Saturday, April 6, 2013

Dining in Germany II: Finishing up

Click here for Part I

Ok, so you've enjoyed a delicious meal and perhaps a glass of wine or Apfelschorle (apple juice spritzer), and you sit back satisfied.  Chances are, you're actually stuffed and wondering how you're going to roll home, wishing you could try a piece of that Apfelstrudel you remember your grandmother making. The waiter appears, and taking your plate asks "War's recht?" Directly translated, that means "Was it right?", but never mind direct translations. You know he's asking if the meal was to your liking. If you're in Swabia, even if you've just eaten the most delicious piece of venison you've ever had, tone down your compliment to "It was very good, thank you." To a Swabian, over-flowery gushing compliments come across as insincere.  If the meal was only very good, a simple "Ja, danke" (Yes, thank you) will do.

The waiter will then ask if you would like a dessert or to see the dessert menu. Even if you're too full for dessert, it's very common to have some kind of coffee after the meal to help things settle. If you're dining with Germans, they'll probably have one, so you might as well, too. It seems to me that many Germans think a plain coffee at this point is unimaginative. It's much more fashionable to have a cappuccino or espresso. Do not expect flavored coffee, which is so popular in the U.S.. Germans like their coffee to taste like coffee, not hazelnuts, cinnamon, or vanilla. Above all, do not just dash off after you've finished your meal. Relax! Enjoy the atmosphere and company. Dine. Don't dash.

Incidentally, although Germans have a reputation for consuming barrels and barrels of beer (as do Wisconsinites), they drink more coffee per capita per year than beer. Like the beer, the coffee here tends to be stronger than in America, so be ready to add cream or sugar.

You and your friends have finished your hot beverages, and now you want to pay and leave. For some reason, in larger restaurants, this is where things can get tricky. You wait patiently, assuming your waiter will show up when he sees that your coffee cups are empty to offer more. Wait. No free refills. You look around to see if you can find him, but he seems to have disappeared. You wait some more. As you realize that your waiter has not returned to your table to ask how things are every time you had a mouthful of food as they do in the States, you wonder if he will return at all. Well, he won't get a very good tip if he doesn't, right?  Wrong. The tip is included in the prices. You wait some more.

Maybe you could ask another waiter to send...what was his name? You don't know his name because German waiters don't introduce themselves (and surely don't use first names!), and few wear name tags. Then you see him. Though you almost shout with relief, you don't want to be obnoxious, so you wait for him to look in your direction so you can make a subtle gesture indicating you need him. He doesn't look. He seems to be forcing you to be patient and let your food settle. But we Americans want to leave as soon as we're finished! We practically pay and return to our cars still chewing our last bite!

Eventually, after what seemed like 45 minutes of trying to get his attention - though it was really probably only 5 minutes - he glances over, and you wave at him a bit too enthusiastically. Is he smirking?? He approaches your table as you dig in your wallet and flash your credit card, pulls a face, and says, "Sorry, cash only."  WHAT?!? In the U.S. we even pay a $4.78 bill at McDonald's with plastic. Your bill is €88!  This is a nice, fancy restaurant - don't all nice, fancy restaurants take credit cards?  Yes. In America. In Germany most restaurants are family owned and operated, there are not many chains, and businesses are charged fees for processing credit cards.  If you're going out for a meal in Germany, though you might get lucky and can find places that accept credit, prepare to pay in cash.

Most Americans tip much more than they need to in German restaurants, because they add the 15-20% additional tip that is customary in the U.S.. As I said earlier, though, the tip (as well as the tax) is already included, though adding something (up to 10%) to your bill is appropriate if you were satisfied with the food and service.  What the waiters appreciate is when you round your bill up to an amount that prevents them having to dig for small change. With a bill of €88, hand the waiter €100 and tell him "€95, bitte." You simply tell him the total amount you want him to keep, and he'll give you the change you need. You don't leave a tip on the table, and you don't hand him the extra money. Just tell him what to keep. If you happen to have €95 in bills, hand him that and say "Stimmt so" (Correct as is, or keep the change).

Now you're ready to go. Use the restroom before you go, because public facilities are not as common or easily found as in the U.S.. If you were sharing a table with a stranger at the other end, even if not a word was said between you since one of you established that the seat was available an hour ago, say "Auf Wiedersehen" to him, her, or them. It would be rude to just walk away after sharing a table.

The thing to remember is that dining in Germany is not rushed. You're paying for a meal out, so take your time and enjoy it.


  1. I guess that, being European, I wasn't aware just how different dining habits over here are from American ones. I certainly didn't realise Americans treat eating out as something that has to be fast and efficient, so they can get on with the 'real business' of living. To me, eating out is itself an essential part of living, to be enjoyed at your leisure.

    As for paying with credit cards, a lot of us still don't - especially in restaurants, because as you say they're charged for the 'privilege' by the credit card companies, and all but the classiest (= most expensive) ones simply don't think it's worth their while. What you can do pretty much anywhere in Europe these days is pay with your own national debit card (bank card) - all these cards are nowadays marked 'Maestro' as if it were a brand name, so you can simply ask to pay with your Maestro card (even though the name of the bank, the colour and the lettering will vary considerably). The reason we aren't so keen on credit cards even as customers is that we don't generally like getting into debt - something credit cards encourage you to do. In fact, we're shocked to hear that Americans are actually considered financially unreliable unless they do get into debt (where's the logic in that?), so they can build up a 'credit rating'. I've never been in debt in my life, except when paying off a mortgage on a house (I don't have a car), and I mean to keep things that way - whereas in America I expect I would never have got the mortgage in the first place, for lack of a satisfactory 'debt history'....

    As for the business of being told the waiter's or waitress's name, I find it inappropriately familiar - this isn't someone I'd call 'Dan' or 'Sharon' under any other circumstances, and here we have plenty of phrases we can use to attract people's attention when we need to ('Excuse me!', 'Hallo!', 'S'il vous plait', 'Prego' and so on) - but in any case, as I say, we're seldom in such a rush! I've sometimes needed to catch a train in, say, a hour's time, and then I ask if there's anything that can be served and paid for fast enough - the waiter or waitress will then point me to the right dishes and wait while I make my quick choice (one good turn deserves another), or if necessary tell me it can't be done.

    What also struck me on the one occasion I visited the States and ate in restaurants there was that more than once I was summoned by microphone with my surname and the curious words 'Party of one' (since I was alone), then led to a table - I wasn't able to choose my own, as I would have been in Europe (unless things were very busy). Here it's quite normal to walk in somewhere and choose a table by yourself - if it isn't clearly reserved, it's available. You don't even expect to be welcomed at length on arrival, although someone will usually acknowledge your presence with a nod and a brief standard greeting, just so you know you've been noticed. Nor will you get the interminable and impossible-to-remember lists of dressings, types of eggs or baked potatoes. They should be specified on the menu, and you'll have time to make your choice in the time it takes for someone to take your order - though usually you'll immediately be asked what you want to drink while you look at the menu.

    And finally, tips. To us, these are optional extras - our waiters and waitresses are paid a basic living wage, otherwise they wouldn't take the job in the first place -and the restaurant almost certainly wouldn't be allowed (by law) to pay them so little! The idea that tips are a crucial part of their income strikes us as a sure-fire recipe for fake 'friendliness' - ten cents a smile? We'd far sooner be served by people who genuinely enjoy what they're doing!

  2. I'm sure not all Americans race through their meals at restaurants, but my family was/is the "eat, pay, leave" sort. I much prefer the European way of enjoying a dinner out.

    You make great observations and comparisons, and there's not a single thing you mentioned that I disagree with or haven't observed. :-) I think it is important for people who are traveling (especially without a tour group) to understand how things are done in other countries. I wrote this quite a while ago and was trying not to sound too critical of what Americans are used to. I might write a reprise of this post - about dining in American from a German's point-of-view!

    Thanks for reading and commenting! ~B