Here are a few helpful tips on what to expect when dining out in Buenos Aires…
Tip #1 – Service is SLOW, but don’t take it personally.
- I didn’t even bother giving restaurants a “service” rating because based on America’s standards, they would all suck. So get ready to take your sweet time when going to a restaurant because the service is very slow. It’s not because service is actually terrible, it is more of a cultural thing. Argentines like to take their time when going out to lunch/dinner. In America, my mentality for eating out [generally] is to fill my stomach in a timely manner so I can get on with the rest of my day. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to enjoy the food or the company that I’m with, it just means that I like to be efficient with my time and have other places to get to after my meal. In Argentina, getting food is a much longer process and can take up to a couple of hours, possibly more, if you truly want to draw out the experience. The typical dining experience for myself goes like this…
- When I walk into a restaurant, it is generally self-seating [unless there is a wait]. It feels weird to me to come into a restaurant and just pick where ever I would like to sit, but that is the way it is generally done.
- 5+ minutes will go by and just as I begin to question if anyone has even seen me sit down, my waitress finally shows up with a menu.
- You’ve got about 15+ min. before the waitress will come by to ask you what you would like to order. I try to figure out what I want quickly because it’ll be about 15+ min. before I get another chance to order if I don’t on the first pass by. So generally, I try to order my drink and food all at once.
- Depending on the restaurant and the food I order, wait time for the food is about 25-30 min.
- Once I get my food, I will not see the waitress again for at least 20 min. They don’t usually come by to ask if you need anything else or if everything came out the way you wanted it. They just disappear, so good luck if you do need something.
- Now here is the part that takes the longest, getting the bill [la cuenta]. 15 min. will easily go by after finishing my meal and still no waitress. I will be done eating and ready to go, but unable to pay and actually leave. When my waitress does finally decide to make an appearance, I ask for the check and wait…another 5-10min. to finally get it. Having the exact amount for the bill is always nice because otherwise I will be waiting again for the change.
Assuming you take about 30 min to eat, you can see how easily dining out becomes a 2+ hour experience. I think it’s awesome that Argentines enjoy their time out and really savor the experience; it is just something that I am not accustom to. When I have talked to Argentines that have dined out in the US for the first time, they experience the same culture shock. They wonder why the restaurant is “kicking them” out because the waitress will bring them the bill – something that never happens in Argentina. But that is part of the fun when visiting another country – being perplexed, amused, and surprised by new cultural experiences!
Tip #2 – Cubierto Charges
Another thing to note is the cubierto charge that might show up on the bottom of your receipt. Some restaurants have them, while others do not. Generally the fancier or more touristy places tend to abuse the cubierto charges more so than the low-key, porteño restaurants. The cubierto charge should not be mistaken for the tip. A cubierto charge is coverage for the utensils, plates, napkins, and bread that they provide for you during your meal – which seems like a total rip off to me. We have seen cubierto charges range from about 15-35 pesos per person. Also, they should not be mistake for the tip. We tip 10% when dining out. I’ve talked with both travelers and locals and 10% seems to be the golden number.
Tip #3 – Be wary of the cheese.
- Cheesy food. Grilled provolone and mozzarella on pizza – super tasty! Cheese on any other kind of food – nasty! Quesadillas, cheese fries, nachos…are questionable. I would just recommend staying clear of it all because it’s generally a variety of gross liquid cheese that doesn’t belong on any kind of food.
Tip #4 – Go for the lunch specials!
- A lot of the parrillas that I recommend on my list are very pricey during dinner hours. A great way to try higher quality food, without breaking that backpacker budget, is to go during the restaurant’s lunch hours. Almost every restaurant that we have been to has had mid-day [mediodía] lunch specials. They offer the same great food at a fraction of the price. For example, Miranda’s lunch special includes a starting dish, an entree, a drink [water or soda], and your choice of a coffee or tea all for the price of $154 pesos. Versus their dinner menu where one steak can cost $220 pesos and that doesn’t include a side dish or a drink. That’s a big difference! The lunch specials are awesome in Argentina and I highly recommend checking them out. Look for “Mediodía” on the menu or on chalkboards that they often advertise with outside the restaurants.
Tip #5 – Don’t be fooled!
- Ordering food in a foreign language can be tricky. Almost all of my experiences at restaurants in Argentina have been excellent and the waiters have been very friendly and try to be as helpful as possible while I learn the ropes of ordering my food in Spanish. Unfortunately though, I have experienced a couple of times when waiters tried to take advantage of me [a tourist]. Some people may argue that is was an honest mistake lost in translation…but it’s debatable.
- One restaurant we went to, I ordered the lunch special. It included a starting dish, an entree, and a beer for a set price. Generally the starting dishes and entrees are listed on the lunch special menu so those are pretty easy to order. It was the beer that was the tricky part. It was clear that I was ordering off the lunch special menu, so naturally you would think the waitress would list the beers that are available for the deal. But no. She told me the only beer they had was this Patagonia Amber [the most expensive beer on the menu]. So I said awesome, I’ll have that. The bill comes and sure enough, the Patagonia Amber was listed as being charged separately from our lunch special. The beer cost almost as much as the food! I have a couple problems with this. One, she set us up to think that this beer was included in the deal even though it wasn’t. And two, even if it was just a miscommunication, why didn’t I get the additional beer that I paid for with my lunch special? Hm? So just be careful when ordering lunch specials and make sure that you’re actually ordering off of that special menu.
- My second bad experience again was with the lunch special. We sit down and wait for the waiter to bring us our menus. He comes by and hands us their main menu along with a drink menu. I was a bit confused because I didn’t see their lunch special menu. So I’m looking around and watching the waiter seat other people and miraculously, he remembers to give them all a separate menu that we did not get – the lunch special menu. With my white blonde hair and [slowly improving] Spanish skills, I stand out pretty distinctly as a tourist. Maybe it was by mistake, maybe it wasn’t. But I find it pretty coincidental that he would only forget to give the lunch menu to the only two tourists at the restaurant…and he probably would have gotten me if my friend hadn’t previously mentioned what great lunch specials this restaurant had. So nice try Miranda.
- UPDATE: We are finding it more common than not for restaurants to not automatically offer up the mediodia menu. Why? I have no idea. But, generally they give us the dinner menu and we have to ask the waiter for the mediodia menu. So always ask!
Tip # 6 – Pingüinos are awesome.
- Pingüinos are a must at least once while visiting Buenos Aires. Pingüinos are simply these wine pitchers shaped like a penguin that you can order at a lot of restaurants. If I’m going to pour myself wine, it might as well be out of a penguin’s mouth right?
Tip #7 – Buenos Aires is a carnivore’s paradise.
In the two weeks that I have been here, I have already consumed 10 steaks – yum! Steak is one of my favorite foods and I was super stoked to learn that Argentina is famous for their steak dinners. Parrillas [steak restaurants] are a dime a dozen here and you can easily find one on almost every street corner [tad bit exaggerated]! I’ve read a ton of blogs warning vegetarians to stay away, but I have seen a ton of vegetarian options at restaurants. Salads, pizzas, and pasta can easily be found on most menus. Buenos Aires also has a wide variety of ethnic food – like Thai, Indian, and Japanese – so there are plenty alternatives to the classic Argentine steak.