American Dining Service vs. European Dining Service

American Dining Service vs. European Dining Service

American dining service vs. European dining service

Before I moved abroad, I heard tales of culture shock and reverse culture shock. Of course, I wondered if these experiences would eventually hit me. The ups and downs of culture shock in Denmark have come and passed and I’ve come out on top. While I have 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. However, while in America this week, I was surprised to realize that I did not. Yes, the European-style of service is different, but I have grown to prefer that model. Here’s why Europe comes out on top when I consider American dining service vs. European dining service.

Less Interruptions

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, I won’t have someone hovering around my table, but it’s far more enjoyable. I prefer to relax and eat undisturbed even if I 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. In Europe, I also know that the servers earn 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. Then, I realized it’s enjoyable to relax after eating and it’s fine 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.” This really means, “I want you to leave this table so I can seat more guests and increase my tips.”

Better Business

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. I used to think this was 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’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that lunch checks are lower, so tips are less plentiful. American servers will put up with those lunch shifts in order to get Saturday night shifts. However, in Europe, the burden is placed on the restaurant to only be open when it’s profitable. And to remain profitable, quality must be high.

The Tipped Minimum Wage

In America, servers and bartenders are 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. They also fail to ensure servers are being tipped properly. For example, if it’s a slow lunch shift, restaurant owners still pay just $2.13 per hour for each employee. The owners don’t need to sell a lot of lunches to cover that cost. This is due, in part, because of restaurant lobbyists pushing to keep a separate minimum wage for tipped workers. 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. There are things I expected to miss about dining out in America but found out were better in Europe. 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?

Do you prefer American dining service vs. European dining service?

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Derek Hartman

Derek Hartman is an American expat from Philadelphia, currently living in Copenhagen, Denmark. His blog, Robe Trotting focuses on travel, expatriation and lifestyle topics.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Timothy

    Interesting topic. The tipping is ‘hell’ for me in the US, because expectation vary state to state.

    My issue in the US is the stress of ordering.

    In 2010 in NYC we went to a Subway and it stressed me out. I forgot which sandwich I ordered but let’s say a tuna sandwich. Just give me one. I don’t want to stress about which type of bread, which sauce, which …

    The worst for me is the attendant expected me to know in advance what my sandwich order is. I don’t know, it was my first time. When I asked for advice (“which would you recommend?), the attendant couldn’t answer.

    Funnily, when I have US guests here in Belgium, they expect to be able to change everything with the dish. A steak with fries might become fish and mash. That’s not how restaurants menus are managed. At least not in Belgium.

    1. robetrotting

      Yeah it’s a nightmare tipping in the states – usually 20% but some people have all kinds of rules.

      I didn’t think about that aspect, but you’re right about Americans being extra fussy and thinking they/we can alter the menu at every whim. Everything becomes a special order haha.

  2. Julie McCool

    Excellent comparison. I wish the USA would follow European practice—pay servers a living wage and build tips into the pricing.

    1. robetrotting

      Thanks! And I totally agree, living wage, stable schedules etc. America needs to be better to the service industry in a lot of ways.

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