Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love slow service

Amanda and I were eating out fairly often during our first couple of weeks in Germany and we both noticed pretty quickly that the service you get at a restaurant or cafe is, well, different. At first, I was inclined to say that it was bad, and I would complain about it often. 

The issue is that the servers are generally inattentive. Beyond the ordering and subsequent delivery of our meals, we would typically have no interaction with the waitstaff.  That is to say, no unsolicited interaction. You are not checked up on to see how the meal is, nor asked if you want refills. Even getting the check was difficult at first. We would sit around for a long time with our drinks empty and plates cleaned trying to make eye contact with the server, until finally we would succeed, or give up and just flag the person down.

We quickly learned that if we want something, we simply need to be a bit more forceful about it. This allowed us to get out of the restaurant a little bit more quickly, but I was still appalled by the lack of attention. 

After a couple of months, and some discussions with the natives, we have come to learn that the waitstaff are not (usually) negligent, but that there is a different philosophy behind table service here. The customer is left alone to enjoy their meal in peace. Dining is much more of a leisurely activity here than in America. It is a bother to be constantly asked "how is everything?"  I've been told by a friend that he even finds it annoying when an American waitperson refills your beverage without asking. Can you imagine? This is one of my basic criteria when assessing the quality of service. 

I've also heard that this effect may be due to the difference in pay/tip structure.  Here, waitstaff are paid a living wage regardless and do not depend on tips.  They don't have any incentive to rush customers along, or try to inflate their bills with more food and drink.

Either way, the plus side of all of this is that you can sit in a restaurant or coffee shop all day, having ordered nothing more than a cup of coffee, and no one will say a word. You are never asked "did anyone save room for desert?" You are also not really expected to tip nearly as much as in America. The biggest drawback, now that we've realized what to expect and what is expected of us, is that it is nearly impossible to go out for a quick dinner at a sit-down establishment. That has only made me slow down and appreciate my meals out more, and eat out less. Both are good things.

In conclusion, I've learned to accept and even appreciate the German attitude toward table service. That being said, I do not think that it is the optimal system.  The typical American service is not ideal either. I prefer a flexible waitstaff. Basically, I want the waitperson to wait on me, not to ignore me or rush me out the door.

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