Stories from my life and travels as an American expat in Germany. Awkwardness guaranteed!

Nobody’s Perfect: American VS German Restaurant Service

Nobody’s Perfect: American VS German Restaurant Service

My husband and I are the couple that always talk about cooking more at home, succeed at it for a week or two, and then slowly start eating out more and more until the cycle begins anew. We cook at home a little more often since moving to Germany, but we still go out for dinner at least twice per week. During our last few months in the USA, whenever we would receive terrible service in a restaurant, my husband and I would “joke” that we needed to get used to it anyway. Why? Well, German restaurant service is…not great.

If you’re German and vehemently disagree, I totally understand. I’m coming from a different culture, after all, with different expectations about service. This post/mini-rant is purely my opinion. Many Americans are just as annoyed with the hyper-attentive servers in American restaurants as your average European visitor. For them, it’s nice that European waiters leave you alone to sit for hours, if you so wish.

…except, sometimes you don’t want to sit for hours.

Let me walk you through one of the worst dining experiences we’ve had since we arrived.

There is this awful abomination here called Sausalitos. Their mixed drinks are decent, and that’s the nicest thing I can say about the place. It’s supposed to be Mexican, but I don’t think the owners have ever been to North America, let alone Mexico. Imagine eating Taco Bell while sober, but the food is somehow worse; it’s like they couldn’t find the seasoning so they used a little bit of sugar instead.

It was a weekday, so there weren’t that many customers. The one other good thing I can say about this place is that the menus are already on the table. That is extremely helpful, because it often takes up to ten minutes just to get a menu even in a half-empty German restaurant.

Sure enough, the waitress came to the table about ten minutes after we sat down. Even though we knew what we wanted to drink, we still didn’t know what we wanted to eat. Big mistake; we didn’t see her again for another twenty minutes. I timed it on my phone. Someone else brought our drinks, and ran off before we could ask to place our order. Fair enough, we weren’t her table. We did, however, see our waitress standing around on several occasions and tried to make eye contact, only to watch her scamper off like a frightened forest creature.

To the restaurant’s credit, once we were finally able to order, the food came out fast. The bill was another story. It’s hard to pay your bill when your waitress is avoiding her tables, after all. We did eventually manage to flag her down, but it took her another fifteen minutes to bring the check. Thank Gott she waited for us pay, otherwise we might still be sitting there right now.

Bad Service Exhibit B: the waitress we had at a Greek restaurant a few towns over. She was a very sweet girl, but so, so slow. We asked for the bill and declined the complementary shot of liquor at the end of the meal. We told her we were in a bit of a hurry, and just wanted the check. She agreed…and then disappeared for ten minutes. When she finally came back to the table, it was not with our bill in hand, but two complementary desserts. That was a very kind gesture, and we did what any socially-awkward couple would do: thanked her profusely while internally screaming. We asked again for the bill, but never received it; in the end, we gave up and just went to the counter.

We’ve had one good experience in a restaurant here, and I think it may have had something to do with the fact that we were their only customers on a Friday night. Still, good service here is not like good service in the USA: no one came to make sure the food was OK or to see if anyone needed another drink. But they were prompt and friendly, and that made a world of difference to me.

All this isn’t to say that service in the USA is superior. While I do prefer it, as I’m not the sit around for an hour after eating type, I do realize it has a lot of downsides. For starters, your server is only being paid $2 or $3 per hour, and it all goes towards paying the taxes they make on their tips. That usually has a huge impact on the quality of service; in your server’s ideal world, you eat and drink as much as possible in a short amount of time, and get out fast, so they can get their next table.

So while German service is infuriatingly inattentive and slow, American service is infuriatingly over-attentive and rushed. You probably won’t miss your after-dinner plans in the USA, but you might have a hard time holding a decent conversation; it’s hard to talk when your waiter is checking in every five to ten minutes to “make sure everything is OK.”

Another problem I’ve noticed recently in American restaurant service is a lack of attentiveness while still trying to rush you out the door. This typically happens in “hipster” restaurants where your waiter thinks he’s too cool for you and his job, but still entitled to a good tip.

Well, guess what, Aidan? You’re not.

In my ideal world, restaurant service is a balance between German and American styles. The waiter is prompt, checks once to make sure your food is OK, and then only comes back if he notices you might need a refill or that you’ve finished your meal. When it’s time for the bill, it arrives promptly, but the waiter leaves you alone until you’re ready to pay.

I know, of course, that such a world isn’t possible. American servers are prompt because they live on tips; living on tips means they want you in and out as fast as possible. German servers leave you alone because they’re making the same amount of money regardless of how you felt about your service. I’ve noticed that Germans round the bill up and add a few extra Euros, regardless of the service quality. Why should Brunhilde care if you thought she did a good job, if she knows she’s getting a small tip no matter what?

So, for those of you who have experienced both styles of service: what do you prefer? Do you enjoy the more relaxed, slow pace of meals in a German restaurant? Or do you prefer the American style of getting you in and out as quick as possible?


Reader Comments

  1. I’d prefer something in-between as well. I get annoyed if servers check on me every 5 minutes, but a HUGE pet peeve of mine is if my water glass (or whatever glass – soda, etc.) is empty and I’m not offered a timely refill.

    I’ve definitely been to more business-lunch places like Capital Grille where they expect you want a leisurely lunch, when in fact you don’t, ha (during Troy Restaurant Week – we needed to get back to work after).

    1. You would hate it here. Not only do you rarely get asked if you want a refill, they’re not free. The water also isn’t free, and unless you specify you want it flat, it will be like flavorless soda. I like it now, but mostly because I miss La Croix and it’s better than nothing lol

  2. Bad service – NO service! – is the price we pay (I guess) for dining out. Sigh.

    Your opening lines could have been written by me or my husband. You’ve described us to a T!

    1. The struggle to cook at home is real! I think I’ve found the poor service here motivational, but it’s still hard. Especially since restaurants are generally cheaper here. But so are groceries, so even that isn’t a good excuse. 😉

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