Even before I moved abroad, I heard tales of culture shock and reverse culture shock and wondered if these experiences would eventually hit me. The ups and downs of culture shock in Denmark have come and passed and I think I’ve come out on top and adapted well to the Copenhagen lifestyle. This past week I enjoyed a trip back to the US from Denmark and noticed some reverse culture shock where I didn’t expect it – dining out.
I always thought that I would miss American-style restaurant service when I moved abroad, but while in America this week, I was surprised to realize that I did not. Yes, the European-style of service may be different, but I have grown to prefer that model. Here’s why.
I forgot how often American servers visit your table and in essence interrupt your dinner. I used to view this as good service, yet I found myself feeling bothered by water glasses being topped off and the unsolicited “how is everything?” “can I get you anything?” “everything going okay here?”
In Europe, you won’t have someone hovering around your table, but it’s far more enjoyable to relax and eat undisturbed even if you have to wave someone down for more bread.
Built in Tip
Call me crazy, but I really appreciate knowing what I will be paying when I order my food. I greatly prefer a European menu because I know that the price includes tax and service charge and I can be sure the servers will make a livable wage no matter how busy the restaurant. In European restaurants, the volume of customers does not reflect how much money a server makes. Because of this, you don’t feel rushed by your server wanting to flip a table when you’re dining out.
My first few meals out in Copenhagen I interpreted this as poor service, but then realized it’s enjoyable to relax after a meal and not a bother to ask for the check when you need it. In American restaurants the check is dropped off and you’re usually told, “I can take this whenever you’re ready,” which really means “I want you to leave this table so I can seat more guests and increase my tips.”
The European model of service logically leads to a more efficiently run restaurant. Part of this is because the higher wage paid to service staff requires smarter scheduling. This used to seem like an inconvenience, but it makes sense that better restaurants are not open for lunch. This is because of the labor cost involved in keeping the kitchen open and wait staff working in the afternoon. If you have ever worked in a restaurant for lunch, you know that the checks are lower and the tips are not as plentiful but you work those shifts to get a Saturday night shift. In Europe, the burden is placed on the restaurant to only be open when it is profitable and to remain profitable, quality must be high.
In America, servers and bartenders can be paid an hourly minimum wage as low as $2.13. Because of that, there’s no responsibility for the restaurant owner to schedule staff efficiently or ensure that they are being tipped properly – if it’s a slow lunch shift, they still only pay $2.13 per hour for each employee and don’t need to sell a lot of lunches to cover that cost. This is in part because of restaurant lobbyists pushing to keep a separate minimum wage for tipped workers to maintain status quo. Tipped workers, servers and bartenders in particular, face a higher rate of poverty. Here is a piece from the Economic Policy Institute that takes a deeper data dive on the subject: Seven Facts About Tipped Workers and the Tipped Minimum Wage.
Overall, I enjoy a good meal anywhere in the world, but there are some things that I expected to miss about dining out in America that I have found were just the opposite. There may however be one exception where I prefer a hovering American wait staff and that is bottomless mimosa brunch.
What do you think about restaurant experiences in America compared to Europe?
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