Food & Drink

Rules for American Tourists Dining at Restaurants in Europe

I recently vacationed in Portugal and each time I ate in a restaurant, I was struck by how different the overall experience was from when I eat in the United States. That’s been the case each time I have been to Europe. By no means am I an expert on traveling or dining out in other countries, but when you’ve waited tables for as long as I have, it’s hard to not notice the differences. 

Don’t expect an early bird special

Maybe it’s because it was still daylight at 9:25 p.m., but dinnertime there is much later than in the United States. I have been known to eat dinner in a restaurant as early as 4:30 because that’s when the happy hour starts. It’s a slippery slope between happy hour and the “early bird special,” but eating early gives me plenty of time to digest my food before turning into a pumpkin at my bedtime of 9:30. There was a period in my life when dinner at midnight made sense, like when I worked the closing shift at a restaurant and didn’t get home until late. Each time I had dinner in Lisbon, I pretended I had just worked an eight-hour shift at Pizzeria Uno and it was perfectly normal to be eating Peri-Peri Chicken at 10:30 instead of falling into the REM stage of sleep.

Servers don’t hover and they don’t make small talk

This is probably because their livelihood is not dependent on tips like most servers in the United States. In Europe, they’re paid a better hourly wage so they don’t have to grovel for pennies like a waitress at an Applebee’s in Texas who’s making $2.13 an hour. There’s none of that “Hi, I’m Mindy and I’ll be taking care of you this evening” phony baloney that’s so prevalent here. They are there to do their job and they do it as efficiently as possible. Likewise, if you need something, the onus is on you to let them know. They aren’t going to pop by your table every five to seven minutes to check in.

Be ready with your entire order at once

Don’t expect your server to make a trip for your drink order and then another for your appetizer and yet another for your entree. If you say you’re ready to order, they’re going to want to know everything you could possibly want for the next two hours. Ask for everything then because as mentioned, no server is going to come to your table and say, “How are we doing? Is there anything else I can get for you?” It’s your responsibility to tell them what you need and when you need it.

Don’t assume water will be poured

In the United States, most restaurants are going to serve a big glass of ice water as soon as you sit down whether it’s asked for or not. It’s as customary as saying hello. In Portugal, it’s like they actually value water and only want to give it to those who will drink it, unlike servers in this country who will refill a water glass each time a single sip is taken. Every time I requested water, it showed up on my bill, which again, shows that water in Europe is actually seen as the commodity that it is.

Urgency isn’t universal

Servers in the United States generally have a “turn ‘em and burn ‘em” vibe because the sooner they can rotate the table, the sooner they can make more tips. In Europe, the servers don’t seem to have any sense of urgency and it’s probably because they don’t rely on tips as much as American servers do. The leisurely pace is not a bad thing at all, but it does take some getting used to. If you want your check, you better ask for it because they probably aren’t trying to hurry you out. 

Tipping is different

Depending on what country you’re in, some websites suggest a few coins or rounding up to the next increment of five. Some servers expect a higher tip from Americans because they know how tip-fixated we are. What I do know is that no one is going to be offended if you tip too much. I’m sure I overtipped because of my deep-seated need to make sure a server knows I think they are the best human being on the planet.

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