Good dining etiquette in Germany and Europe is not very different from that in the USA, but there are a few variations that you should know about.
Dining with Friends or Acquaintances
As in the US, if you have been invited to dinner at someone’s home, it is appropriate to bring a gift for your hosts. If you have brought along something typically American from your home state or city, that would be nice. Typical gifts include wine, flowers (no red roses, a sign of romance) or sweets. The better you know your hosts, the better you can select a gift. Remember to arrive on time! Germans don’t do “fashionably late.”
If you are attending a business luncheon or dinner, the rules are much the same as in the US, but remember not to lapse into American first-name familiarity. In Germany, business is business – even when dining. Shake hands (firmly) when greeting people! Otherwise, you can follow the table manners below.
German Table Manners: The Basics
Utensils (Besteck) | You certainly may continue to hold your eating utensils the American way, but Europeans find the American way of eating rather inefficient. (You may get some stares.) They find all that switching hands and picking up and putting down the knife a bit too complicated. Here’s the German/European way:
1. Hold the fork in your left hand, the knife in your right hand.
2. Keep both in your hands while eating. Don’t put the knife or fork down except to drink or pick up bread. The knife (in your right hand) is also used to help discreetly guide food onto your fork (in your left hand).
3. Do not cut up an entire piece of meat at once. Cut off a bite-size piece and eat it before you cut off another piece.
4. If there are more utensils than just a knife and fork (salad fork, dessert spoon, etc.), the rule is simple: Move inward from the outside for each course. Sometimes spoons are placed above the plate rather than on the side.
5. When finished, lay your knife and fork side by side on your plate pointing to the center, with the handles on the lower right rim (five o'clock position).
Finger Foods? Nein! | Germans and other Europeans rarely eat with their hands! Especially in a fine restaurant or in a formal/semiformal dining situation, even pizza is eaten with a knife and fork. However, if you are at an outdoor Grillparty or eating informally, it’s okay to eat some foods with your hands.
Beverages (Getränke) | Germans don’t normally drink tap water, even though it’s perfectly safe to do so. Sparkling mineral water (from a bottle) is the norm. If you prefer the non-fizzy variety (stilles Wasser), you can get that. Germans are big coffee and tea drinkers. (Decaf coffee may or may not be available.) Of course, beer and wine are usually also part of any dinner in Germany. After dinner, brandy, cognac, grappa or some other digestif is often served. Sometimes a Kräuterlikör (herbal liqueur), such as Jägermeister, may be offered instead.
Napkins (Servietten) | Germans seem to make less use of napkins than Americans, but you should put the napkin in your lap while dining, and use it as needed. If you have to leave the table for some reason, put your napkin next to your plate (not on the seat of your chair). After the meal, place your napkin on the table next to your plate (not on it). This also applies to paper napkins, which will end up in the paper recycling bin.
- Dining Out in Germany - Your guide to eating in a
- Cultural Differences - USA-Germany - Cultural comparison charts, including dining
Guten Appetit! | Wait for everyone to be seated and have food on their plates before you begin to eat or drink. It is customary for the host or someone to say “Guten Appetit!” (“Enjoy your meal!”) before anyone takes the first bite. Also see Toasting below.
Note: In restaurants in Germany all the food may not arrive at the same time. Some guests may be served before others. In this case, it is OK to ask politely if you can begin eating, so your meal won’t get cold.
Toasting | If wine or beer is served (and it usually is), wait for the host or hostess to propose a toast and/or start drinking. For a special occasion, you may want to make a toast yourself. Most of the time a simple “Prost!” (“Cheers!”) or “Zum Wohl!” (“To your health!”) will suffice. Look the person in the eye with whom you are clinking glasses!
Hands on the Table | Americans and the British keep their left hand under the table or in their lap. Germans keep it on the table (but no elbows!), partly because they also keep the fork in their left hand most of the time. But it is not a real faux pas to have your hand on your lap.
Try New Foods! | Don’t be afraid to try foods that are new to you. Refusing to even try is an insult to your hosts. If you have a food allergy of any kind, it is best to tell your hosts in advance. If you can’t eat something for health reasons, politely explain to your hosts why.
Clean Your Plate | Don’t take more than you can eat. It’s considered impolite to leave food on your plate.
When in Doubt | If you aren’t sure what to do, watch what others are doing. Also feel free, as a stranger in a strange land, to ask your host discreetly about what is appropriate. You aren’t expected to be James Bond and know all the rules.
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- Dining Out in Germany - Restaurant customs, from being seated to tipping
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- Cultural Differences - USA-Germany - Comparison charts for various customs and daily life in the two countries!
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