A Madrileño Dining Experience

Madrileños are masters in the art of relaxation. These past few weeks, lunch and dinners out are never less than a 2 hour affair. It begins with a drink, typically my new obsession – tinto de verano con casera. Then, I while away the time chatting and casually perusing the menu. It is usually another 30 minutes before a meal is ordered, probably around the same time I order another beverage. In places that serve in the authentic tapas-style, you get a plate of food with each drink order. So, you wait to eat until another plate arrives with your next drink order. It’s all very relaxed and casual. In comparison to my usual hyper and hurried self, it was a refreshing change.

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As pleasant as it sounds, this “relaxed” atmosphere comes at a price. The camareros are all very relaxed as well. Depending on your hunger levels or schedule, this price can be steep. There were many times when I am sitting with my first drink empty (ice melted and consumed as water) and basket of “patatas chips” crumbs, and the camarero comes out to clean the table to my left then returns directly inside without a glance my way. Coming from the US where service staff work on tips, I’m accustomed to either over-zealous attention or being pushed out and replaced by another paying customer. But that’s not how it’s done in Madrid. You linger as long as you like with your first round of drink and you are likely not to be bothered unless you catch the attention of the wait staff.

Pidgeon eats crumbs from vacated table after the patrons went inside for the bill.

For the most part, trying to be noticed by the camareros can be an amusing endeavor. Since I had no pressing appointments after lunch, it did not affect my schedule. Usually, lunch or dinner was a game of “catch the waiter”. When I want to order, I glance around to catch someone’s attention only to see him disappearing indoors. Sometimes, there’s someone waiting on the table beside me and I think I make eye contact, but when I look again, the server is gone. Other times, there is no one coming out to the terrace for long stretches of time. Although I could prepare my big voice and shout “Oiga!”, the relaxed atmosphere is contagious and I simply wait til the next opportunity. After all, there’s no reason to hurry.

There were two exceptions to this experience. The first was a late 4pm lunch at a café managed by immigrants from China. The waiter was still relaxed, but managed to be easily available when needed. We were one of 2 customers at the time. However, being the only customers does not guarantee more attention. The second time was at a busy tapas bar when I was with another girl. Two ladies sharing tapas seemed to catch more attention for than I’ve ever received from previous waiters. Seems there are perks that come with being a girl in this city.

Overall, I have grown more accustomed to this strange, slow and relaxed lifestyle. The only thing with which I have to learn patience is customer service in other businesses. When the apartment hunter takes an extra 2 days to respond to an inquiry or the airline counter can’t manage to rebook a connecting flight, that’s a whole other story!

Which pace would you prefer for your dining out service?

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