5 Tips to Dine Out Better in the Philippines

(Update 2/4/2014the photo of the Waterfalls Restaurant is located in the province of Quezon, not San Pablo as originally written.  Thanks to Carl Gregorio for pointing that out!)

(Disclaimer: these are simply my own thoughts and experiences.  They do not represent a professional restaurateur/critic’s opinions nor do they seek to degrade the Filipino food industry.  If you’re short on time, skip to tip #5 so you don’t think I’m just hatin’)

Eating (next to karaoke and basketball) is a national past time in the Philippines.  Unlike in America, family friends won’t hesitate to call you “too thin” or “malnourished” before plying you with a soft, buttery ensaymada roll.  Food commercials often show plump children enjoying a plate of Filipino spaghetti.  And our meals?  There’s the breakfast that’s pretty much a meal Stateside with rice and an entrée, then the mid-morning snack, then lunch, then the coffee break, then merienda (late afternoon snack), then dinner, maybe a few rounds of dessert.  With all those meals and with the decline of packing a lunch in the more metropolitan areas, eating out is almost a necessity in the Philippines.  However, there are some pretty stark differences between dining back in the Motherland and out in the States especially with regards to customer service.  Here are 5 quick tips for anyone navigating the dining scene on the islands (as told through the eyes if a balikbayan like myself) to reduce unnecessary stress:

Waterfall Restaurant in San Pablo...coz I thought the picture looked cool.

Waterfall Restaurant in San Pablo…coz I thought the picture looked cool.

1.  Have a Plan B when ordering…and Plans C, D, and E

The full menu will never really be fully available to you.  Unlike the farm-to-table concepts in the Midwest or the ever-popular pop-up dinners that keep menus small, focused, and pre-portioned to fit demand, many restaurants in the Philippines print menus that represent what they can make at some point and not necessarily as of this moment.  I’m not talking about certain dishes running out at the end of the night, I’m referring to dishes not being available even at opening or during peak hours.  From the local hole-in-the-wall to the mid-range business lunch spots, I’ve been told “Sorry sir, di po yan available ngayon (it’s not available right now)” at least once a week.  Don’t be surprised if you have to request for 4 different items before you can get a full order so plan ahead and have several options just in case.

2.  Choose your battles when sending food back

While the idea of “customer service” has been hammered into every staff here in the States, service in the Philippines is still subject to the concept of hiya (shame) and allowing the person serving you to “save face”.  Returning food due to you not liking some aspect of it won’t always be met with a quick apology and substitution and while it won’t be seen as an insult, it will definitely cause a lot of embarassment.  The de facto response I’ve often heard is “Ganyan ho talaga yung gawa namin sir (That’s really how we make it here sir)!”, implying that the restaurant is not at fault here.  And if the employee hasn’t said this to you already, then their manager will.  Still, you will succeed in getting another dish cooked (though most times choosing a different dish incurs a charge) most times but this will forever affect the service.  Servers will be a little more meek or haughty depending on the establishment and you may just end up making the whole thing awkward.  Don’t think you’re doing the place a service either by offering suggestions and comments that are normally welcomed elsewhere.  My dad once told a server that a dish was to sweet and when the only response was a sheepish smile and apology, he repeated it again asking her to let the chef know we won’t be ordering it ever again.  The response?  An even more embarrassed smile…but no action.  Save your breath, let them save face, and move on.

3.  Be your own expediter

Most restaurants work on the idea that food follows a specific order and timing: appetizers first, a short pause, the entrée, etc.  However, as Filipino food is most often eaten as one gigantic smorgasbord, this might not always be the case unless you’re at a Western-themed restaurant.  Thus, while items may be labeled as appetizers, entrees, sides on the menu, it might not always be served as such.  Our chicharon appetizers once came out with the entrees, a soup arrived at the end of a meal, a mango shake arrived in the midst of dessert.  Mind you these weren’t dinky hole-in-the-walls either.  When ordering it helps to mention whether you’d like certain items to come out first as I’ve seen scores of waiters simply picking up entire trays of food and depositing them at tables with little regard to meal progression.

4.  Tip well…….sometimes

Another concept that’s quite different from other countries is that of tipping.  While your server will most definitely appreciate a tip, most Filipinos don’t.  This leads to some problems here in the States when Pinoy tourists would eat at contemporary Filipino restaurants in large numbers and leave nothing.  If you look closely, most Pinoy restaurants back home already factor in a 10+% service charge regardless of the size of your group.  If so, ditch the tip (unless of course service was exceptional in which case, give away!).  I’m not sure whether or not tips go into a pool since they’re not as prevalent back home but either way, tip with your conscience…just don’t feel obligated to.  Oh and one other thing regarding payment, ask for your bill as dessert arrives and begin payment for 2 reasons: 1) they take ages to process your payment and 2) if you’re dining with another Pinoy, expect the usual drawn-out battle over who gets to pay the bill.

5.  Never eat alone

Allow me to wax a little philosophical here.  While it seems like I’m frowning down upon the Philippine food service industry, I actually only seek to point out differences in my own dining experiences.  This brings me to my last point: that unlike the States where food is often elevated to art-like proportions where the blogerrati compete on who can taste, brag, and Instagram the latest creations out of chef kitchens, it’s not so in the Philippines.  While many here would dine alone just to enjoy an exquisite plate of steak tartare, I rarely see solo diners back home.  In short, the dining experience in the States often times is a celebration of food, but dining out in the Philippines is a celebration of something much much deeper and inevitably messier: people.

Photo Credit: PhilStar.com

Photo Credit: PhilStar.com

From dining out with the extended family, barkada, or co-workers, Pinoys celebrate their companionship just as much as the food.  And so when dishes are delayed, unavailable, or under seasoned, there isn’t as much of a riot because in the hearts and minds of the people, the main goal of dining out has already been accomplished: to be with the ones they love the most.

How about you guys?  Any tips from back home?

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