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Customer Service in Spain is Different

On the face of it, the title of this article sounds like a very insincere comment that sums up the sentiments of many an expat here in Madrid. But, if we all stopped to analyse what we have dubbed as bad customer service, could we reveal something innately beautiful and gratifying about the customer service here?  Granted, this exercise may require a little extra effort than others, but surely, the ensuing results might just protect you from resentfulness the next time you experience “bad customer service.”

Generally speaking, many of us, whether having worked in customer service or not, have grown up around the notions “the customer is always right” and “the customer is king.” Of course, walking around like the King or Queen that you are brings about untold power. In restaurants, shops and bars, people bend over backwards (or more politely, go the extra mile) to make sure your every need is catered to. You might be the worst customer in your server’s opinion, but he/she would be damned should such sentiments be aired, let alone allowed to even surface in their most minute of forms (a frown, a mutter, a hiss, a crossing of the eyes.) One shudders to think of the consequences of such a  flagrant abuse of position  – a chat with the boss, possibly a letter of complaint or maybe a reduced tip or no tip at all. We can all admit, it does feel good walking around with this sort of self-endowed/society given power.

But suddenly, upon moving to Spain, the realisation that your presence is somehow a nuisance and, that your custom is actually detrimental to the mood of many in customer service positions, proves to be too hard a pill to swallow. Alas, in nothing but a short or long haul flight, one finds oneself downgraded from royalty to peasant status, if not an irritant that needs removing as soon as possible.

Maybe this view is extreme. It is not that customer service here is bad. It is only that the roles are reversed and you have to fight, beg and plea to be treated like the King or Queen that you are. If you do it, the results are nothing short of marvellous and might exceed what you have experienced elsewhere.

Speaking from the point of view of the U.K., generally speaking, if you walk into a restaurant, etiquette dictates that one wait until one is seated. In Spain, in the majority of places, if you follow this rule, you are likely to wait at the door forever and, before you have even ordered anything, you are already angry at the lack of customer attention. So, to protect yourself, make eye contact with someone working in the place and let them know where you are going to seat. If it turns out that the restaurant does not follow this seat yourself pattern, they will let you know your next steps. At least, by approaching in this way, you have made known your presence and everything else will follow.

Once seated, drinks are always the first order taken and tend to come out much faster than everything else. Unless you have gone to an extra special restaurant, your drink choices are very simple –

  • Beer, typically Mahou, Madrid’s very own brewery, in two sizes.
    Either a caña – which for argument’s sake we’ll say is a half pint
    Or a jarra – call this one the full pint
  • Bottled beer from a brand of choice (however, the options might be limited)
  • Tinto de Verano (loosely described as a red wine spritzer) made with either:
    Limon (Fanta Lemon)
    Or, casera (similar to sparkling water, but not exactly)
  • Glass of wine
  • Otherwise, a regular fizzy drink (pop) or water
El Corte Ingles Gourment Experience
Semi Representative drinks offering

As the drinks come, you will be choosing your meal options. In my experience, the translations of the food items are usually off, (next time I’ll tell you about the time I had tattered flesh with rick cakes) and/or your server will have no idea of how to explain it in a way that would not frustrate you or in a way that makes it sound appetising. Here you have two options, order and hope for the best or take your Internet ready phone and ask the good folks at Google or Bing. At all times during this process, endeavour to engage your server in some type of conversation. Show him that you are happy he/she is your waiter today. Throw in some “me encanta España” or “Madrid es maravilloso.” However, use discretion. If the place is busy, make your orders swift. It is important to remember that you are there for him/her, not vice versa. Do not get frustrated.

Do remember, food usually comes in two sizes:

  • A racion (big portion to share with those at table)
  • A tapa (smaller portion for one)

Also remember, unless otherwise, the days of “Joey doesn’t share food” are gone. Most times, food is for sharing. So, if you see calamares on the menu and you order these, you will get exactly that, calamares. No side of chips (fries) and a salad. However, you will get a lemon wedge, though. This is where sharing comes in handy, one orders this, the other that and so on, and so forth. If, for some reason unbeknownst to mankind, you have a cause for complain, try not to complain. Accept that the food is not as you might have expected and try something else next time or just never go back. If you complain, you will most likely not be taken seriously and will return to peasant/irritant status. (Last time I complained that my chicken had been served pink in the middle, they were very upset at my even suggesting it and recommended I try something else next time.) Not complaining is a foreign concept to many of us, but when in Rome, the suggestion is to do as the Romans.

In this whole affair, you are an informed dinner and behaving as a Spaniard would do in a restaurant. Your interactions with the server are kept to a minimum but, at all times you are polite. Never do you expect more than is necessary. If you go to the MuchBites recommended restaurants, maybe you will feel the urge to go back again, as you return more and more times, you are given permission to be more demanding, but they too also start giving you the family member status, and your level of customer service increases.

When you feel you have finished eating, if in need of nothing else, request the bill and the leave the customary Spanish tip – which is not 10%, 12.5% or 15%. In fact, it is as far off from that as the sunrise is from the sunset. But, still leave something. If you have been the well behaved, maybe you might be offered an after dinner shot on the house.

As you make your way out of the restaurant, please to not forget to say goodbye and thank your server for the wonderful food (even if it was not.)

Sadly, this seems strange and very unlike anything one is used to, but having tried this many a time, I have seen my experience in restaurants improving and the customer service not being that much of a bother. The conclusions of the matter, after everything having been heard is, expect nothing and work hard to be treated well. If you do this, you will realise that the Spanish are warm and very friendly people. In all the time you would have spent complaining about what was not right, your server was working “tirelessly” to make it a visit to remember, albeit in a way you did not expect.

This culture bite is one not to be forgotten.

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