Dining like the locals
Every country has its quirks and social etiquette that contributes to its overall culture. It’s adopting these habits into daily life, even if only temporarily, that make living abroad fun, rewarding and unpredictable. That “do as the Romans do” kind of mentality is what you’ll remember once you return home.
Nothing seemed stranger than eating out in a neighborhood restaurant the day after we arrived in Germany. I’ll never forget that first meal at the local pizza parlor for several reasons. After seating ourselves, the waitress placed very small glasses of cool soda with no ice in front of us. And to the mutual ire of both boys — there was no such thing as free refills. After what seemed like an eternity to my kids, our pizzas finally arrived, and they were not cut into slices; they weren’t cut at all. We looked around the dining room and noticed that everyone cut bite-size portions from the pizza instead of the more familiar wedges. A little different, but we shrugged it off and followed suit.
At about the same time, a sweet older couple strode through the solid wooden doors, followed by two very shaggy black dogs. The waitress stopped by the table, stooped down to pet both canines, placing a doggy dish full of water for them to share and proceeded to take their orders — the couple, not the dogs. I was a little dumbfounded. We later discovered that all dogs, not just the service variety, are welcome in most restaurants.
The pizza was delicious then and every time we’ve been back. I recall sitting there that first night for quite a while after we finished eating, waiting for the waitress to clear the dishes or see if we wanted anything else. In Europe, waitstaff do not bother you unless you signal to them. Once you sit down at a table, you pretty much own it for the entire evening.
Some restaurants do not accept debit or credit cards. We had just enough euros to pay the bill in cash and nothing toward a tip. We contemplated whether to look for an ATM or just leave. We chose the latter, feeling a little sheepish and cheap. And to make matters worse, the waitress stood at the table, counting each and every coin instead of heading to a cash register in the back of the restaurant. Lesson learned: carry cash.
On the way back to the hotel that evening and after a quick stop at the ATM, we decided to stop for eis (ice cream) only to discover school was far from over. At what is now “our” table, we were dually informed that cones are for take-out service only and that the gratuity had already been inserted into die Rechnung (the bill). So we hadn’t stiffed the waitress earlier and were able to fully enjoy the ice cream and the promise of more lessons to come.
• Ask for an English menu (Karte or Manu), especially in restaurants in big cities or near military bases.
• When asking for the chef, ask to speak to the Koch; otherwise you’ll get the manager.
• Close your menu when you are ready to order.
• When you do pay your restaurant bill with a credit card, many waiters carry this pretty cool portable credit card machine that they run right at your table.
• Sometimes whole credit card numbers are printed on the receipt, so verify the receipt before you leave it behind.
• Tell the server whether you want to pay the bill all together (Wir zahlen Zusammen, bitte) or separate (Wir zahlen getrennt, bitte).
• Instead of trying to count a bunch of coins, just round up to the next full euro amount.
• If you are going to tip, hand it directly to the server; do not leave it on the table.
• Carry a pocket restaurant guide or download a translation app to use when you dine out.
• The term “chicken, finger-licking good” does not apply in Germany — they eat that with utensils too.
• Specifically ask for tap water, leitungswasser, which may not be available, otherwise you may receive bottled water.
• Sparkling water is sprudelwasser (water with gas), stilleswasser (without gas).
• Since Germans typically cook their beef a little longer, if you want a medium-well steak, ask for medium; medium ask for medium-rare and so on.
• When ordering at a counter, place your money in the small dish provided, instead of handing the money hand to hand.
• And finally, you’ll fit in better if you keep your conversations to a low roar.
How do you take your steak? In Germany you’ll need to know the following:
Very rare – blau
Rare – blutig
Medium rare – Englisch
Medium – rosa
Medium well – halb rosa
Well done – durch