On a rainy summer night in Mexico City, my friend Sofía and I were sitting at the bar of the restaurant where we had agreed to meet for dinner, sneaking anxious glances at the table we were waiting for. The couple occupying it had finished their meal long before we arrived, but their animated conversation showed no signs of slowing down. Oblivious to the line forming outside the restaurant, the pair cheerfully sipped away at their water and, for nearly an hour, ignored the check that had been placed between them. “Sorry,” our waiter told my friend and me, handing us a second round of drinks on the house, “You know how unpredictable sobremesa can be.” We did know, and it was impossible to begrudge the couple; Sofía and I had been in their place, holding a table, many times before.
Making dinner plans with friends in Mexico City is as complicated as in any other metropolis, but often there is one additional hurdle to overcome: sobremesa. Literally translating to “over table,” the word refers to the time people spend drinking, smoking, and talking around the table once a meal is done. While it’s true that post-meal chatter is a staple of private dinner parties around the world, sobremesa is a distinct cultural tradition that originated in Spain. In Mexico, it’s so ingrained into the culture that it often spills over into restaurant behavior, easily doubling or tripling a dinner’s length, and all other parties’ waiting times along with it. But restaurant owners and other diners don’t view sobremesa as a nuisance, and when visiting Mexico City, the best way to bond with locals is to join in on the tradition.
A reflection of Mexico’s love for leisure, community, and tequila, sobremesa is a penchant that our neighbors to the north don’t seem to share to an equal degree, evidenced by the fact that Americans don’t even have a word for it. But in Mexico, food — while wonderfully complex and full of history — is, at its core, little more than an excuse to come together. In Mexico City, especially, where the metropolitan area harbors a total population of 21.2 million, sobremesa functions as a welcomed antidote to the frenetic flow of the metropolis.
I like to think I perfected the art of sobremesa back in college, when my roommates and I were almost always relegated to our apartment’s dining room by virtue of our limited student budgets. Having never gotten around to saving up for a couch, every day we congregated around a long table that we’d fashioned from a door. And because we were all unemployed and admittedly not the most dedicated students, our time was mostly spent coming up with cheap concoctions to serve on large plates that we would pass around until they were bare. Invariably, hours of conversation would follow.
Foreigners who move here are quick to catch on; Andrea Celda, for example, moved from Spain to Mexico with her partner years ago, and says they made friends through the endless sobremesas that followed the lunch parties they hosted in their new home. Though the term originated in her home country, and holds a special place in Spanish culture as well, Celda says that it soon became something she associated exclusively with socializing in Mexico City. “Often, a sobremesa would turn into a full-blown party,” she says. “I miss that so much.”
A few months ago the couple relocated to New York City, where Celda describes social dynamics as distinctly less relaxed. “I guess it has to do with how little space and time people have here,” she muses. “But also, in Mexico, food is much more cultural, and it’s so linked with friends and family, and with building communities.”
There are differences between the sorts of conversations that take place while sharing a meal and those that happen after it’s finished, during sobremesa. Once a tequila bottle is opened and a cloud of smoke settles atop the table, people are ready to let loose. “During a good sobremesa you can close a great business deal — or lose one — or establish a friendship, or argue your way into a rivalry,” says Juan Luis Carrera, a wedding planner from Guadalajara. Weddings in Mexico are known for being lively and grandiose, but when Juan Luis started working with his business partner, he noticed there was something missing in their programming. Dancing always began immediately after dessert, he says, leaving no time for anyone to talk or enjoy their carajillos, a typical after-dinner drink in Mexico, made with espresso and a sweet liquor called Licor 43.
“Before working in [wedding planning], whenever I would attend a wedding, I would think that time for sobremesa was missing,” he says. “You haven’t even finished your dessert and suddenly everyone’s dancing. No. People in Mexico enjoy talking as much as dancing.” Juan Luis now convinces his clients to leave a window of time before dancing begins for what he considers a crucial aspect of every meal. So far, not one bride has regretted his imposed rule. “It’s obvious,” he says.
While meticulously planned events like weddings call for sobremesas to be scheduled into their programs, it is usually a far more spontaneous event, and one for which certain restaurants are ideally suited. Recently, I was aghast when friends visiting Mexico City from New York told me they scheduled a museum tour a mere hour and a half after a lunch reservation at Contramar. The restaurant is doubtless a Mexico City culinary staple, but its true charm doesn’t unfold until after dessert.
At Contramar, waiters are never in a hurry to bring the check, and are always acutely aware of any mezcal glasses that need refilling. On my last visit, my party arrived at 2 p.m. and left seven hours later, only because the restaurant was closing for the night. I explained to my perplexed gringo friends that one doesn’t go to Contramar for 90 minutes; half the experience is staying there with your group long after dessert, getting increasingly loud over more drinks (the carajillos are exemplary).
This city is daunting in its enormity, and it’s tempting to plan a packed itinerary — Aztec pyramids, Frida Kahlo’s house, colorful boats that sail down the Xochimilco canals, plus myriad museums, mercados, and taco stands top must-see lists you’ll find online. In the past decade, travelers have become increasingly obsessed with experiencing their destinations “as a local,” but truly immersing yourself in Mexico City’s culture requires more than pinning down which spots the locals frequent; it requires also treating those spots as the locals do. Sobremesa is only a small part of the city’s milieu, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked by visitors.
Restaurants here know this, and if a hostess ever tells you the wait time for a table could be anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, she’s not lying. Go sit outside El Parnita — a laid-back lunch spot frequented by the art crowd of La Roma neighborhood — on any given Friday afternoon, and you’ll find that absolutely no one inside is in a hurry. Likewise for San Ángel Inn, a former hacienda on the south side of the city, which hosts large groups of families and friends on the weekends.
The paradox of feeling lonely while living in a big city seems to be common everywhere else, but since moving to this one I’ve never felt alienated, or lacking community — in part because of sobremesa. There’s something about letting go of rigid schedules and strict ideas against time-wasting that enables you to step outside of yourself and establish connections with others. While working on this piece, I asked my Mexican acquaintances about their experiences with over-table bonding. “I wouldn’t even know where to start,” my friend Francisco replied, “but let’s discuss it after dinner this weekend.”
Karina Zatarain is a writer based between Mexico City and New York City.