One word you’ll see in a lot of local restaurants.
As I was writing today’s review of Holzkrug, it occurred to me that I might have some newcomers reading this blog who could use some handy tips on dining out in Deutschland. Before Bill and I moved here for the first time in 2007, my only prior experience in Germany was for a few days in 1997. I went to well touristed areas where a lot of people spoke English. I don’t remember having a hard time getting what I needed in those days, but I probably made plenty of faux pas.
Dining out in Germany is a little bit different than it is in the United States. I, for one, prefer the German experience, even if I do miss some of my favorite American foods. This is a short list of the ways German dining is different than American dining.
Down here in the Stuttgart area, you will run into lots of English speakers. However, in some of the smaller towns or in places where there aren’t many Americans, a few German words can come in handy. With that in mind, here are some tips and useful words I’d like to pass on to folks who are new to the area. If you’ve been here awhile, this post isn’t necessarily for you, although you’re welcome to send me suggestions or corrections!
Tipping and service
I like that German servers don’t depend entirely on tips and turning their tables to make money. I have found that some Americans seem to think that the fact that service is slower means it’s not as good. I just think Germans have a different philosophy about dining out than Americans do. A meal out in Germany is a treat, so servers are less inclined to rush or try to upsell your bill (although there are obviously exceptions). Also, in Germany, I have never had to have an annoying “forced” conversation with a manager wanting to know if I’m enjoying myself, as I would at certain American restaurants. They always seem to show up when I’m mid-chew. In Germany, servers are more likely to back off and let you eat in peace.
Tips are appreciated in Germany. You don’t have to tip waitstaff 20% as you would in the United States. Rounding up the bill is perfectly fine. If you want to give more, I’m sure no one will complain. But if you tip 20%, as you might in the US, you will look like a greenhorn and probably piss off the locals, who would rather not see that particular American custom imported here. I used to wait tables, so it was initially hard for me to tip less, but then I remembered all the times I waited on Germans in Williamsburg, Virginia and it became a little bit easier.
The German word for “tip” is “Trinkgeld”. It literally translates to “drink money”.
OpenTable.de and similar online services have made making reservations at German restaurants super easy. The first time we were living here, there were only a couple of restaurants in Stuttgart using OpenTable. Since our return, I’m delighted to report that a whole bunch of local restaurants are using this online reservation service. It makes getting a table a snap. The service is free for diners and the site can be translated into English. You can use OpenTable in other countries, too, including the United States.
But what if you want to go to a restaurant that isn’t on OpenTable? What if it’s the kind of place you can’t necessarily just walk into and expect a table? Well, then you can call them and hope someone speaks English, or you can probably send an email. My husband, Bill, speaks basic German and can make reservations on the phone or send emails. I must admit, I let him do the talking most of the time.
Another word on reservations– if you are planning to eat out on a big restaurant holiday like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day, be sure to reserve. Just like in the United States, restaurants get busy on those days. If you want to be assured a table, you should plan in advance.
The word for reservations is “Reservierung”. “Reserviert” means “reserved”.
If you visit a restaurant and spot a table with the word “Stammtisch” on a sign hanging near it, that means the table is reserved for “regulars”. You should choose another table unless you are asked to sit there by someone in charge… or, unless you are, in fact, a regular. I usually see these tables at family owned places or bars. Ditto if you see a table that has a sign that says “Reserviert” on it, although sometimes you can sit there if there’s a time noted and it’s not close to the time of your visit.
Sundays and “Ruhetags”
Germans treasure their Sundays as a day of quiet and rest. Consequently, on most Sundays, you won’t find shops open. However, restaurants and attractions are not necessarily closed on Sundays. Some places have reduced hours or choose Sunday as their “Ruhetag” (quiet day– it means they’re closed). But, on the whole, restaurants do stay open on Sundays and will be closed another day of the week. I’ve found that Monday is a popular “Ruhetag”, but sometimes another day is chosen for the restaurant to be “Geschlossen” (closed).
Many restaurants in Germany take a “pause”; that is, a break in service. They might serve lunch from 12:00-2:00pm and then close until 5:00pm or later, whenever they reopen for dinner. Or they may offer a limited menu or only drinks during their pause. Some restaurants don’t take a pause. If you see a place that advertises “durchgehend warme Küche”, that means they serve non-stop hot food as long as they’re open. Good news for you if you want to have lunch at 2:30pm! There are a number of places that do offer continuous food service, but just as many don’t. You should check the Öffnungzeiten (opening times) before you stop by for a meal.
Water, ice, and refills
Welcome to Germany, land of having to pay for water. That’s right. If you want water in Germany, you have to buy it, and it can get pricey! I have heard of people asking for tap water. I have never tried it myself because I actually like Sprudel (bubbly mineral water) and I’d have to pay for that anyway back in the States.
If you want tap water, you can try asking for it, but don’t be surprised if the waiter looks at you sideways. A lot of Germans don’t drink tap water. Also, if you prefer water without fizz, be sure to ask for “Stille Wasser”. If you want it with gas, you can ask for “Wasser mit Gas.” or “Sprudel”. Either way, tell them if you want a “Flasche” (bottle) or a “Glas” (glass). This paying for water thing isn’t the norm everywhere in Europe. For instance, in The Netherlands and Ireland, Bill and I were served free tap water without having to ask for it.
I have yet to encounter any place that offers free refills on drinks. Well… perhaps excepting fast food restaurants, although I wouldn’t say free refills are the norm there, either. Frankly, I think it’s a good thing. It means you won’t have to pee as often, which also costs money, although not usually at restaurants unless you’re at a truck stop.
If you order a soft drink, it probably won’t have much, if any, ice in it. If you want ice (Eis), you should ask for it. Germans don’t put a lot of ice in their drinks. “Eis” also means ice cream, so you might be better off getting used to drinking stuff without ice cubes. You could also try asking for “Eiswürfel”. Honestly, this issue has never come up for me, because I usually drink wine or beer in restaurants. When you order a drink in Germany, you will see that the glass is marked. That’s how much liquid you’re paying for. My guess is that Germans don’t want to dilute what they’re paying for with ice, or make it harder to make sure they’re getting exactly what they ordered and in the correct amount. I’m sure someone will set me straight if I’m wrong.
Not so long ago, it wasn’t that common for German restaurants to pack up your leftovers for you. However, during this tour, I’ve found that more and more restaurants are cool with letting you take home a doggie bag. After all, if you don’t take your leftovers with you, the server is only going to throw them away. Swabians, in particular, are pretty frugal folks and don’t like to waste things, and portion sizes can be pretty substantial. To ask for your leftovers, you can say “Zu mitnehmen, bitte” (to take with, please).
You’ll often hear this at the end of your meal. It means, “Did you enjoy your meal?” You can simply say “Ja!” or “Nein!”, or you can say “Ja! Das hat geschmekt!” (Yes, that was tasty!) Lecker is another word for “yummy” or “delicious”.
A Pfand is a deposit you pay for dishes or glasses. It usually comes up at fests or markets where street food is being served. If you order a beer, you will pay for the beer and may have to pay a “Pfand” for the glass it’s served in. If you return the glass, you will get the Pfand returned to you. If you don’t return the glass, you don’t get your money back… but you can take the glass with you. If you go to the big fests in Stuttgart during spring or fall, you probably won’t pay a Pfand if you’re in a tent. However, there are people watching for you trying to sneak out with that Krug, so don’t try to take it with you. You will likely get caught, although they’ll probably just take the mug from you.
Paying the bill
A lot of restaurants in Germany still operate on a cash only basis. For that reason, you should always come prepared with euros unless you know that a place accepts credit cards. Even some of the places that take cards may not be able to handle an American card. During this tour, I’ve found that American cards with chips in them are more often accepted without a problem than the old stripe style. However, some places are only on the EC network, so if your card is on an American system, it may not work. As recently as 2014, we had trouble using a chip card in France. So, it’s a good idea to bring cash when you go out to eat.
When you are ready for the bill, you usually must ask for it. As a general rule, German servers don’t just drop a bill on someone’s table like a server might in the United States. It all comes down to that glorious habit of not rushing people through their meals. So, when you wish to pay, you should say “Bezahlen, bitte” to your server. He or she will then bring you your bill.
When you pay, if you wish to leave a “Trinkgeld” and are expecting change, tell the server how much to make the bill. For example, if your bill is 17 euros and you want to round up, you’d say “Zwanzig, bitte” for twenty euros. If you gave them a fifty euro note, they’ll give you back thirty euros. If you gave them a twenty euro note and simply want them to keep the change, you can say “Das ist Stimmt” (that is correct) or simply “Stimmt”.
Do not leave cash on the table. If you want to give your server a tip, make sure you hand it to them. Otherwise, they might think you left money behind by mistake.
This is a pretty quick and dirty post for newcomers. Depending on how it’s received by the community, I may later write a sequel. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to either leave a comment on my blog or on Facebook, which is where a lot of people find my stuff!