Before the pandemic, mostly only in the busiest of restaurants were you given a strict window of time for how long you and your party could occupy a table (even if there have always been some unspoken rules about how long is acceptable to linger). Now in a post-COVID culture, we’ve become even more accustomed to paying the check and clearing the table as quickly as possible after meals, and some tables even have signs posted indicating the 90- or 120-minute limit.
Taking time to digest and chat with the people around you is not so common in American dining, though it should be. Spending time purely appreciating the conversation and company is something that those with a Hispanic background understand to be a crucial part of the dining experience.
What is sobremesa?
Literally translated, sobremesa means “over the table,” which doesn’t give much away as to what this tradition actually is or where it came from. However, BBC Travel sums it up pretty perfectly as “the time you spend at the table after you’ve finished eating.”
The tradition itself can be traced back to Spain but is also part of Latin American culture, explains Cocina. Originally, sobremesa began because of the very heavy Spanish lunch custom. Spanish lunches are usually served as three-course meals, the last of which is dessert. After a heavy lunch in the middle of the day, sobremesa is a dedicated time for relaxation at the table with others, everyone chatting and maybe sipping on digestifs instead of taking the midday nap your body might be craving.
I only recently discovered that this tradition had a name at all. Sobremesa, throughout my life, has just naturally occurred among family and friends. But now I know what to call it when, even after I’ve just eaten my own weight in food, I still manage to save space for a little cafecito and conversation.
Why American dining should embrace sobremesa
Sobremesa is not just about sipping on sweet alcohol or snacking on the light post-meal bites that might also make an appearance. (Yes, if you sobremesa long enough people will get hungry again.) What makes this tradition so special is the way it encourages diners to engage in deep conversations with everyone at the table.
Trust me, if I opened up my phone and started scrolling through TikTok long enough after having a three-course meal, a siesta would be inevitable. The point of sobremesa is to keep looking up, talk to each other, and collectively appreciate the wonderful meal you just enjoyed while surrounded by people you actually want to talk to.
While many restaurants in Europe are already accustomed to patrons sticking around long after the dishes are cleared, American establishments are not always so welcoming. Often they can’t afford to be, because restaurants here are designed for (and depend on) high turnover. Consequently, you might run into some trouble trying to follow the tradition of sobremesa.
To enjoy this tradition, you’ll have to take a few extra steps here in the US. Check with the restaurant in advance to see if there are strict time limits on reservations, and explain that you are looking to spend some extra time. Arrive outside of the restaurant’s main rush periods, and be sure to keep ordering something for the table at regular intervals, whether a round of drinks to sip on or light snacks to share—and, of course, leave a generous tip at the end. Sobremesa is worth the investment.