Food and Drink For Members

Spain's bars are placing time limits on customers (but is it legal?)

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Spain's bars are placing time limits on customers (but is it legal?)
Tourists drink sangría at a bar terrace on Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Would you sit down for drinks if you were told you had a limit of just 30 minutes? (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

An increasing number of bars and restaurants in Spain are timing how long customers can stay before asking them to leave, for many the antithesis of 'the Spanish way'. But are business owners within their rights to do so?


Spain may be the land of sobremesas - the concept of dragging out post-meal get-togethers as the conversation between friends and family members flows - but an increasing number of café, bar and restaurant owners are now looking to put a stop to this in their premises. 

As Spain emerged from its Covid-19 lockdown and endured two years of domestic restrictions, many people within the hospitality sector looked for ways to recoup their losses. 

First, there were the ‘coronavirus service charges’ added to people’s bills (which consumer watchdog FACUA dubbed illegal), then a general rise in prices that’s recently been exacerbated by spiralling inflation, and to an increasing extent now, putting time limits on how long customers can stay, especially in bar and restaurant terraces.


To be clear, there were already establishments that set a time limit prior to Covid-19, in particular popular ones where booking a table was required. But it was during the period of restrictions on indoor seating for the hospitality sector that many business owners began to set limits on how long customers could spend at the terrace table as their overall seating was considerably reduced. 

After two years of limitations on socialising and eating out, Spaniards are now going out en masse during the sweltering summer, resulting in an even bigger rise in the number of bars and restaurants that start the stopwatch as soon as customers sit down. 

To have a drink, the limit is often 30 minutes. For those sitting down for a meal, it’s usually an hour and a half, or even just one hour. 

The practice is most prevalent in Barcelona and Bilbao. 

The reason for these time limitations which are so contrary to the Spanish way of life is of course money, the reasoning behind it being that the longer a person or group sits at a table without eating or drinking anything, the higher the chances that new customers won’t be able to sit down and spend.

Spanish newspaper EPE even found that some restaurants in Barcelona don’t serve customers who are on their own or couples as they can’t make as much money out of them as from larger groups. 

Then there are establishments that don’t allow people to sit at a table at la terraza after a certain time unless it’s to have lunch or dinner; some even expect customers to spend a “minimum amount” to enjoy their al fresco premises.

Opinions among Spaniards on table time limitations are fairly divided. 

There are those who understand that business owners are struggling to make a profit given the rise in costs of products, gas and electricity (perhaps from their own experience of working in the hospitality industry), whilst other Spaniards find the whole experience of being rushed when they’re trying to relax and enjoy to be unfair, believing that the owners’ reasoning is mainly based on greed and financial gain. 

As the Spanish saying goes, la polémica está servida (controversy is served).

table time limits spain

Consumer rights groups agree that customers should be forewarned for table time limits to be considered legal in Spain. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

Is it legal for Spain’s bars, restaurants and cafés to set time limits on paying customers?

If an establishment notifies the customer upon arrival or has a sign informing them of the time limit, then it is considered legal by consumer rights groups OCU and FACUA.

However, if the methods used by the waiters or owners are underhand, then the legality of the practice is questionable.

According to FACUA spokesperson Rubén Sánchez, "it's one thing to be notified in advance when booking or arriving, and quite another when you're already there (eating and drinking) and they try to kick you out".


“Everything is subject to interpretation”, he adds, as if someone only orders a coffee and sits at a terrace table for five hours at a busy time it’s understandable that restaurant or bar owners will be concerned, but if you’re going to spend €100 or more, then the last thing you want is to be told you have to get up and go after one hour. 

It’s also important for table time limits to be clearly signposted and in a visible place, especially if the waiters don’t inform customers beforehand, otherwise Sánchez deems the practice illegal.

Furthermore, there’s the speed at which food and drinks are brought out, as if this takes very long, it’s a tough ask to expect customers to rush.

“What it’s about is weighing up the rights of each side, but not expecting customers to finish eating in just half an hour,” Sánchez concludes. 

“I don’t believe that these types of formulas will find much success. It’s about treating each other with respect, every customer has to evaluate their own case. 

“If the time limits aren’t applied properly it could end up being really chaotic”.


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shepherdg30 2022/08/19 21:44
I dont think that will catch on in many places and could backfire on the owners in quiet periods. I like seeing or being part of a group that has a long Lunch occasionally. Algeciras, much maligned Port City has many Restaurantes, many on the 4km of beaches in the city limits and its not uncommon to see a group still at tables at 5pm.

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