An expat survival guide to visiting a restaurant in Germany
Getting used to the service at German supermarkets or on the phone is one thing - but getting to grips with the way waiters and waitresses operate in this country is a whole different story. Over the years, it’s been bothering me to the point of (occasional) rage: the kind that makes you want to pick up a grenade launcher and go on a shooting spree.
This might sound a bit dramatic, and I implore you not to read into this all too seriously, but, in my opinion, few things are worse than being at a restaurant where the service is bad. And, unfortunately, it’s rare to find a German restaurant where the service isn’t bad. Let me explain.
Welcome to the German restaurant
First of all, it is of utmost importance to take Germanness into account. In other words, there is a difference between what is seen as friendly in other countries and in Germany, with the latter tending to be less fussy about the way people are addressed, the language used, and the pleases and thank yous.
So, in order to show the full extent of my vexation on this topic, I will need to split restaurant service into different criteria - and point out exactly where Germany fails at providing an adequate service (in my opinion, of course).
Friendliness and welcoming manner
When going to a restaurant, be it a little Asian budget place, or a posh bistro serving cordon bleu, you always want to feel welcome when you first arrive. A simple “hello” from any member of staff will suffice, with bonus points given to attentive staff who greet you and ask you how they can be of help.
In Germany, you can expect to be greeted, and then asked how many people would like to be seated e.g. “A table for two?” If you’re unlucky, you might have to stand around for several minutes before even being acknowledged, but, whatever you do, do not go and pick a table yourself.
Response time and attentiveness
Once seated, depending on the place, you might find that there aren’t any menus on the table. Be sure to check immediately, and signal to the waiter if there aren’t any. If you don’t, you might be waiting a long time for them to be brought to the table. It’s not as self-explanatory as you might think.
If you’ve got the menus and you see the waiter coming towards you, be sure you’ve selected the dishes you want. If the dishes have numbers, it would be more efficient to just say the number you want.
Remember - German waiters will not banter with the guests; when they come to you, it’s ordering time. Expect a short prompt sentence like “Was darf’s sein?” (What will it be?) A sure way to get the waiter annoyed is to start asking questions about the food.
And, although this is common in other cultures, a German brain will be close to exploding if you ask them if the chicken risotto is good, or even worse, asking what they think is better, the Wiener Schnitzel or the Rostbratwurst? These are absolute no-nos in a German restaurant.
Best case scenario: They will tell you that the selection is “subjective'' depending on each individual and their taste. Worst case: They will tell you that they will come back in a few minutes, when you have managed to narrow down your choice to one dish. In such a case, expect to be waiting for a long time.
Do not ask to switch the garnish in a preset menu. For example, substituting boiled potatoes for fries or visa versa (unless this is explicitly stated as an option on the menu). Requesting to do so will earn you nothing more than a stern “no”.
Do not ask the waiter questions which are already answered in the menu, such as whether the steak comes with a side dish. Best case scenario, they’ll tell you the options, adding, “as is written in the menu” (which, in case you didn’t realise, is a small dig at you for not having read the menu diligently yourself). Worst case, they’ll ask you to refer to the menu page “XY”.
Ability to deal with “annoying” questions such as “I ordered my drink 10 minutes ago”
If your drink hasn’t arrived and you are remonstrating this to the waiter or waitress, you might be shocked to hear that he or she will start complaining about the lack of staff they have at the joint, the fact that there are so many guests, or even outright scolding you for being impatient. “Show some empathy towards the poor waiter, you ignorant customer!”
Once you’ve got your food, there is a custom which works like clockwork in Germany. After approximately five minutes, the waiter will come around and ask if the food tastes “okay”. Although a seemingly polite gesture, it merely serves as just that - a polite gesture. The last thing they’ll expect is for you to say something other than, “Yes, everything is in good order.” In fact, I’ve tested this myself by replying “Nein,” only for the waiter to not even register my answer, trotting along on autopilot, oblivious to any deviation from the routine. It is quite astonishing, but the only place where Germans don’t complain - is at the restaurant.
When you ask for the bill, the first question you’ll hear in response (if there are two or more people in your party) is if you are paying together. Waiters hate split-bill payments, even though in 99,9 percent of cases, people in groups do pay separately. If that’s the case, giving a bigger tip goes without saying. It is also worth noting that a lot of restaurants will only accept cash - yes, you heard me. So make sure you bring a wad of cash with you, or at least ask the waiter whether they take cards, before you sit down for your scrumptious meal.
Customers are always right
If you’re in Germany, you can forget this mantra. You’re not in one of your episodes of How I Met Your Mother. In fact, you’re not in the US at all. Neither are you in the UK, the Middle East or Asia. In other words, make sure you follow the rules, order when the waiter comes around, shove your food down your gob, pay together - in cash - and bog off. Oh, and don’t forget to leave a sterling review on Google.
The resignation will come for you too
In all fairness, a good proportion of Germans constantly complain about the service at the restaurants. There is a difference between them and expats though, and it can easily be detected in their tone if you pay attention.
In contrast to a foreigner, who retorts in a quasi suspended sense of - shall we say - disbelief, having just woken up from a nightmare, when you hear a German person complaining about the service at the restaurant, you can detect a touch of resignation in their voice. Akin to a natural element like the weather, rain, or taxes. Sure, they dislike it, but there’s absolutely nothing you, they or anyone can do about it - so just go back to step one and repeat!