Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Your high school Spanish teacher did a great job teaching you vital survival phrases like "¿Dónde está el baño?" (Where is the bathroom?).
She also makes sure you have critical words like "por favorite" (please) and "gracias" (thank you) in your vocabulary.
In fact, that first phrase was saved more than once!
But when ordering, you will need to add a few basic words and phrases.
Whether you're just practicing your Spanish at a local restaurant or vacationing in a Spanish-speaking country, these tips will help.
Proficiency is an ultimate goal, but native Spanish speakers worldwide are so patient with beginners that they appreciate the effort they make.
Even if your pronunciation needs a little tweaking, these Spanish ordering tips will make you look like someone who knows their stuff.
And if you're looking for more motivation, then this kind of Spanish practice will pay off in the end.
¡Buen Provecho! (Enjoy your meals!)
1. Know the Basic Words and Phrases
When ordering food in Spanish, the easiest way to succeed (and make sure you get the food you really want) is to have a basic grasp of the vocabulary related to food.
Identify the main categories of foods
When you can recognize a category of foods you love (or hate), you increase your chances of successfully navigating the menu. Typical categories include seafood (mariscos), meat (carne), products (frutas y verduras), and desserts (postres).
Furthermore, it would be helpful to know the words for your favorites and least favorites in each category to ensure the best possible dining experience.
Know the terms for successfully placing and customizing your order
Finally, when it comes to ordering food in Spanish, you'll want to practice some conjugations. Use nice etiquette as your mom taught you to order: ¿Me puedes traer… por favorite? (Can you bring it to me… please?), Then customize your order appropriately. Let the waiter know if you want half part (media porción) or full partial (porción entera) if there are those options.
Next, let the waiter know if you want something different from your meal (child…) or if you want to order a meal without any ingredients (guilt…). Furthermore, if you are in a hurry, you can know whether food can be “taken away” from the restaurant (para llevar).
If you want to see all the facts, this video explains some of the most important things about ordering food in Spanish, with lots of tips and real-world proofs.
Additional items for the table may be requested
Even though it's not food, you need to know the word for what you would normally see on a restaurant table! Before you leave, incorporate words like spoons, forks, and knives (cuchillos, tenedores, cucumbers), cups (vasos), and napkins (servilletas) into your daily vocabulary to claim these to be. So easy!
Check out this list of restaurant buzzwords in Spanish that can be helpful as a study material. No worries when you've taken the time to prepare!
2. Understand The Customs
There are other important aspects of ordering food beyond the basic Spanish words and phrases. If you want a truly authentic experience, it's important to keep in mind the cultural aspects of dining in a Spanish-speaking country.
First, you will want to understand how to order drinks in Spanish. Since wine is such an important part of Spanish and Latin American culture, understanding the process of ordering wine can help.
If you try to order a vino rojo, you might giggle. If you want a red wine, order vino tinto instead. And don't order sangrias either. Try tinto de verano if you crave a fruity drink, though keep in mind that most places in Latin America won't know what a tinto de verano is. (You have to go to Spain to enjoy that!)
If you like coffee, there are plenty of subtle nuances between the different concoctions that can cover an entire article (similar to all possible variations at Starbucks!). If you want simplicity, order a cup of coffee con leche (latte with milk) between lunch and dinner.
Lastly, make sure you can answer when the waiter asks you if you want cona (carbonated water) or agua sin (non-carbonated water). In many Spanish (and European) speaking countries, a carbonated water option is standard, but if you want non-carbonated water, specify “agua sin gas.”
Know what to expect for each meal
You may be sad to learn that breakfast isn't an important meal in many countries, especially when nutritionists in the United States consider it the most important meal of the day.
However, no matter which country you are in, you will likely find something delicious to eat. For example, in Spain, you will find simple dishes like pans (bread), churros (fried foods), or Magdalena (muffins).
If you can't eat a bit of egg and bacon while you travel, most resorts serve a full American breakfast. Of course, this varies by country, so make sure you know what to expect for breakfast by investigating before leaving or asking a local.
In addition to breakfast, you will have to adjust to your lunch and dinner expectations. Spaniards eat late: lunch tends to be between 2 pm and 4 pm, and dinner is usually after 9 pm.
When you're ready for dinner, make sure the restaurant isn't asking for reservations. Just call them in advance to make sure there's room. To do so, you need to add this phrase to your repertoire.
3. Don't miss out on regional specialties
To better understand what you are eating, ask the waiter what the dish or which region the dish is from is.
¿Qué me recomienda? (What do you recommend?)
If you took a Spanish class, you might have learned all about some of the famous specialties like paella (saffron rice, a vegetable dish, and seafood) from Spain and chicharrones (pork meat) from El Salvador, but here are some others you want to make sure to put on your radar:
Tira de asado - These Argentinian ribs are cut into the bone and seasoned with just a little salt before baking. The ribs are then grilled for 10-12 hours and are usually topped with a chimichurri sauce (a meat broth).
Arepas - A popular food in Colombia and Venezuela, Arepas is a corn cake that can be topped (and topped) with all kinds of different meats and cheeses.
Churros - Chocolate churros are a favorite dessert or snack across Spain. This fried dough cake is simple but less luxurious.
Piñon - This is a veggie, and beef stew from Puerto Rico packed with many ingredients, including base, cheese, vegetables, herbs, and spices.
Pernil relleno de moros y cristianos - A traditional Cuban holiday dish, this is a pork shoulder stuffed with black beans and rice (moros y cristianos).
Ceviche - Like sushi, ceviche is a dish that revolves around the use of raw seafood. Unlike sushi, ceviche comes from South America and incorporates the use of citrus to cook seafood.
Each country has their own specialties, so double-check to make sure you're ready.
If you want to go a step further and learn some of the traditional Spanish dishes and learn how to cook them, head to FluentU's YouTube channel to learn the five authentic Spanish recipes! As a bonus, you will also learn Spanish while learning to cook!
And remember that good food is not limited to sitting restaurants, so bring what you know about ordering Spanish food to a local food stall!
4. Practice the rituals well
Every country has its own customs and habits and you should be aware of these not to offend local people. Here are some simple reminders for good manners:
Greet people: Thank the waiter by saying "Good morning" (buenos días), "Good afternoon/evening" (buenas tardes), or "How are you?" (¿Cómo está?) On that note, address the people you are formally familiar with, with an usted (you, but solemn), instead of a bachelor (you, informally). Of course, no one will think you are rude if you accidentally use a bag (especially if it's clear you're not a native!). However, if you're in Spain, stay away - they don't use this form of verbs!
Greet the waiters: A simple cry (hello) will do it. In Mexico, they call their servants Joven and in Spain, the camarero. Señorita is suitable anywhere for hostesses. For bonus points, listen to native Spanish speakers while at the restaurant and copy how they greet their hosts.
Use your manners: Say disculpe (sorry) if you need someone to grab it, especially if they're holding the tray and you want them to know you're there!
Compliment the food: Muy's delicious food (very delicious) will be seen!
Learning basic Spanish vocabulary and phrases, as well as regional customs and specialties, will make it easier and more pleasant to order food in Spanish.
Furthermore, the language learning effort of the country you are visiting demonstrates good manners and respect. Even if you think you sound funny, Spanish speakers will appreciate your efforts.
Of course, throughout your learning and mastering, don't be afraid to refer to your Spanish app for quick updates from time to time.