I was a bit overwhelmed the first time we went out to eat at a restaurant in Germany. The combination of having a language barrier, not being able to translate all the words on a non-English menu, and my lack of understanding about the process in general resulted in an intimidating situation. We still experience confusion sometimes when we go out for a meal, but we’ve definitely got a better idea of how to act and what to do after seven months of living in Germany. Here are some things you can expect when you go out to eat in Germany.
How the German Restaurant Experience Is Different Compared to the US.
There is often little to no parking available.
You’ll typically need to pay to park your car in a garage or hope you can find a spot on a nearby street. We don’t have a car so this hasn’t been a problem for us. It’s nice that everything is so compact; things tend to get spread out in the US when so many restaurants have vast parking lots. It’s also nice that we can take a brief walk to somewhere close instead of driving 30 minutes to go eat out.
Reservations: you’re more likely to need them.
In Germany, reservations aren’t just for large groups or nice restaurants. You might need one just to have a casual lunch for two on a Saturday. A few times we’ve been out in Schweinfurt and spontaneously decided to eat somewhere only to be turned away because all of the tables were reserved. You’re better being safe than sorry when it comes to making reservations in the land of beer and sausage.
This was so stressful to me at first because it was unclear what we were supposed to do. We’d walk into a restaurant, no one would notice us or say hello, and we would just stand there awkwardly. Now we know to walk in and seat ourselves (unless there’s a sign saying to wait, but that’s rare) even though doing so still feels very strange. I don’t think I’ll get used to it anytime soon.
Tiny seats and sometimes sharing your table with others.
Lack of space affects everything in Europe, and that includes restaurants. I’m often surprised at how small the booths and chairs are – sometimes it’s like trying to sit in a kids desk in an elementary school. And you can forget about leg space. Germans also find it normal to share a table with other customers (but they don’t talk to them other than to say hello and goodbye). This is especially common at breweries and beer halls.
Forks, knives, and napkins will be on the table when you arrive.
In the US you usually receive a roll of silverware with a napkin as you’re seated. But in Germany the silverware and napkins remain on the table in a bucket or some sort of themed holder. So if you’re lost once you get your food, don’t forget to take one more look at the table before calling your waiter back!
It seems like there are candles everywhere in German restaurants. Usually someone will accidentally blow a candle out at some point during the meal. I can’t help but think that restaurants in the US would not trust the average person with an open flame.
Few condiments or none on the table.
I’ll never forget when I asked for ketchup at the Skyline restaurant in Mannheim and they brought me three packets on a little platter. Three! I’ve never been served ketchup packets at a restaurant before – in the US they leave bottles of it on the table. And if you go out to a fast food joint in Germany you’ll only get one condiment packet included with your meal; more will cost you 30 cents a pop. I never thought that I would miss discovering 20 or so ketchup packets underneath my food in a to-go bag.
No free water (or great reluctance to give you free water).
Not only do German restaurants not want to give you free water, but if you don’t specify stilles Wasser when you order then you’re going to get the bubbly stuff. Furthermore, the cost of water in a German restaurant usually is equal to or more than a glass of beer or wine. This article from the local says, “… the mark-up on bottled water is huge, much bigger than on booze – more than 500 percent sometimes.” This leads to a lot of Germans having an alcoholic drink with their dinner instead (although I don’t think they needed a lot of encouragement to start with). Since no free water leads to many replacing water with beer when eating, in addition to the German obsession with coffee and few public restrooms, I have to wonder if Germans overall are severely dehydrated.
No free refills.
You pay per drink, and I wish you luck in finding your server when you need another one.
Smaller size drinks.
Not only do you not get free refills, but the drink that you just paid two euros for is really small compared to the US. A conservative German drink just doesn’t feel like enough liquid to go with my meal. The drink range is typically 2 cl (centiliters) to 5 cl. Beer usually comes in the 5 cl (half a liter) size while wine and soda are often in smaller sizes. You can order straight liquor in the smallest size (2 cl or 20 milliliters), which is useful if you want to purchase liquor separately from your mixer or have it alone. For comparison, the average adult drink size in the US is about 16 ounces (nearly half a liter) and is refilled generously throughout the meal.
Drink menus tend to be very extensive.
Most of the German restaurants that I have visited had more drink options than food options. For example, the Brick House in Schweinfurt has just over 20 meal options but has the following variety of drinks available:
14 coffee related drinks (four of those containing alcohol)
36 alcohol free drinks
22 wines / wine cocktails
16 beer options (two alcohol free)
71 cocktails (!)
That’s 159 drink options! For comparison, the Enchiladas restaurant has 33 meal options and 53 cocktails, which is a tad bit more reasonable. In my experience it’s usually the opposite in the US; you have way more food options than drink options. I visited Chili’s website and counted 81 meal options (not including any of the combos) and only 10 nonalcoholic beverages (they don’t have their alcoholic drinks listed online). And after looking at all their photos of quesadillas I want one so very badly.
Well, this one is kind of a great big ‘duh’. Of course Germany has different foods and they occasionally taste strange to the American palate. But even if you go to an American themed restaurant in Germany and have an American burger it’s still going to taste very German, so to speak. And Mexican food in Germany is vastly different and often disliked by Americans.
How you eat the food.
Eating pizza? Use your fork and knife. It’s also pretty normal to eat fries with your fork at a sit-down restaurant. Part of these habits might stem from the German tendency to use utensils at all times during a meal. Germans will hold their fork in their left hand while cutting with the knife in the right hand orusing it to push food onto their fork. But then they eat with the fork in their left hand, and so the utensils become extensions of their body that aren’t set down until they are finished eating. This is very different from the American method, where you would cut with the knife in your right hand, set it down, and then pick up the fork with your right hand to continue eating. The German way of eating is certainly more efficient.
Sad but true, the customer service industry in Germany has resulted in the negative term ‘Service Desert’ being used by plenty of foreign visitors. The national attitude towards customer service in Germany is rather nonchalant. Also, servers don’t need your tips (i.e. they don’t need to make sure you’re super happy) and there are usually less of them compared to the US, so they have more on their plate. Your server will take your drink and food order and they might come by to ask if your food is okay, but other times you won’t see them for at least 45 more minutes (aka, until it’s time for that second round of beer). But with practice you can develop the skillset that it takes to flag down your server. Or, you can use Mr. Meena’s strategy and walk around looking for them when you want something.
Eating takes forever.
As far as I can tell, three hours for dinner is the standard in Germany. Germans tend to have clearly segmented lives, which means there’s not an abundance of personal talk when they’re working but when they have Feierabend, well, then it’s time to seriously relax. This means ordering more than one round of drinks with dinner (and then sitting around waiting to drive home lawfully with less than 0.05% BAC) and really digging into the conversation with your dinner companions. It’s nice and relaxing, but the long dinner can leave you with a sore bottom.
Tips can be small(er).
On smaller bills (€10 or less) many Germans will just round up to the next whole number, and leaving just a one euro or two euro tip isn’t insulting. Also, you will need to tell your server directly how much that you want to tip. For example, if they say your bill is 32.50 you would say something like “make it 35”. You just tell them what the new total is instead of leaving change on the table or taking a moment to calculate a tip.
Every once in a while a server will get excited that we are Americans (i.e., likely to tip more) and even ask us, “How much can I make it?”
You’ll almost always pay in cash.
Not only will you miss out on your credit card rewards but the process of paying in cash tends to be a very public experience. You’ll tell your server what you had and they’ll typically add up your total on a piece of paper and then announce it within earshot of everyone else, possibly even leaning over your dinner companions to do so. You’ll then respond by telling them how much you want to pay as the table and the server watch. There’s no privacy screen or wondering who tipped and who didn’t.
Have you gone out to eat in Germany? What differences would you add?
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