Your high school Spanish teacher did a great job of teaching you those oh-so-important survival phrases like “¿Dónde está el baño?” (Where’s the bathroom?).
She also made sure you had critical words like “por favor” (please) and “gracias” (thank you) in your vocabulary.
In fact, that first phrase has been a life-saver on more than one occasion!
But when it comes to ordering food, you’ll need a few more basic words and phrases under your belt.
Mastery is an eventual goal, but native Spanish speakers around the world are very patient with beginners, appreciating the effort that goes into trying.
Even if your pronunciation needs some fine-tuning, these tips for ordering food in Spanish will help you look like someone who knows their stuff.
And if you’re looking for more motivation, this type of Spanish language practice eventually results in food.
¡Buen provecho! (Enjoy the meal!)
4 Delicious Tips for Ordering Food in Spanish Like a Local
1. Know Basic Vocabulary Words and Phrases
When ordering food in Spanish, the easiest way to set yourself up for success (and to make sure you get the food you really want) is to have a basic grasp of food-related vocabulary.
Identify the major food categories
When you can recognize the food categories you love (or hate), you increase your chances of successfully navigating the menu. Typical categories include seafood (mariscos), meat (carne), produce (frutas y verduras) and desserts (postres).
What’s more, it would be useful to get to know the words for your favorite and least favorite foods in each category to help ensure the best possible dining experience.
Know the terms to successfully place and customize your order
When it comes to finally ordering food in Spanish, you’ll want to practice some verb conjugation. Use good etiquette like your mama taught you to place an order: ¿Me puedes traer…por favor? (Can you bring me…please?), then customize your order appropriately. Let the waiter know if you’d like a half portion (media porción) or the full portion (porción entera) if those options are available.
Next, let the waiter know if you want something else with your meal (con…), or if you’d like to order a meal without a certain ingredient (sin…). Furthermore, if you’re in a hurry, it may be nice to know if food can be “taken away” from the restaurant (para llevar).
If you’d like to see it all in action, this video explains some of the most important things about ordering food in Spanish, with plenty of practical tips and demonstrations.
Be able to request additional items for the table
Although not food, knowing the words for items you typically find on the table at the restaurant is essential! Before you leave on your trip, incorporate words like spoons, forks and knives (cuchillos, tenedores, cucharas), cups (vasos) and napkins (servilletas) in your daily vocabulary to make asking for these things a breeze!
Check out this list of common Spanish restaurant words that can be useful as study material. No need to be nervous when you’ve taken the time to prepare!
2. Know the Customs
There are other important aspects of ordering food apart from basic words and phrases in Spanish. If you want a truly authentic experience, it’s important to keep in mind the cultural aspects of dining out in a Spanish-speaking country.
First, you’ll want to understand how to order drinks in Spanish. Since wine is an important part of Spanish and Latin American cultures, it can be useful to understand the process around ordering it.
If you try to order vino rojo, you might get chuckled at. If you want a red wine, instead ask for vino tinto. And don’t order sangrias, either. Try tinto de verano if you crave the fruit-infused beverage, though keep in mind most places in Latin America won’t know what tinto de verano is. (You have to go to Spain to enjoy that one!)
If you like coffee, there are a lot of subtle nuances between different preparations that could comprise an entire article (similar to all the possible variations at Starbucks!). If you want to keep it simple, order a café con leche (coffee with milk) in between lunch and dinner.
Finally, be sure you can respond when your waiter asks you if you -want agua con gas (carbonated water) or agua sin gas (non-carbonated water). In many Spanish-speaking (and European) countries, the option to have carbonated water comes standard, but if you want water without gas, specify “agua sin gas.”
Know what to expect for each meal
You may be sad to find out that breakfast isn’t an important meal in many countries, especially when nutritionists in the United States consider it to be the most important meal of the day.
However, regardless of the country you’re in, you’ll likely find something delicious you can eat. For example, in Spain you’ll find simple offerings like pan (bread), churros (fried fritters) or madgalenas (muffins).
If you simply can’t shake the need for some eggs and bacon while traveling, most resorts serve a full American breakfast. Of course, this varies by country so be sure you know what to expect for breakfast by investigating before you leave or by asking a local.
Besides breakfast, you’ll have to adjust to lunch and dinner expectations. For example, Spaniards eat meals late: lunch tends to be from 2:00 to 4:00 pm, and dinner is usually after 9:00 pm.
When you’re ready for dinner, be sure the restaurant doesn’t require reservations. Just give them a call beforehand to guarantee a seat. To do so, you’ll need to add this phrase to your repertoire:
Quisiera hacer una reserva para (dos) personas, por favor. (I would like to make a reservation for two people, please.)
3. Don’t Miss Out on Regional Specialties
To cultivate a better understanding of the food you’re eating, ask what the server recommends or what region the food came from.
¿Qué me recomienda? (What do you recommend?)
If you’ve taken Spanish class, you’ve probably learned all about some of the well-known specialties like paella (a saffron rice, vegetable and seafood dish) from Spain and chicharrones (pork rinds) from El Salvador, but here are some others you want to make sure to put on your radar:
- Tira de asado — These Argentinean ribs are cut across the bone and seasoned with just a little bit of salt before being put on the grill. The ribs are then grilled for 10-12 hours and are usually topped with chimichurri sauce (a type of meat marinade).
- Arepas — A popular food in Colombia and Venezuela, arepas are a type of corn cake that can be filled (and topped) with all sorts of different meats and cheese.
- Churros — Churros with chocolate are a favorite dessert or snack all across Spain. This fried dough pastry is simple, but decadent.
- Piñon — This is a vegetable and beef casserole from Puerto Rico that’s packed with loads of ingredients including plantains, cheese, vegetables, herbs and spices.
- Pernil relleno de moros y cristianos — A traditional holiday dish from Cuba, this is a pork shoulder stuffed with black beans and rice (moros y cristianos).
- Ceviche — Like sushi, ceviche is a dish centered around the use of raw seafood. Unlike sushi, ceviche comes from South America and incorporates the use of citrus to essentially cook the seafood.
Every country has their specialties, so do your due-diligence to be sure you’re prepared. For example, if you’re in Spain, you don’t want to miss out on these delicious Spanish foods!
And remember that good food is not restricted to sit-down restaurants, so take what you know about ordering food in Spanish over to a local food stand!
4. Practice Good Etiquette
Every country has different customs, and it’s good practice to make yourself aware of these so you don’t offend the locals. Here are some simple reminders for good manners:
- Greet people. Acknowledge the waiters with a “Good morning,” (buenos días), “Good afternoon/evening,” (buenas tardes) or a “How are you?” (¿Cómo está?) On that note, address people you’re acquaintances with formally, with an usted (you, but formal), rather than a tú (you, informal).
Of course, no one will think you’re impolite if you accidentally use tú (especially if it’s clear you’re not a native speaker!). However, if you’re in Spain, avoid usted—they don’t use this verb form!
- Greet the waiters. A simple hola (hello) will do. In Mexico, they call their waiters joven and in Spain, camarero. Señorita is appropriate anywhere for waitresses. For bonus points, listen to Spanish speaking natives while at the restaurant and copy how they greet their servers.
- Use your manners. Say disculpe (excuse me) if you need to get by someone, especially if they’re holding a tray and you want them to know you’re there!
- Compliment the food. Muy delicioso (very delicious) will get the point across!
Learning basic Spanish vocabulary and phrases, as well as customs and regional specialties, will help make ordering food in Spanish easier and more pleasant.
Furthermore, making the effort to learn the language of a country you’re visiting shows good manners and respect. Even if you think you sound funny, Spanish speakers will appreciate your efforts.
Of course, throughout the process of learning and mastery, don’t be afraid to consult your Spanish app from time to time for a quick refresher.
Practice makes perfect!
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