On the Portuguese custom of the couvert, and other restaurant customs

In restaurants in the United States, the custom is that anything brought to the table that you didn't order is complimentary. For example, after you place your order, the waiter returns to your table with a basket of bread. The bread is provided at no extra charge. These complimentary items are usually small, like some bread or a one-bite appetizer. (If anything bigger is brought to the table that you didn't request, it is customary to ask the waiter, "Is this ours?" just to make sure it wasn't delivered to the wrong table by mistake.)

In Portugal, the custom is that these items (known as couvert) are brought to your table as a convenience so you don't have to order them, but you still have to pay for them if you eat them. Again, they are typically small items like bread or a small plate of olives. It took me a while to adjust to the Portuguese custom, and I would absently start eating them before realizing that they weren't complimentary. Fortunately, the mistake is not costly; these couvert items usually cost only about one Euro, two tops, and they are things you usually wouldn't have minded ordering anyway.

(History of the couvert practice.)

There was one restaurant in the touristy restaurant part of Lisbon which was clearly trying to exploit the inattentive foreigners. Before my main course was ready, the waiter brought a not insubstantial cheese plate to the table. The cheese appeared quite old. (Yes, I know cheese is supposed to be old, but this one had dried out at the edges.) I may even have detected a layer of dust on it. This was the last meal of my visit, so by then I had figured out this couvert thing and knew to stay away. Which was a good move, because I checked the menu on the way out, and the cheese plate costs a whopping €7.50.

Another restaurant custom different between the United States and Portugal is the doggie bag, In the United States, it is customary for restaurants to offer to pack your uneaten food for you to take home. This is common because portion sizes in the United States have grown to ridiculous levels. The term doggie bag appears to have fallen out of favor, though. Now it's just called a box, as in "Would you like a box for that?" or "Would you like me to box this up?" The doggie bag is not part of Portuguese custom; when asked for a box to take home uneaten food, the waiter reacted as if this were a completely unheared-of situation. To his credit, he did find a solution: He went to the Chinese restaurant next door and took one of their take-out containers.

Nice to know that Chinese restaurants are the same all over the world.

Bonus restaurant tip: In my experience, in Portugal, you have to ask for the check. In the United States, whether you have to ask for the check or whether it will be brought to you varies regionally. In the Northeast, you have to ask for it; in the Seattle area, it will typically be brought to you, usually with a remark from the waiter like "Take your time," which means "I'm not trying to rush you out of here; I'm just saving you the trouble of asking for the check. Pay when you're ready." (Unless you're in a Vietnamese restaurant, in which case you have to ask for the check, per custom.)

Comments (36)
  1. RCG says:

    This is a lot like your blog.  You post articles to establish a blogging point where individuals can enrich their learns on facilitating and leveraging .NET-related activities most effectively without anybody asking you to.  Then we all get stuck paying (reading the comments).

  2. acq says:

    RCG, I’m sorry but you failed to understand that Raymond’s blog is definitely NOT "to establish a blogging point where individuals can enrich their learns on facilitating and leveraging .NET-related activities most effectively."

  3. Some Guy Up North says:

    I respectfully disagree, RCG; Raymond’s posts are completely complimentary. The only one stuck paying is him, in the form of having to take snarky comments and nitpicks, which matches better with the American model than the Portugeuse model.

  4. Gabe says:

    Couvert sounds a lot like hotel minibars.

    Couvert appears to be a French word, which I’m guessing roughly translates to "cover charge". The history page seems to confirm that patrons were originally charged couvert merely because the extras were available. Then a law was passed which said they could only charge you for what was touched, and only if the price was on the menu.

  5. rocko says:

    A Korean restaurant I go to brings about 10 free small plates to your table. Of course, it’s built into the price of the meal…but it’s delicious.

  6. keith says:

    In the United States, the bringing of the check seems to vary by price point: fine dining never brings the check until you ask for it, whereas a midrange chain restaurant (even in the Northeast) brings it to subtly encourage table turnover at the point when they realize they can’t squeeze a dessert or coffee onto the bill.  

  7. SMW says:

    Doesn’t Couvert mean cutlery in French?

    I’ve found that in the US, bringing the check to the table also varies by the waiter/waitress.  Some ask you, some don’t, even in the same restaurant.  I do agree with keith about it varying by price point, in that the chain style restaurants and even some diners will bring it to you almost certainly without asking.

  8. GregM says:

    I’ve lived in New England my entire life, and don’t ever remember having to ask for the check, except with one or two servers who had just generally disappeared for the entire meal, and didn’t bring ANYTHING without being asked for it, including coming over to take our order, and our food.

  9. No One says:

    My New England experience (RI and MA) is that the waiter will generally ask, "Would you like dessert?" or "Would you like to see the dessert menu?" and my programmed response (when not wanting dessert) is "No, thanks, just the check, please."  As far as couvert or out-right-free stuff, I’ve never seen a couvert up here (though water, in a recycled wine-bottle looking bottle, was couvert in Australia when I was there — though with the cost of water in that arid land, it makes sense) but some places bring bread or popcorn and some ask if you want bread or popcorn and some you have to ask for the bread or popcorn.

  10. tsrblke says:

    Hmm, the Idea of Couvert is especially interesting from my US perspective, because it wouldn’t work here.  Once something leaves the kitchen it can’t be used again or reserved to a different table (OK, well shouldn’t I realize the health deparmtent doesn’t catch everything.)  And to me that makes good sense, since, well…germs and the like.

    Incidently, this means anything set at the table is money out the door, so it should be built into your price structure or not given.

    Frankly, I’ve come accustomed to things like bread being free if I go to a nice enough sitdown resturant.  I was at an italian resturant once where they asked soemthing like "Shall we bring bread to the table for you?"  I said "Yes" figuring it was a nice cost control for people who don’t eat bread before a meal.  I didn’t realize until I got the bill that it was because Bread suffered something like a $3 charge, had I known that, i’d likely have gotten an appetizer instead.

  11. longneck says:

    has anyone else noticed that the RSS feed does not contain this entry, and the one from the day before?

  12. Gabe says:

    SMW: Couvert is the past participle of "couvrir", meaning "to cover", but it could also mean "place setting". It’s not too hard to see how "place setting" could mean "cutlery" in one context and "per-person" in another.

  13. PortugueseGuy says:

    If I may, I would like to point out that although this is still common practice in Portugal, for a few years now it is forbidden by law to charge for couvert UNLESS they ask you before if you want it.

    If they ask before and you say yes then they may charge it. Otherwise it should be free and you should write a complaint in their book if they insist in charging you for it. But has in many other things, it takes time to change tradition.

    p.s. sorry for my English.

  14. Dan says:

    In the northeast I’ve always seen the check brought to the table without asking.  Maybe I don’t eat at fancy enough places though.

  15. Kyle S says:

    All these northeasterners claiming they never had to ask for the check… where have you been eating? In and around NYC I always had to ask for the check, but it was always framed in the manner "No One" described: the dessert question (or perhaps coffee) is your opportunity to ask for the check. This was true in diners, casual dining restaurants, and midrange restaurants.

    I’ve noticed that there are a lot of things about restaurant culture that are different here in Seattle. Of course the biggest one is the complete and utter lack of diners. The check-asking dance is another. But I am most disturbed by the stinkeye I get from the hostess when I ask for a table for one. Usually I wind up stuck at the bar, even in a half-empty restaurant.

  16. Ed says:

    If ask for a table for one, which happens often due to business travel, and they try to seat me at the bar, I politely say, "I prefer a table." If they don’t oblige, I say, "Thanks I will eat somewhere else." If the place is half empty I might add, "Shame too, looks like you could have used the business. Perhaps the next proprietor of this building will have a better understanding of customer service."

  17. GregM says:

    longneck, the RSS feed for this blog has been extremely slow for months.  The posts show up in the main blogs.msdn.com feed immediately, but often take several hours to show up in the ONT feed.  I don’t know if it’s something specific to ONT, or affects all of them, because ONT is the only one that I read that posts on a regular schedule (SIAO has started to do it recently, it seems, but I haven’t noticed whether or not those show up right away).

  18. Mike Caron says:

    GregM & longneck: The posts usually show up in the feed about 6:00pm EST, so I dunno what’s up with that.

    On topic, up here in Canada, I’ve always had to ask for the cheque. Granted, I don’t eat out very often, and when I do, it’s at a specific restaurant. So, maybe it’s just that…

  19. danielye says:

    In Israel you have to ask (or beg :) ) for the cheque.

  20. Anonim says:

    If I mention that Vista brings a lot of couvert to the table, I’ll be beaten with a stick by all of you here, I just know.

  21. Random832 says:

    That’s complementary with an ‘e’ – it complements the food.

  22. Rui Carneiro says:

    Hi. I’m Portuguese and I’m really liking reading your blog.

    I would like to make you a few recommendations.

    The average portuguese probably wouldn’t understand what you mean by “doggie bag”, but if you ask to “embrulhar as sobras” you can get your uneaten food wrapped in aluminum foil or so (it’s not normal by the portuguese, although)… Then if you want food for your dog, you can ask for “restos para os cães”, and they should give you a sack with uneaten food not only from your serving, but from the kitchen, with meat and carbs (like the dog likes).

    For the couvert thing, we, portuguese, also have mixed feelings about it, some of us hate it, some of us love it!

    The restaurants know that it’s a representative of the quality of the restaurant itself! If you don’t want, don’t eat it, or you can say “não, obrigado”, and they will take them away without any word or prejudice.

    If the couvert isn’t mentioned in the menu (every restaurant must have a menu and is obligated by the law to post the menu visible form the outside, although many don’t do it). You DON’T have to pay it! Really, there’s a law for that.

    More, don’t tip like you do in USA, no tips, it’s ok, really, 1€ tip is a good tip, most of the tips are change. Nobody will yell at you or threat you bad if you don’t tip.

    [We didn’t literally ask for a “doggie bag”; we asked for a container so we could take the uneaten food home. Oh, and having the price printed in the menu is of little value since the couvert comes to the table after they take the menu away. -Raymond]
  23. Rui Carneiro says:

    Also you are losing a lot there in Lisbon, look at what happened here in Oporto this Tuesday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otblJuRw2sk

  24. Miral says:

    @Gabe: now I understand why those restaurant TV shows are always announcing dining tickets as "X covers, table Y".  Thanks for that.  (It seemed like an odd word choice before; now it makes sense.)

  25. Messiant R says:

    In Belgium, the term "couvert" means as much as a place in the restaurant that can be occupied by a customer. So a group of X people is usually referred to as X couverts.

    As for the tourist trap, don’t worry.. if you didn’t explicitly order something or indicated you wanted it, they can’t charge you for it. Many places do offer an "amuse" when you take your seat, which can be free depending on the restaurant. Bread and water are often things that you have to pay for, the only place I know where those are usually free is France.

    It is considered impolite if a restaurant owner brings you the check here without having at least asked if you’re all done, so the customer is almost always the asking party. I don’t really see how it would work otherwise.. since they can’t really know you’re done or not. And no matter what, it’s always a good idea to double-check the check.

    As for doggie bags.. that’s mostly done for children, most adults here eat everything they order. Most children too actually, I haven’t seen it being used a lot yet.

    Also, I hear you guys can get free coffee refills.. that would be considered insane over here, but as a customer, I’m sure I’d like that.

  26. Gabe says:

    Yes, Messiant, couverts sometimes means BIS (http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2010/05/04/10006748.aspx).

  27. barryleiba says:

    Random832, you’re wrong.  In this context, "complimentary" means "free of charge".  You can say that a complimentary item complements (not "compliments") the food, yes… but the word Raymond wanted is the one he used, with an "i".

  28. Random832 says:

    barryleiba: It was a joke – a reference to a travel agency commercial that’s been running recently in the US, depicting a bad hotel that charges guests for ‘complementary’ water.

    And now i’ve explained the joke, it’s not funny anymore.

  29. DodgyBob says:

    Whereas, in Italy, at least near the Vatican, the custom is to try and charge you things you didn’t order and which never came.

    A waiter there tried to insist that pane was a gratuity, not bread as is the real translation. That my work on unsophisticated tourists but not me, my pretty :-)

  30. James Schend says:

    Kyle S:

    There are a couple diners in Seattle, but they are very few and very far-between, and usually well-hidden. Too many food snobs here, finding good solid American food is actually a lot more difficult than it should be.

    Go 20 miles out of town, however, and you’re set. I’m from Snohomish, and it has two *great* diners.

  31. davis says:

    @No One:

    "though water, in a recycled wine-bottle looking bottle, was couvert in Australia when I was there"

    You were ripped off. No restaurant in Australia would (or at least normally would) charge you for chilled tap water. Similarly they would not charge you for bread (or other token entrees) brought, uninvited, to the table.

    If you were in a restaurant with a large table or in a reasonably upmarket restaurant (ie the only places you’d consider a gratuity in Australia), then charging for tap water would certainly mean withholding that tip.

  32. peterchen says:

    I love the practice of getting the change on a small saucer, and the customer leaving the tip behind on it.  

    The couvert practice can be a slight problem if you are travelling on a tight budget and in tourist traps, but if you can afford the few euros (cents really if you get to the more remote areas), it makes a pleasant dining experience. The items being charged for means it often aren’t just cheap stuffers, but little pieces of yummy.

    The unpleasentries of US dining are the agressive insistance on a tip, and the push to get you away from the table quickly when you finished. It’s really annoying only in large cities, and I understand that it’s part of the US restaurant economy. Still… After eliminating the invalid prejudice that US food = Nasty Fast Food, these are some stingers. Apparently, I have to try the Seattle area ;)

  33. Luis Abreu says:

    Sorry Raymond, but you were simply robbed if you paid for any non-requested couverts. It’s regular practice to try that kind of stunt here in Portugal, but I can guarantee you that if you didn’t ask for it, then you didn’t really had to pay for it (notice that I’m assuming that the waiter didn’t ask you if you wanted some bread; if he did, that’s a completely different story). Receiving non-requested couverts has happened to me in the past and it ended up with me not paying for it and with a written complaint about the behavior of that restaurant. And I even got support from DECO (Portuguese association for consumers rights)…

  34. No One says:

    @davis — maybe I just mistook the practice then since the only time I drank that water someone else was was covering the bill.  I’ll remember that if/when I go back though (both to keep track of and worry less), thanks!

  35. André says:

    Actually the law in Portugal is that anything you didn’t explicitly order is to be considered a gift from the restaurant. This is irrespective of whether it’s listed on the menu or not.

    The problem is that the tradition is so embedded in our culture, and so few people know the law, that customers just keep paying. With unsuspecting tourists it’s probably much worse.

    To work around this I’ve seen many restaurants where waiters ask you if you’d like the couvert as discreetly as possible. I don’t know what the law says then – you didn’t explicitly order it, but you didn’t refuse it either. Most likely the law is on the restaurant’s side then.

    As for bringing food home, yes – very few people do it, and even then it’s mostly at pizza places. Don’t really know why, it just "doesn’t feel right" to most people :)

  36. barryleiba says:

    Random832: Gaaaa!  And if I weren’t clueless about TV ads, I probably would have recognized the joke.  So sorry.

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