatas fritas."(imperative, tú): Tell your son…"
If you feel the need to go lower, just decorate hijo with your favorite adjective.
Paying and leaving
If the waiter keeps ignoring you while you try to pull out your textbook-Spanish check-ordering sentence, try using this one:
—Perdona. (Brazo subido. Contacto visual.) La cuenta cuando puedas. (Cejas levantadas. Firmita en el aire.)"Forgive (me). (Arm raised. Eye contact.) The bill whenever you're able. (Raised eyebrows. Little signing motion in the air)."
If it's a slow night and the waiter has all the time in the world to chat with you, you can be a bit more roundabout and talk about how good the food was (Estaba todo buenísimo, Everything was (very good / delicious)), or ask him if it's possible to take the leftovers home (¿Me podrías poner esto para llevar, por favor?, Could we take this to go, please?), and then ask for the check like a boss:
—¿Nos puedes traer la cuenta, cuando puedas?"Can you bring us the check, whenever you're able?"
In bars or in non-fancy restaurants, you can also say ¿Nos cobras? ((Do you / will you) charge us?). Once you pay, say hasta luego, and go for a walk on the beach.
Sounding native when ordering food is just like sounding native when doing anything else: you need to really listen to what natives are saying and notice how it differs from what your gut thinks is right.
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Remember that requests in Spanish are almost always "you"-based (¿Me puedes traer…?) instead of "I"-based (Can I have…?).
To sound polite when using tú, you only need to turn the command into a question and smile (¿Me traes una rodaja de limón?