Now that I have been back in Europe for a while traveling different countries I noticed – or rather re-noticed – that there are substantial differences in the rules for dining out. There are two in particular that I want to point out, one at the front end of the restaurant experience and one at the back end.
Dinner rules here and there.
Photo: (c) Tina Baumgartner
Let’s start with getting a table. There are two ways of doing so in the US: you call and make a reservation or you get in line. The first is easy and logical but sometimes one forgets or the restaurant does not take reservations. The second is quite different from my experience here in Germany. In the US, at least in California every restaurant, including the fish&chips place by the beach and the fast food restaurant have an orderly process. You go up to the hostess and ask to be seated. If she can’t seat you your name goes on a list and that list gets taken care off starting from the top as patrons leave the restaurant and vacate tables.
Sometimes there is no hostess but there is a list and people take it upon themselves to put their names and the number of people in their party on that list – in the right order, without cheating and without trying to skip the line.
Then one waits, patiently or not, that doesn’t matter, until one’s name is called. Sometimes one just hangs around the front area of the restaurant or one is given a buzzer thingy that one takes along while browsing the shops in the mall or whatever. When it buzzes and blinks the table is ready and by that I mean it is ready for you to sit down and order: no half-empty glasses and partially eaten dinners are lingering.
In Germany there are also two ways of getting a table: you call and make a reservation or you outrun your competition for a table. What you do not do is stand patiently at the entry and wait for the next table to become available. I mean you can do that but what will inevitably happen is that somebody else, who came long after you, has been pacing the place to get a good pole position. That art starts with keenly observing the room to see who is close to being done and has asked the waiter to pay up, then one hangs out near that table and as soon as the first person at that table as much as lifts half a butt cheek those skilled in the art (everybody) grab that chair, plunk down and declare victory.
Meanwhile you have politely waited and taken a few steps towards that table as you see the patrons stirring but by the time you get there the whole posse already sat down, pushed the dirty glasses and plates aside, opened the menus, started discussing their wine selections. And they certainly have no intention to leave the table to you. In fact any such inquiry will be met with blank stares. Securing a table in a busy German restaurant is a full contact sport. I find it rather strange by now but if you want to sit down and eat you better play by the rules.
Now let’s assume you got that table and have had your food and a glass of wine and another and maybe a coffee, then there is another cultural difference to negotiate. In Germany and other European countries I have traveled to now it is time for you linger; maybe have another glass of wine, in the olden days a cigarette or two, a little brandy and since we are all having such a grand old time, let’s have a round of Grappa. The waiter would never, ever dare putting the check on the table (unless it is past closing hour by now), you call for the check when you are ready. Then the waiter will come with an itemized list and – unless you are lucky somebody pays the entire bill – every person picks what they had, that gets added up and they pay their share. In the rare case when an unclaimed beer remains everybody will contemplate whether they in fact didn’t have three instead of the two they paid for and somebody is generally found pretty quickly who agrees to pay for it. This I find a rather civilized way going about paying.
In the US the waiter will put the check on your table before you have even finished your last bite of dessert, sometimes before you even ordered dessert. You can, of course, say that you want dessert and then the check disappears and the dessert menu appears. Once you half-way through that triple chocolate cake the check will reappear.
Once you are done eating you are expected to pay and leave. You want some more wine – that’s what the bar is for. One simply does not linger once one is done with dinner. It is time to pay up and leave. I once observed a German couple getting totally outraged by the rudeness of the waiter who put the check on their table while they were finishing up their omelet. “Honey” I wanted to say “they don’t mean to be rude, it’s just how it is done here.”
Then comes the paying part and this irks me to this day. The waiter brings an itemzied list of everything consumed and expects that one person pays it all or the patrons figure out among themselves who pays how much. Smart phones with calculators help some, but often it isn’t the math that is limiting. What makes it infinitely more difficult in the US is that you need to add both taxes and the mandatory tip which people forget or sometimes “forget”. So in the end there is never enough money in the pot and everybody feels that they paid their fair share along the lines of “I only had a sandwich for $8.50, I put $10 in so that should be enough. Well, no, not in California at least, you need to add at least 25% for taxes and tip, so $11 would be closer to the truth. The higher the bill the larger the discrepancy gets.
Another bad method is “going Dutch” where the bill just gets split by the number of people and everybody pays the same whether you had a small salad and water or the Filet Mignon plus appetizer, dessert, wine and a cocktail. This works if you go out with your three best friends and everybody is conscious of not charging the others too much. At your colleagues large birthday party – with a bunch of people you don’t even know – this spells disaster. Especially if the Filet-Mignon-cocktail people need to leave early (oh so busy) and don’t leave enough money to cover their part. After falling for this like a sucker one time I decided to never attend such large birthday parties again.
So, in the end, each culture could learn from the others. The Americans do the getting the table part better, the Germans the paying up part.
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