While I’m not yet a European or German dining expert, I’ve been to enough restaurants and biergartens by now to compile quite a considerable list of minor and major differences from dining here and in the US. The differences range from minor changes in the way the bills are calculated, to obvious cultural differences between the continents.
Let’s start with the basics – seating and server etiquette. For most cafes, bars, biergartens and smaller restaurants, the seating is all self-serve. No waiting for a hostess, just grab what you see. I went to a giant biergarten last week that was very busy and might have been considered “up-scale”, and we were seated there, because otherwise I think you would have been lost in the crowd. But for the most part, after you seat yourself, it is up to you to get the attention of the server; they will not come running over to you as soon as they see they have new patrons. Along the same lines, you will not get a “how’s everything taste? Can I refill your xxx?” in the middle of the meal. If you need anything else, you’ll have to flag them down, and it’s not considered rude to doso. Then at the end of the meal, they will not bring you your bill automatically – again, it’s something you have to ask for. This can be rather nice sometimes, but can be a pain if you’re in a hurry.
Speaking of the bill, though, they are much easier to pay. First, all the prices on the menu include tax (a 16.5% tax, mind you), and don’t have to calculate tips, because the servers are actually paid a regular wage (imagine that!!). So it is very easy to calculate your total yourself by just adding the menu prices. Even though tips aren’t necessarily required, people generally just round up, so if your meal is 8.50â‚¬, you just tell the server “neun”, and she’ll give back change for 9â‚¬. Also, you generally always pay in cash (actually, almost everything is cash only, or preferred cash), and the server will make change immediately. Every single server at every place I’ve been to carries a black leather money purse they make change from at the table. And expect to get a lot of coins too, because they go up to 1â‚¬ and 2â‚¬ denominations, so anything under 10â‚¬ you’ll probably get in change. And if you want to pay separately? Hey – no problem. The servers will do the math in their head!! Try asking that the next time you’re at Ruby Tuesdays and you want to split your Super Sampler Platter between 5 people. But seriously, most of the time you won’t even get a paper bill or receipt. You just tell the server you’re ready to pay, and she’ll add up everything you got and tell you the total on the spot.
Another reason you have to ask for the bill is because it’s completely fine for you to occupy the table for the duration of the evening. You won’t get any sideways glances from the server hoping you’ll leave soon so she can get another table to rake in tips, and if someone is at the door waiting for a table? Screw ’em! You were there first! So dinners, which are often eaten outdoors at biergartens or beirhauses, turn into a whole evening affair. You’ll start with a bier, then get your main course. Have another bier, then some ice cream or pastry, some more bier, then finish off the night with a Kaffee or a Cappuccino (note that in the German language, all nouns are capitalized, regardless of where they occur in the sentence).
A convenience that some of the biergartens I’ve been to are using what I’m calling the “wirelessÂ waitress”. The servers carried handheld wireless order entry units, so as soon as you order your bier, the bar can start filling it, and by the time the server gets back to the bar all the glasses are ready to be carried back out to the table! Now that’s a million dollar idea waiting to explode in the US. Actually, I think some places like the Flying Saucer might use something like that, but it doesn’t appear to expedite their service….. But on the subject of bier, I think I’ve made it abundantly clear by now that bier plays a big part in the German (or at least Bavarian) culture. This is fully evident in how bier is presented and served, and consumed at the table. I think I’ve mentioned that each biergarten and restaurant basically has one supplier of bier, one of the major breweries in the city, like LÃ¼wenbrÃ¤u or HofbrÃ¤uhaus. Those breweries all supply the major types of biers – Helles, Dunkles, Weisbier, etc, and seasonal or specialty brews. So all you have to do to order is ask for the type of bier, and maybe the size, either a halbe (1/2 liter) or maÃŸ (1 liter). Then all the biers will come in a thick glass with the brand label imprinted on it, and each type will come in its own kind of glass. Helles will be a big mug like you normally think of as a beer mug, Weisbier will be in a tall skinny, “curvey” glass, Rader and Russ will be in a straight, simple glass with no curves or handle. Then when you get a round, or even if one or two people get another bier, you always “Prost”, or “cheers”. But this isn’t like a “cheers” in the US when you do it on special occasions and you delicately tink the rims of your glasses together, and always feel somewhat silly doing so. As soon as everyone gets their bier, glasses are raised high, you say “Prost” loudly, and while making eye contact with other people you give the glasses a good hard thud, using the base of the glasses for contact – this gives a satisfying “thunk” sound. Then you set your glass down back on the table – you don’t slam it, but you put some force into putting it back down – to knock the head down a little bit, then everyone takes the first drink together.
So while you know what to expect when ordering a bier as far as quality and size, I don’t think you can ever be sure exactly what you’re getting if you order something other than bier, like cola/Coke/Pepsi or juice. What you can be sure of, though, is that it will be small and there will be no ice, and it will be as expensive as a bier 5 times its size. The average cola glass is 0.2 liters, or ~6.5 ounces, a far cry from the 14-16+ ounce drinks we expect from American restaraunts. And if you just want some water? hehe – good luck. If you ask for water, you’ll likely get bottled carbonated soda water. Don’t want it carbonated? You’ll get bottled mineral water. No mineral water? Then bottled spring water for you! You just want some plain, tap water? hmm….. I haven’t figured out how to ask just for that.
Now onto actual eating and food. The major difference in how the meal is actually eaten is the heavy use of the dinner knife. Meals are consumed basically with your knife in your right hand, and your fork in your left. No cutting with the knife, setting it down and switching hands – the knife stays in the hand. And certainly no cutting with the side of your fork. I had noticed I hadn’t seen anyone cut with their fork, but at lunch today I instinctively started to cut my Wiener Schnitzel (more on that later) with my fork, since it was soft and easily cuttable. A co-worker sitting beside me politely nudged the silverware mug to me and said “you might want to try a knife.” Speaking of the “silverware mug” (I doubt that’s what it’s actually called) but instead of laying out silverware and napkins at each place setting, ample supplies of forks, knives and napkins are kept in a mug at the center of the table (visible in some of the pictures above). You gather your own silverware from the mug when your meal arrives. Anyway, the fork and knife are used for everything while eating – no hands at all, except for bread. You eat your Pommes frites (fries), chicken wings and legs, and onion rings with your fork.
And as I said, your knife is a utility just as your fork is, not just for cutting. Instead of scooping rice or pasta with your fork, you use your knife to push the food on your fork. You use your knife to separate or move food on the plate, and above all else, you use your knife to slather your food with any mustard, gravy, broth, mustard, mayonnaise, horse radish, or mustard you have available. Rule one of eating in Germany: you do not dip your food in your garnish. Rather you use your knife to garnish your food. If you’re eating a big juicy wiener, as I know so many of us like to do once and again, you don’t cut off a piece and dip it in your mustard! For Shame!! You instead bring the mustard to your wiener using your knife. Or you cut off a piece of pork leg, then use your knife to scoop whatever gravy or broth it was surely already soaking in back onto the piece.
Now that we’re on the subject of Wieners, I have a quiz for you. It’s a very simple question: What is a Wiener Schnitzel? If you had asked me that before 12:10 today, I would have saidÂ something like “…. i dunno. Some kind of hot-dog, sausage thing I guess.” Of course, if you’re like me, you’re probably an idiot when it comes to non-American culture too, and you’d be completely wrong. No, a Wiener Schnitzel is, in fact, a cutlet of meat – veal, pork, or even turkey – dipped in a flour and egg batter and pan-fried, as shown on the right. Who’dathunkit! I guess the association comes from that 1) crappy restaurant in the west called Wienerschnitzel that specializes in hot dogs, and even has a hot dog mascot named Der Wienerschnitzel, and 2) our otherwise association with the term wiener to hot-dogs and sausages (quit giggling and grow up. sheesh). Turns out Wiener just means a breaded cutlet of meat, “Vienna style”. The word we’re looking for to mean hot-dog or sausage is WÃ¼rste, as in Bratwurst, Leberwurst, and Blutwurst, various kinds of sausage.
OK, well that’s as much knowledge of dining in Germany I can braindump right now, and probably about as much as you can absorb! I’m going to the city of StraÃŸburg this weekend, just over the border in France, with a few co-workers – one American, one German and one new-hire from Greece. Should be a good time, and I’m sure I’ll have pictures and more to tell when I return. Until then, Tschuess!