Q: What is the ‘cubierto’ charge that shows up on my restaurant bill? Is this a service charge? Am I a jerk if I don’t leave a tip since I’m paying this seemingly random cubierto charge?
The cubierto is the ‘cover charge’ for the fork, knife, placemats and (often) stale bread you receive at the table. It is essentially a ‘service charge’ as you sometimes find in Europe. Some restaurants really push it with the cubierto, essentially using it as a way to fight inflation. In reaction to cubierto abuse, in 2012 the city of Buenos Aires passed legislation defining what a cubierto should include:
a.) a minimum of 250 ml of drinkable water
b.) one unit of gluten-free bread
c.) sodium-free salt
d.) traditional or dietetic bread, depending on the preference of the customer
In practice, few restaurants follow these guidelines, and some such as Filo shamelessly rip off their customers, charging a hefty cubierto without providing even one of the above items.
This charge on your bill makes more sense for a restaurant such as La Cabrera, where the cubierto includes a glass of champagne, nice bread and an array of sauces to enjoy with your meal.
The cubierto goes to the house, not the staff, so you should still leave a tip. If you don’t like the cubierto charge look for restaurants that say ‘No se cobra cubierto‘ on their sign.
Sometimes places that have made it into the guidebooks and thus are on the ‘gringo trail’ hand out checks that come with a big red stamp that says, ‘Tips not included.’ This is to avoid cubierto confusion, and apparently, let you know you look like a cheapskate simultaneously. Yet other restaurants that serve tourists include an additional service charge — that serves as a tip — on top of the cubierto, so be sure to check.
Q: How much is it appropriate to tip in a restaurant in Argentina?
Wait staff in Argentina earn a normal, if low hourly wage, unlike in places such as the U.S. where a waiter’s livelihood depends on tips.
Most agree that in Argentina a ten percent tip is appropriate and you’ll observe that many Argentines leave considerably less at more casual establishments. Additionally some North Americans unaccustomed to the frequently laissez-faire service leave less than they normally would, so it works out fine.
→ Read an interview with Charly, a waiter at Cafe Retiro in Buenos Aires
Q: I’ve been sitting here for forty minutes and wildly waving my arms to get the waiter’s attention. He doesn’t even glance at me so that I can ask for my check. What should I do?
Dining or having a coffee is a drawn-out activity in Argentina and the concept of a ‘quick-turnover’ of tables doesn’t exist. Thus, the typical Argentine waiter doesn’t scan the room much or seem to possess peripheral vision. They just don’t want to make you feel hurried. If you need to get the waiters attention it is perfectly acceptable to say, “Mozo/a!” in a casual tone, or “Señor/a!” if the waiter is older. Think ahead, because once you ask for your check, expect to wait another little while.
Q: Why can’t I just get a glass of water?
Although the water is good drinking quality in most of the country, and Argentina has one of the largest fresh water reserves on the planet, you can’t get a glass of tap water in a restaurant to save your life. If you order water, you’ll get a bottle. Be sure to specify, ‘sin gas’ for normal water of ‘con gas’ for mineral or carbonated soda water. Agua con gas is the eco-friendly option because it often comes in old-style reusable siphons.
Q: Why do some places make you wait to see if they can find you a table when the restaurant is half empty?
If a restaurant is half empty at dinner time (10:00 p.m.), the food may be sub-par, but some places such as Asia de Cuba regularly do the ‘Let-me-check-with-my-invisible-friend-to-see-if-we-have-a-table’ routine.
Some VIP spots in Buenos Aires will do this to every customer who is not a public figure. It’s just to make it feel more exclusive – you have to be really wonky-looking to not pass the test, otherwise it may be discrimination. If you’ve been refused entrance at a restaurant in Buenos Aires, tell us about it.
Q: Why do people seem to be restraining themselves from gasping in horror when I ask for a doggy bag?
Asking to take home leftovers from a restaurant was once unheard of and is still considered a little taboo in Buenos Aires, and certainly in the rest of Argentina. The idea has caught on somewhat in the capital only because of the influx left-over crazy foreigners, a few who own restaurants themselves.
Still, at most establishments you may get a surprised look for asking for a take-way box. To put it in context, Argentina is a country of bountiful food production. Most Argentines didn’t grow up with their parents reminding them there are children starving in Africa. When dining in someone’s home, it’s even considered polite to leave a little food on the plate, instead of licking it clean, as an indication that you are full.
If you want to take home your leftovers regardless of the custom, say that it is for your pet — that is considered less embarrassing.