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Restaurant Culture Europe vs. United States

I am currently listening my way through the Rick Steves podcast archive, and I keep being surprised at his surprise at how you can sit in a European restaurant for as long as you like, without the waiter trying to make you leave (unless they are actually closing for the night).

I have been in the United States many times but was never aware of this difference until a few years ago, when some friends invited us for a restaurant dinner. It obviously was a popular restaurant, there was a long line of people waiting to be seated, and we felt lucky our friends had reservations.

But barely had we sat down, they wanted to take our orders. We felt we were being rushed through the meal, and the check was on the table before we had even finished our last bite.

We all would really have loved to sit and talk. After all, we hadn't seen each other for a long time. But none of us even dared mention having some coffee or dessert, we just all felt we had to leave as soon as we had cleared our plates and paid.

At that time, I thought this was just a restaurant with an especially impolite staff. But these RS podcast shows have got me thinking. Is that really typical U.S. restaurant culture?

And why did I never notice that before? Possibly I have simply never been in such a crowded restaurant before?

But even with many people wanting a table, this would be unthinkable in a European restaurant. If all tables are taken, well tough luck. You can wait, sure. But they are certainly not going to rush anyone to finish their meal so you can get a table a minute earlier.

Just some thoughts. I wonder what is your take on this?

Posted by
13085 posts

Most US restaurants do book a table for successive sittings, but they should be spaced out (1.5 to 2 hours apart) so you are not rushed.

I do like the European way of presuming you have the table for the whole evening.

We had one different experience in Madrid, where we arrived at a highly-rated restaurant at ten pm when they opened, without reservations. The host said they were fully booked and started to turn us away, but the owner overheard us talking and came over to say, ." I see you are Americans. Our tables are indeed all booked, but some not until 11:30. If you can assure me that you will be finished by then, we can seat you now."

Of course we agreed and we had a very nice two-course meal, without feeling rushed. We were the only ones in the restaurant for the first 45 minutes. :>)

Posted by
5786 posts

Yes, the economic of American restaurants is turn over. Assuming that the restaurant is attractive enough to fill its seats, the more times that the business can fill its seats the higher the gross revenue. This translates to higher profits given that rent and fixtures are fixed expenses.

We encountered the "its your table for the night" in Oslo on an Easter Sunday. We did not have reservations and were looking for a restaurant. The Dinner Restaurant looked like it had open seating at about 5 pm or 5:30 pm when we looked in but they would not seat us because the big table was reserved for 7:30. We were finally given the table if we promised to be finished on out by 7:30. A Norwegian friend explained that many Norwegians have small homes and use restaurants for entertaining. It's eat and talk, not eat and run.

Posted by
6641 posts

Yes Anna that is the way it is. American restaurants expect to "turn" the table as many times as they can in an evening. Since the servers expect and need gratuities to make a living wage, they need to serve as many customers as they can to get them, while treading the fine line of not rushing them too much. If you linger at a table too long, the servers would likely expect a bigger tip, to make up for lost revenue.

Americans in Europe will get angry at "slow" service, not getting food quickly enough, and not having the bill brought to the table without asking for it,because they assume that is worldwide custom.

Posted by
1117 posts

presuming you have the table for the whole evening

... or if not the whole evening, at least for however long you decide to stay.

What you experienced in Madrid is a bit of a different situation of course, but I would consider that normal European practice. Why would a restaurant keep a table vacant for one and a half hours? Those people who have reservations have them for 11.30 but not before that. So if it's o.k. with you to make room for the next people at that time, why not give it to you?

Posted by
1117 posts

Assuming that the restaurant is attractive enough to fill its seats, the more times that the business can fill its seats the higher the gross revenue.

Yeah, I guess that's the point. To be honest though, I didn't find the restaurant very attractive after this experience. Had I lived near there, I would certainly never invite friends to that place again.

Since the servers expect and need gratuities to make a living wage

Now that is an important point of course.

If you linger at a table too long, the servers would likely expect a
bigger tip, to make up for lost revenue.

Lucky for them it was our friends then who did the paying and the tipping. Being rushed out of a restaurant like that would certainly not have made me give a generous tip.

Americans in Europe will get angry at "slow" service, not getting food
quickly enough, and not having the bill brought to the table without
asking for it,because they assume that is worldwide custom.

Now that is funny, looking at it from that perspective. Bringing the bill to a table without the guests having asked for it would seem pretty rude and pushy to us (unless the restaurant is about to close). Like taking away the glass or cup before a new beverage has been served.

Posted by
21071 posts

I had a similar experience in France (perhaps Nice??). I was very happy to seize the opportunity once I understead what was being suggested (in French).

Posted by
16808 posts

At one of my favorite Paris restaurants, they only open for lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, shutting down for the weekend. I spoke with the owner/bar manager/maître d'. He's a Kiwi, so the cultural and linguistic challenges were small.

"My partner/chef and I are not comfortable leaving it to others to run, we both have families and we like our weekends. We manage to book just about every table for dinner most nights. We have a good reputation, the chef worked at several high-end Paris restaurants before he wanted to go out on his own, and our prices are fair. Our staff appreciates having weekends off as well. We are not in a high rent district (the 10th). We make a good living and have a good life. Who could ask for more?"

These guys are never going to make it on Shark Tank.

Posted by
8405 posts

We had an "American" experience at Restaurant Champeaux when it first opened in the remodeled Forum des Halles in Paris. Check on the table before we even ordered dessert, took my glass away, brought our main courses while we were drinking cocktails so we had to send them back to keep warm, servers breathing down our necks. This wasn't treatment reserved for Americans because we were 3 Parisians and me--but none of us would ever go near that place again, even if it's owned by a famous chef. And the only reason we went in the first place is because they had a marble table in the party room that they bought at auction from my husband's lycée, so we reminisced about teenage boys in lycée lunchrooms.

But the restaurant was a horreur for us old folk, though I think it flies with the trendy crowd.

And for exactly the reason Anna describes, we rarely go out to dinner in the States. Food should be a relaxing pleasure, not a feed trough.

Posted by
1324 posts

Yes, that is the way it is in 99% of American restaurants. My daughter worked as a waitress being paid much less than minimum wage (legal in the US for workers getting tips). So, not only her bosses wanted the tables turned over quickly, she did also so that she could, with tips, earn a decent hourly wage. If you sat there for any length of time she was losing money.

Posted by
1117 posts

I guess there is something to be said for fair wages without tip dependency...

Posted by
5030 posts

We love the fact that at most European restaurants we are free to chat, relax, enjoy the experience.

We were at an upscale restaurant in Tulsa for lunch yesterday, and the server rushed us at the end, even though the place was almost empty. She didn't ask if we wanted coffee or dessert or an aperitif. Just brought our bill.

I've had to explain to Americans that the service in Europe isn't bad when the server isn't hovering over you. They think it's rude to rush you!

Posted by
6871 posts

The other negative aspect of some (not all) US restaurants is the not-so-subtle pushing of alcohol because that's where the highest profit margins are. This especially happens in some chain restaurants with over-the-top enthusiastic waiters who are always asking if you'd like another margarita, or glass of wine, etc. Happy hours are based on the concept of subsidizing small dishes and maximizing the number of drinks per person.

Posted by
4470 posts

My husband and I love the European restaurant culture. When we’re back in the USA after a trip, my husband gets annoyed with the habit of some restaurants where three different people will stop by the table to ask if everything’s fine, followed by the quick bill with a “no hurry”. But, everyone knows they want people to leave for a couple more table turns.

Posted by
12891 posts

When I am at a restaurant (decent but nothing fancy) in France, Austria or Germany, I don't even think of US " restaurant culture" (a good term) and US cultural cues. I know what it is France and Germany, that's all that matters. In the California there have been times I felt I was rushed, more so than the normal American style. Luckily, these times are a definite minority. Unless the guilty restaurant has some singular saving graces, such behaviour loses me as a customer.

I have been with visiting French here where all of a sudden the check is placed, obviously without our asking for it first, on the table, to which they found to be very rude. From their viewpoint it is. We just explained that it isn't personally meant, but only that's the way it is done here. That fits into the German saying, "Andere Länder, andere Sitten."

Posted by
7605 posts

That's really bad, Anna -- and equally mentioned by Jane -- of them bringing you the bill before you've even gotten to mention you'd like dessert and/or coffee!!! I mean, that IS part of the meal!

I don't know, I've been places here where they need the table for the second seating. But usually not as bad as this. (Come to think of it, the night I met my now-husband, at the restaurant where he was working then, we were told -- since we arrived without a reservation -- that we could have this certain table as long as we promised to clear it by 9:30. That was fine with us and we must have been there about 7:30, so gave us plenty of time, and by making their expectations clear, the restaurant saved us and itself some grief. If we hadn't wanted to agree with their request, we could simply have taken our business elsewhere. Obviously I'm glad we didn't!!)

Posted by
10056 posts

I encountered a limited-time seating situation a couple of times when I made online reservations in London. The fine print I had to agree to said (paraphrasing) "You have the table for 90 minutes for 2 people, 2 hours for 4 or more." It's enough tme, but still a limitation. Can't say as I have ever seen that in the U.S.

Posted by
546 posts

I have to disagree a bit with most of the replies regarding American Restaurants. What most have written about turnover and being rushed is true. However it has more to do with the TYPE of restaurant you are in. If you are eating in Chilis, Outback, Applbees and all of the rest of the chains that are so ubiquitous here then yes you will be rushed. Or feel you are at any rate.

However if you choose smaller more intimate and sometimes more expensive places to dine you can spend as much time as you wish. And some of the big chains such as Ruths Chris Steakhouse (as and example) will be happy to keep serving you $25 glasses of Sherry or $17 cocktails and dessert and coffee all night if you wish.

Secondly even if you are in one of the big chains and want to linger...do so. Order another cup of coffee or that dessert and tell the server to take back the bill.

But Rick is essentially correct in his contention that to most Americans FAST service is good service and to most Europeans it's rude service. The way I slow down the pace of most American restaurants is to NOT order right away. I will order drinks and make it clear to the server that I will decide on food in a while. Sometimes I will order an appetizer but not the main course and wait until I am done with that before ordering the main. But I make it clear to the server that we are not in a hurry and that rushing me wont work. That usually solves the problem.

Posted by
7605 posts

That was a classy way of Zedel to handle the issue of needing the table, but making you still feel welcome. I often feel if restaurateurs would be candid about their need for the table and make some small offer (not even of comping something, but just of treatment like you received, being gracefully escorted to another sitting place rather than run out), I am happy to accommodate. I do realize they're trying to make a living too. It depends so much on how it is handled (of course how the restaurant is able to handle it also depends on the clients, because some people are just naturally negative and nasty in such situations and will NEVER react well!).

Posted by
4684 posts

As Emma said some restaurants in Europe (especially high-demand fashionable places) do now have a more aggressive table-turning practice. One I would definitely point to is Josselin in Paris - the crepes are excellent but they don't want you to hang around (and you can understand why given the queues outside on many evenings).

Posted by
3621 posts

Two prior comments with which I agree completely: "The entire industry seems to based on the servers getting their tips and that the enjoyment of the customer is incidental to the process..." and "I guess there is something to be said for fair wages without tip dependency...".

Personally we much prefer the more refined, slower European style of dining in which one is not rushed. The way we handle it in the U.S. when we want a relaxed, leisurely experience is simple. When the server first appears we very nicely, calmly, and slowly convey that although we are Americans we are not in a hurry and that we prefer to dine at a slower pace than most. We politely explain we'd like to finish cocktails before ordering, finish soups / salads before the entrée arrives, and that we'll decide on coffee / dessert / after dinner drinks later. We do so in a way that lets the server know we will appreciate that type service. We have never had any server not accommodate our wishes. Knowing gratuities are a big part of the server's income, we make sure they are well compensated for their service.

Posted by
8405 posts

The way I slow down the pace of most American restaurants is to NOT order right away. I will order drinks and make it clear to the server that I will decide on food in a while. Sometimes I will order an appetizer but not the main course and wait until I am done with that before ordering the main. But I make it clear to the server that we are not in a hurry and that rushing me wont work. That usually solves the problem.

Most of us have done that, but it's a negotiation, not a pleasurable meal. You have to hold the reins and drive the cart until the personnel falls into line. It's too bad that US restaurant culture puts diners in this unappetizing position. I like TC's description and have done that, too. As I said earlier, we almost never eat out in our hometown though it's filled with independent restaurants, but wait until US and overseas vacations.

Posted by
14912 posts

I think Americans tend to be, how can I say this gently . . . not impatient, or antsy, maybe just not as able to unwind. And when something's finished, it's time to move on. Israelis are worse, if you can believe it. In the US, when I've gone out to eat with friends, I don't remember feeling rushed to order or to leave, but service is usually prompt and I've been with people who got annoyed when it wasn't.

Years ago in the US I read that if you want fast service, go when a restaurant is crowded. The slowest service will be when it's nearly empty - they try to keep you there longer because others will shun the place if it looks like it's empty, thinking it's unpopular and therefore not good.

Posted by
2258 posts

When I am dining in Europe with husband, I am not in the mood for a long leisurely dinner. We are together 24/7 so we don’t need extra time to chat at our meals. We are usually in a hurry to get out and take a walk and then relax in our hotel or B&B. For a while I was puzzled by how hard it was to get the check in Europe. We would have a friendly, attentive server, but he/she would disappear after we got our entree. It drove us crazy. After this happened several times, I said to my husband, this has to be a cultural thing. Once I understood the European way, I could appreciate it.

The funny thing is, in the US when we go to dinner we are normally with friends or family so we want to take our time and enjoy chatting. We would be better off if we lived in Europe and vacationed in tbe US.

Posted by
5030 posts

It happened to us again yesterday. Another locally owned place, not as upscale as the one I posted about upthread, but nice. We dined with friends, and deliberately went early to avoid the New Year's Eve revelers. The place was almost empty when we got there, and we had great service. As we were finishing our main courses, the restaurant started to get busier. We were not asked if we wanted coffee or dessert, instead we were handed our bills. We sat at the table talking, finishing our wine, and staff stopped by THREE TIMES in under 10 minutes to ask if everything was okay. We finally capitulated and left, noticing that although the room we were in was almost full (there were still three or four empty tables,) other rooms in the restaurant were completely empty.

I miss Europe. Just 101 days now!

Posted by
8405 posts

Jane's experience last night makes me wonder why don't we just ask the servers if they need the table or if there is some rush. Let's get it out there and find a solution. The problem is all this cat 'n mouse. Geez, another example of why the best meals in our town are at home with friends.

Posted by
1117 posts

Wow, thanks for all your thoughts and replies! This is fascinating!

I've had to explain to Americans that the service in Europe isn't bad
when the server isn't hovering over you. They think it's rude to rush
you!

Now that's a great observation!

The very first guide book I had for the U.S. gave a humorous description of how to calculate the tip in an American restaurant. It went something like this:

"When I am in a restaurant, I put $ 100 aside for the tip. Every time the waitress comes to my table and asks me if everything is o.k., I
take $ 10 away from that. So whatever is left by the time I get the
check is what she is going to get."

I am not even sure I fully understood the whole thing back then when I first read it, except that he was making fun of this custom of the waitress hovering over you. Obviously, what she thinks is good customer service is what he thinks is being pushy and impolite.

I encountered a limited-time seating situation a couple of times when
I made online reservations in London.

Wow. I've never heard of that kind of thing being set in hard and fast rules in the fine print.

I don't really think there is such a thing as "European restaurant
culture". As with most customs and behaviour there is a huge variety
of norms across the continent.

Now that is certainly true. Europe is way too big and too diverse to set up a general rule. But yet... Those podcast episodes I referred to initially were on Italy and France, and I could relate to that perfectly well from a Northern European standpoint.

I have almost no experience with Great Britain though, and what you say and what Laurel said above seems to indicate that some traditions are different there.

Having said all that, I just experienced a restaurant situation in Europe where I felt I certainly couldn't stay indefinitely - and was fine with it. It was in a train restaurant. So just to add this much, there can be special situations where it is perfectly clear that there are certain rules of conduct. Like in a very crowded train, people who did not get seat reservations will sometimes use the restaurant to hog seats for their whole trip, ordering just the bare minimum to sort of justify their sitting there. That's not what the restaurant is meant for of course.

Posted by
1117 posts

Two late thoughts on this:

That's really bad, Anna -- and equally mentioned by Jane -- of them
bringing you the bill before you've even gotten to mention you'd like
dessert and/or coffee!!!

To do them justice, they may have asked if we wanted coffee or dessert - I can't remember. But by that time we felt so rushed that we would only have gulped down the coffee and certainly would not have been able to leisurely enjoy a dessert. So what's the point in having either!

We had an "American" experience at Restaurant Champeaux when it first
opened ... took my glass away ...

Wow. Taking your glass away (unless you get a new beverage) is considered really bad style and normally doesn't even happen in average or lower rated restaurants. That is pretty much one of the first and most basic things a waiter-to-be learns.

Posted by
3580 posts

I've been in European restaurants where Servers literally disappeared after bringing our food. Once, I heard chatter in another room but never saw my waiter again. I waited as long as I could then just left money on the table and left.

Posted by
1117 posts

Sounds like the other extreme of bad service you experienced. A waiter should be within sight or within hail at least occasionally, without being pushy. Of course there are restaurants with especially good or especially bad service everywhere - that's not a cultural thing or the sole privilege of any one country. :-)

I waited as long as I could then just left money on the table and
left.

I can't speak for other countries, but for Germany at least I have to say: not a good idea at all.

You never leave money just lying around on the table, not even the tip. Nobody does it, the waiter doesn't expect it there, it simply doesn't belong there. It's like leaving money lying around in the street.

And if someone from the next table happens to see it and does take it - like pretty much anyone would take money lying around in the street - , you're in serious trouble. Leaving the restaurant without formally paying your bill is legally considered to be dine & dash, so you could actually have been in real trouble.

Posted by
3304 posts

I can't see how the United States can be lumped together regarding "restaurant culture". Travel the US to see cultural differences in spades. Applebee's isn't Per Se. Waffle House isn't La Boite en Bois.

Posted by
245 posts

Interesting discussion! We eat out way too much at home in the U.S. because neither of us loves cooking and we're lazy . These meals are typically at local diner type places or chains and the point of most of these meals is just to eat, not to linger, so I don't mind the typical U.S. type service.

When in Europe, it depends. We're not foodies and we're usually on the go touring all day, so we just want to eat something and crash. Then the pace of a European meal can be a bit frustrating, although we understand it's the culture. It is nice though that we can linger if we choose to.

Posted by
27 posts

As the second comment demonstrates, the converse is true. Once you arrive the table is your for the whole night AND the table is yours before you arrive. We had a great experience at a restaurant in Portugal once that only had 4 tables. We went there the first time and couldn't get in, so we made reservations and ate there two nights in a row. We arrived at 7 when they opened and left at 10. One table next to us had a reserved sign on it and was still empty when we left. I asked, and was told the people were coming at 10:30. THEY KEPT THAT TABLE VACANT FOR 3 AND 1/2 HOURS BEFORE THE RESERVATION ARRIVED, BECAUSE THAT IS THE WAY THEY DO THINGS.

Posted by
21071 posts

As a summertime solo traveler, I am often rather frustrated by the pace of meals in Europe, especially the tendency of some servers to disappear after the main course is served. It's much more comfortable to relax in my hotel room than in a restaurant (which is often not air conditioned). I've taken to walking up to the cash register to pay the bill, which I've seen local residents do in some areas, so I hope it is not offensive.

That doesn't work so well if I want to order dessert. I once waited at least 15 minutes without seeing a working server. (Two, seemingly off duty since the restaurant was nearly deserted, were sitting at a sidewalk table outside the restaurant.) Eventually I walked over to the bar area and found my server sitting (invisible from the tables), fiddling with her cell phone. She didn't look remotely embarrassed, either.

In places where it is culturally OK to order regular (not bottled) water, I also don't appreciate being limited to the one glass served to me shortly after I arrive. I need to remember to order a carafe of water rather than just "water". Perhaps that will work. Waiting for the server to come close enough to my table to flag him down is all too often an exercise in frustration.

Posted by
1878 posts

I can remember one time sitting down to lunch in Beaune with the idea we would have a quick meal and see the sights using our rental car in the countryside for the afternoon. Twenty minutes went by and still no one had greeted us or asked for our order. We were impatient to get going so we ended up walking out. We did get a nice "au revoir" on the way out. I think they were poking fun at us for our impatience, fair enough. The lesson is don't expect a quick meal at a sit down place in France. It was our fault for not thinking it through more carefully. Hole in the wall pizza places are common in Rome (and elsewhere in Italy) and you can definitely get a quick meal there though. Also more café or wine bar style places have styles of service that are more like what you would see in the U.S. They still don't mind if you linger though. These are my favorite types of dining experience in Europe. It's not as simple as contrasting Europe with the U.S., the type of establishment also matters a lot. I agree that more upscale, non-chain restaurants give you more time even in the U.S.

Posted by
10 posts

Exactly the spending some hours at a table is what I really enjoy in Europe. There is a totally different culture of having dinner or something to eat!