Dining Out in Germany

Restaurant Etiquette, Tipping and Other Matters

In many ways, the German way of dining out is similar to that in most parts of the world. However, many a US-Amerikaner or Canadian has been surprised, or has surprised a German waiter or waitress by failing to fully understand the European/German way of dining out.

A restaurant in Cochem, Germany

A restaurant in Cochem, Germany – with outdoor tables. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

For example, North Americans, who are used to leaving a tip on the table, need to know that this just isn’t done in the German-speaking world. (See tipping advice below.) You could literally wait forever to be seated by a host or hostess in a German restaurant. (You usually find your own seat. It’s not very difficult with a little practice.) Wondering where the water is? (Tap water is verboten!) What do you mean, you don’t take credit cards!? (Many dining establishments in Austria and Germany do not accept plastic.)

Are you beginning to understand why you (North Americans) need to be reading this? (Continental Europeans and experienced world travelers may now move on to another topic.) Believe me, it will be worth reading through all this because it is difficult to get a bad meal in the German-speaking world. (However, it can be done. Just remember rule number one: Never eat in an establishment where the bar seems to be more important than the dining area!)

German Restaurant Basics

Finding a Seat
Upon entering an Austrian, German or Swiss dining establishment do not wait to be seated. It could be a long wait. Diners are expected to find their own table. Sometimes a foodserver may deign to suggest a table, but they’re usually too busy ignoring the people who are already seated. If you see a sign (in German, of course) that says “Please wait to be seated,” you have chosen an exclusive and probably very expensive spot to dine. Most of the time you just find your own seat.

Water
For some strange reason Americans expect a glass of water, suitably chilled, to automatically appear at their table in a restaurant. This no doubt stems from Prohibition. However, most Europeans avoid drinking tap water in general—not because it isn’t safe; they just don’t want to spoil a perfectly good meal with such a bland liquid! After all, there are so many better things to drink!

If water is desired, it is almost always bottled Mineralwasser (sparkling mineral water), not out of the tap. If you don’t want the fizzy stuff, ask for “stilles Wasser” (shtil-es vahs-ser). Most Americans who somehow learned the German phrase for “tap water, please” (“Leitungswasser bitte”) rarely use the phrase a second time. The puzzled look of disgust on the server’s face is usually enough to discourage all but the most emboldened from any second attempt. It is a look that says: “Ordinary water is fine for bathing, but only a moron would drink it!”

Tired of Wiener Schnitzel?

(NO! It’s not a hot dog!) Are you bursting with Bratwurst? Then try the German version of Chinese food! (Amazing how “Chinese” food gets around!) Or perhaps some spicy Indian fare? Most German towns of any size have more to offer than just German fare or McDonald’s. There is a very good chain of Indian (from India) restaurants in Germany. You’ll also find an Argentinian steak house on every other corner. Turkish Döner Kabap, a sort of shish kebab in pita bread, has now become the German national fast food. – So give those taste buds a little adventure! You’re in Europe, for crying out loud! In the words of Auntie Mame: “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving!”

Strangers and other Matters
The German custom of sitting with perfect (or imperfect) strangers is really very practical. The first time it happens can be a little unnerving for an Ami but after a while it makes a lot of sense. Usually this only happens in restaurants or beer gardens, where there are longer tables with empty seats. Usually you politely ignore each other. Sometimes the Germans may want to try out their English on you, but an American is no rarity in Germany.

A la carte
Like most Americans, the Germans also believe there is no free lunch – or at least no free bread rolls. Feel free to partake, but the rolls aren’t usually free. (In some restaurants they may be. Ask if you’re not sure.) But before you show your American indignation, remember – there is no free lunch. Or dinner. In the States the rolls and butter are included in the price of your meal. Because it’s “free” you gobble up some rolls you may or may not really want. In Europe they’re more honest about it.

A complete restaurant dinner with everything included is rare in Germany. Usually, you pay a la carte for each side dish, in addition to the main item. You pay for what you consume. (McDonald’s in Germany charges extra for ketchup packs!) You really have to be hungry to eat rolls you know you’re going to pay for. — And that brings us to the very important topic of paying.

German desserts

German desserts served in a Berlin restaurant. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Paying the Bill & Tipping
This is always done at the table with the waiter or waitress who served you. The foodserver even carries a money pouch to take care of the financial transaction. Depending on the service you received, you should tip the normal 15 percent or so, but don’t leave your tip (Trinkgeld) on the table. Some cheap Germans just round up the amount of the check (which the foodserver will amazingly compute in a few seconds – if the establishment hasn’t installed a computerized billing system) to the next euro, or add a euro or two. Don’t do that! If you received decent service, add a decent tip! After all, your foodserver is working for a living and depends largely on tips! (Often a waiter’s basic salary depends on the volume of business that day.) A “normal” German tip is 5-10 percent, but even some Germans consider that a bit low. Of course, if the service was poor, you don’t have to tip at all.

More on The German Way

Table Manners in Germany
How not to seem like a barbarian!

If you are paying by credit card (less common in Germany; see below), the tipping procedure is the same as in the US. Oh, by the way, a 19 percent sales tax (actually a VAT, value-added tax) is included in the price of almost anything you buy in Germany (20 percent in Austria), including restaurant meals. (Groceries and some other items are taxed at a lower rate.) It’s always included, never added on as in the US. (Doesn’t that make the 4 to 9-percent sales tax back home look like a bargain in comparison?) You can find the amount of tax you paid printed out on your receipt.

Credit Cards
It can come as a rather nasty surprise to suddenly discover that the nice restaurant you just dined in does NOT accept credit cards. Although almost unheard of in North America, many restaurants in the German-speaking world, even some very fine ones, do not accept credit cards of any kind. It is wise to always check about plastic payment — before you order. If you don’t see any credit card logos—the familiar-looking ones for Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc.—then be sure to ask the waiter. (But be sure the waiter speaks English, German or some other mutual language. A waitress in a Berlin Chinese restaurant once nodded yes to my credit card query. It was only when I tried to use my card that I discovered the young Asian lady hadn’t understood a word I had said — in German. But my Chinese is very weak.)

Chopsticks

When enjoying Asian food in Germany, very few Chinese, Vietnamese or other Asian restaurants provide chopsticks. You have to ask for Stäbchen (shtayp-shen) if you prefer to use chopsticks.

Using these cultural tips, you should be able to dine and imbibe well—all across Austria, Germany or Switzerland. Guten Appetit! (Enjoy your meal! Bon appetit!)

Next, in Part 2, we’ll discuss Dining Etiquette in Germany.

Loosely based on Point 21 (Dining, page 35) of The German Way by Hyde Flippo

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