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Mar 3, 2014 06:18 AM

question for european visitors... what surprised you the most about american restaurant culture

I have a group of europeans who are moving to the US for a few months as part of a work culture. They asked me for recommendations to help them prepare for eating in american restaurants.

I know on this board, there is alot of talk about the mistakes Americans make in Europe, but little discussion vice versa.

So my question is for Europeans who have visited the US recently. What surprised you the most about US restaurants / dining culture? What do you wish you knew before you came?


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  1. I will answer for my German relatives - They were amazed by the size of the drinks and the free refills. They also complained about the 5-10 pounds they would put on each visit.

    2 Replies
    1. re: cleobeach

      I do think it is good advice to tell visitors that they won't need to order a starter, salad, and main course, unless they want to share family-style. Also, prepare to take home leftovers!

      1. re: khh1138

        They can put the leftovers in those huge back packs they seem to wear everywhere!!

    2. I hope this thread gets some good traction from Europeans - it's a great question!

      But - as an American - the difference I notice coming back from abroad: (in generalities - of course there will be exceptions)

      You'll feel rushed at meals by the waitstaff, they don't mean to be rude but American's don't like waiting and typically eat and go. So food and the bill come quickly, you don't have to pay right away if you don't want.

      Americans don't do "courses". An "appetizer" is typically meant to be shared and will be bigger than you think; the salads are typically for a meal, not as a course; and everything will come at once, on one plate.

      Tipping is expected, hardly ever included, and a constant issue - yes a lot of Americans would like it to change but it is just what it is for now.

      There is no such thing as a "house" wine - and we drink way more liquor than Europeans do.

      Americans eat early - dinner at 9pm is rare and many kitchens close by then if the night is slow.

      Our course order is different (when there are courses as stated above) - cheese is often an appetizer/starter (especially at parties or people's homes), salad/soup, meal, dessert.

      We LOVE ice in our drinks - and our drinks cold.

      26 Replies
      1. re: thimes

        Fine dining restaurants will treat salads as a course but you can always ask. Meal salads are prevalent at chains and casual restaurants and bars.

        1. re: thimes

          A lot of what you've said here is not at all typical of the America I live in.
          Where I live, we "do courses," there are house wines, dinner is never before 7:30, 9:00 is late-ish but not unheard of, I've seen plenty of end-of-meal cheese courses.

          1. re: caganer

            I agree @caganer. I live in the NYC metro are and everything @thimes states seems to be the opposite of my experience.

            1. re: ttoommyy

              The same is true of Chicago (and I suspect of most large cities in the USA, and close-in affluent suburbs).

                1. re: kmcarr

                  True, but more Europeans are likely to visit NYC than Columbus, OH (where Thimes evidently resides, based on his/her profile).

                  1. re: masha


                    But I NEVER said "typical." I merely stated @thines response was the opposite of my experience.

                    1. re: ttoommyy

                      Ttoomyy, we are agreeing with each other. Your experiences with restos in the NY metro area are different than thimes'. My point is that, regardless of which is more "typical" of "America" -- a proposition that is fraught with complications I won't presume to address, and that I understand you were not trying to express -- your experiences in NY are in some ways more relevant, since more Europeans are likely to visit NYC or other major US cities with a similar resto culture, like Chicago, where I live.

                      1. re: masha

                        I see that you were agreeing with me. Sorry. You're opening "true" threw me. :)

                    2. re: masha

                      Given the relative size of the rest of America compared NYC it is more likely that Europeans will visit someplace BESIDES NYC.

                      1. re: kmcarr

                        That may be true, but they may be visiting a place that is similar in approach... or not. That is why I countered @thines response with mine. To give the OP two scenarios. @thines response was a blanket statement; mine was not.

                        1. re: kmcarr

                          Have you ever been to NYC? I propose a test. I will walk out of my building here in Manhattan and you walk out of your building. Lets see how long it takes to find a European. My guess is that I can find one in less than 3 minutes. Probably 60 seconds is more likely.

                          You may be right on an absolute basis but on relative probability of finding European visitors in one place in the US, no place tops NYC.

                          I have a friend who does study travel patterns for a tourism group. Basically one third of European visitors come to NYC.

                          Check these pages which show sources of European visitors and how many come to NYC.



                          1. re: Bkeats

                            If I lived in much of the rest of the US and stepped out of my building, I'd probably have to end up in a car.

                            If there's a "European" in my car, she should have called sooner...

                              1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                Ha! A Swedish stewardess, perhaps? Now I'm showing my age.

                          2. re: kmcarr

                            I said the NYC metro area which covers more than NYC. Also, I NEVER said it was "typical of America." I said my experience was the opposite of @thimes, therefore giving the OP of this thread another perspective. Why did you assume my response was meant to be "typical of America?" All I said was " I live in the NYC metro are and everything @thimes states seems to be the opposite of my experience."

                            1. re: ttoommyy

                              Sorry, I took the tone of your response (and @caganer who you were supporting, particularly the "America I live in") to be rather dismissive of @thimes comments, as if the NYC experience is the only one that matters.

                              1. re: kmcarr

                                Thimes grew up in the NYC metro area and his family still lives there. And even in that area I stand by my comments as generalities for a European visiting. Is it easier to find exceptions in a large city - of course. But on whole I think it is accurate "in America"

                                1. re: thimes

                                  And curse you all for making me defend Columbus Ohio - but based on a quick search it appears that it is the 15th largest city in the US. Hardly the rural cowtown you're painting it to be (though I completely understand the prejudice). We get plenty of overseas visitors.

                                  1. re: thimes

                                    Thimes, I did not mean to impugn Columbus, and I am sure you get many overseas visitors. The fact is (and I don't have a handy link to prove it but you can look it up) that NYC is the number 1 destination within the US for overseas visitors. Someone else (not you) made the suggestion that insights into NYC's restaurant culture were not useful because it is not "typical" of American experience. The only point I was trying to make was, typical or not, NYC is a city that a very large number of Europeans visit. I should have left you & Columbus out of it. Sorry.

                                    1. re: masha

                                      I bad mouth Columbus more than enough, so no offense taken in that regard.

                                      What does tweak me just a little is the painting of my opinions of being those of someone from a fly over state like OH and not at all relevant to a big city like NY - "silly little farm folks and all" - which is exactly how that conversation reads to me.

                                      I'm not saying that everything I stated is how I eat or live but you're fooling yourself if you don't think those are things a European would notice - even in such a modern epicenter such as NYC.

                                      (I should just delete this post because it is going to get me in trouble - but it has brought out the Jersey in me and so I'm posting it anyway. . . . some day I'll learn).

                            2. re: kmcarr

                              It is as typical of America as St. Louis or Raleigh or Spokane or whatever small town you care to name. Big cities are a part of America just as much as small towns, middle of nowhere farms and empty prairies are.

                            3. re: ttoommyy

                              Except for the comment about americans loving ice in their drinks, which i agree with, i disagree with all of thimes' 'facts'.( I have lived in Boston the last 40 yrs. and i never eat at chain restnts.)

                          3. re: thimes

                            MY appetizer is not meant to be shared.

                            I wouldn't expect this practice at better restaurants. TGI Friday's perhaps

                            1. re: sal_acid

                              Agree completely that it is not a common practice in "better restaurants," other than those with shared-plates concepts. On the other hand, my mother has a very small appetite and just cannot do a full appetizer and entrée. We often order a salad to share, but explain that to the waiter/waitress and, at better restaurants, they almost invariably bring out the salad already divided between 2 plates. Which I guess proves the comments of some posters here that it is not uncommon in American restaurants to make special requests.

                          4. Your waiter or waitress will introduce him or herself by name, but you don't have to offer your name in return. It's stupid and annoying, I know.

                            They are trained to make it sound like they want to have a close personal relationship with you. It is all fakery, just more American marketing bullshit. If your waitress is young and hot, don't offer her your phone number. She may take it badly.

                            He or she will interrupt your meal one or many times with an inane question: "How are we doing?" or "How are you guys (even if you are female) doing?" They will ask this stupid question only when you either have a mouthful of food or are in the middle of a conversation. This is encouraged by restaurant managers as a way to provide the appearance of attentive service. You still will have to wave and shout to get any service beyond delivery of the food and the bill.

                            If you ask for your food to be prepared in a non-standard way, that is to say, not the way it is offered on the menu, you will be considered a troublesome guest ... or even worse, someone from California, where everyone considers him or herself "special" and expects "special" treatment. A huge tip will be expected.

                            If you want your drink cold, but without ice in it, you probably will cause great confusion. You should get accustomed to bad coffee ... most restaurant coffee in this country is pretty awful.

                            A tip of 15 to 20 percent of the bill is considered normal. Restaurant workers are paid almost nothing in wages, and much of their income is in the form of gratuities. Stupid system, I know, but that's the custom.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: emu48

                              Why is it necessary to be so negative about the way things are in the US (as you see them)? All cultures are different. I have many friends overseas who like the friendliness of Americans, and would in fact jump at the opportunity to live and work here.

                              We were recently on a work visit and greeted Belgian colleagues in the usual way. The director of their company said, "I just love the American hug!"

                              If you're American, be proud of it. I don't know of any other nation that puts themselves down so much as I've seen in this country.

                              One piece of advice I'll give to visitors to the US: be sure to tip in the customary way here. I was out the other night and there were a couple of Europeans at a table; none of the waitstaff was surprised that they were there a long time (after most other customers had cleared out), required lots of special service, yet left no tip. This is common.

                              1. re: emu48

                                Wow, you really hate going out to eat, huh?

                                1. re: emu48

                                  Boy, do I ever disagree with this post. I eat out a lot, both socially and for work. I find most restaurants (even very moderately priced ones) more than willing to accommodate special requests. I happen to love cold drinks, but I eat out with people who routinely ask for water, soft drinks, etc., without ice and I've never even seen an eyebrow raised about it. Tipping customs vary in every country -- that happens to be ours -- get over it.

                                    1. re: emu48

                                      This is certainly true of mid-level/chain restaurants

                                      1. re: emu48

                                        <"He or she will interrupt your meal one or many times with an inane question: "How are we doing?" or "How are you guys (even if you are female) doing?" They will ask this stupid question only when you either have a mouthful of food or are in the middle of a conversation. This is encouraged by restaurant managers as a way to provide the appearance of attentive service. You still will have to wave and shout to get any service beyond delivery of the food and the bill.">

                                        I am born and raised in the 'burbs of NYC and have yet to find exception to this fact. and that's the nice way of putting it emu48.

                                        1. re: emu48

                                          Why you so mad bro? I bet the waitstaff loves you.

                                        2. I'm American, but some of my European colleagues (with whom I travel for business) say they are always slightly taken aback at all the "follow-up" questions when one places an order at certain places:

                                          Do you want room for cream?
                                          White, wheat or rye?
                                          What kind of cheese?
                                          How do you want the burger cooked?
                                          Fries or salad?

                                          That sort of thing.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: LeoLioness

                                            "Room for cream" is annoying even to some Americans.

                                            1. re: GH1618

                                              <Room for cream"> Is this some sort of coffee reference?

                                              1. re: petek

                                                Yes, and it implies that if you don't use cream, you want the cup filled so high that it's difficult to carry without sloshing it over the brim and scalding youself.

                                                1. re: GH1618

                                                  and this is why I always reply "yes." Even though I drink my coffee black.

                                          2. Interesting, no Europeans responding yet. Well I used to work in Europe and one thing most of my colleagues there commented about eating in American restos was about the quantities served. A 22 oz strip steak? Could not believe that was meant for one person.

                                            32 Replies
                                            1. re: Bkeats

                                              I have heard this remark about the large servings here many times, however, when my husbands German co-workers are in the U.S., he can't believe how much steak they put away. He can't keep up with them at all.

                                              1. re: sandylc

                                                It can be REALLY hard to find a good steak in Germany - perhaps they feel like they better enjoy it while they can!

                                                1. re: biondanonima

                                                  Maredo to the rescue. It's a chain, but the steak quality (Argentinian beef) is pretty damn good. Awesome salad bar, too.

                                                  Honestly -- when I crave a steak in Berlin, it's The Bird or Maredo....

                                                  1. re: linguafood

                                                    Been a long time since I have been in Berlin but the last time, I went to Royal Grill and ordered the entrecote. The "large" size was listed at 200 grams IIRC. Sort of small for me.

                                                    1. re: Bkeats

                                                      That place got such horrific reviews -- all hype and b-list celebs, not to mention sub-par food that I never had any interest in going. The prices are outrageous as well.

                                                      1. re: linguafood

                                                        It was four years ago. We went because it was recommended by my colleagues in Frankfurt. I agree that the food wasn't that great. Real scene though. Not surprising considering the age of the guys who suggested it.

                                                    2. re: linguafood

                                                      Yeah, I've heard good things about Maredo but I never found a time to go. I'm sure the Bird's steaks are good but I just couldn't ever bring myself to order anything but that BURGER! Plenty of time for good steak when I'm back home!

                                                    3. re: biondanonima

                                                      We had a Germain exchange student live with my family in high school. We also had a neighbor who was a meat cutter who always gave us a great deal on 'expiring' beef. I think Gerhard developed a taste for beef. When he visted twice over the years, one of the things he really liked was to go out for a steak dinner. When I visited him, he really wanted me to have a good steak dinner, so we ate at the hotel reestaurant. I would have much rather had dinner at a German restaurant. His wife did make us a traditional German dinner. His sister made us an interesting meal that included both pork schnitzel and sweet and sour pork. They were surprised when I put both on my plate. (I still do not understand why they were surprised.)

                                                      1. re: biondanonima

                                                        My German relatives were very into steak when they would stay with us. I assumed it was either not readily available in Germany or crazy expensive. They loved cooking steak on the grill. We lived in a farming area and my grandfather raised beef cattle so steak wasn't a big deal to us but they always looked forward to it. Last visit, we did buffalo and they enjoyed that too.

                                                    4. re: Bkeats

                                                      What about bistecca Fiorentina, where it seems that you are expected to order a minumum of half a kilo of meat? The size of the order kept me from ordering it when we were in Florence. (Missed opportunity, I know)

                                                      1. re: thinks too much

                                                        Bistecca Fiorentina is an experience that you have to be ready and primed for when entering into a covenant with it. :)

                                                        1. re: ttoommyy

                                                          So, in all honesty, how big is the chunk of meat that a single diner eats when committing to a bistecca fiorentina? :)

                                                          1. re: ttoommyy

                                                            But I have no qualms about bringing home a doggie back from a steakhouse. Therefore, I wouldn't concern myself too nuch in ordering a steak bigger than my appetite. In Europe, as has been extensively discussed here and elsewhere, it typically isn't done.

                                                            1. re: thinks too much

                                                              dukefan, I would tell the Europeans about our accepted tradition of doggie bags. And I would also urge them to not be horrified/ashamed of doggie bags(like my French visitors) because they can help keep themselves from overeating by learning to take home leftovers.

                                                              Also, they should be encouraged to ask for whatever they need at a restaurant; some places are what i call "Yes" places that will do most anything reasonable to make their guests happy. Some are not that way; but visitors should be told that they have every right to ask while here.

                                                              I would tell them that most US restnts have websites that list their menu, so the visitors can translate this english food language while relaxed at home instead of feeling stressed out trying to order in a restnt. For the visitors that are foodies, it would be great to give them links to Chow with an explanation about how to find out about restaurants where they are going.

                                                              I would tell them that in a lot of parts of America, recycling and 'being green' are important awarenesses to have and practice. The U.S. had a big economic Depression in the '30's and 'not wasting anything' became an important practice (thus, the doggie bag.)

                                                              I would tell them that , depending upon where they are visiting in the U.S., there may be strict smoking bans in restaurants, bars, mass transit, public buildings and even public parks. (That's how it is in Boston where I live.)

                                                              1. re: opinionatedchef

                                                                All excellent points, @opinionatechef. Nicely said.

                                                                1. re: opinionatedchef

                                                                  All good points, except that I am not sure that the experience of the Depression explains our tradition of doggie bags. Europeans experienced equal or worse food privations during WWII and its aftermath, yet they don't do doggie bags. (I can recall as an exchange student living in Belgium in the early 70s the extraordinary frugality of my solidly-middle class host family, where multiple children would use the same tub of water to wash their feet so as not to waster water.)

                                                                  1. re: masha

                                                                    Exactly what I was going to say, masha, re: the Depression and not wasting food, etc. Europeans were just as affected; just by a different situation.

                                                                    The Europeans don't serve humongous portions which require a doggy bag. They also, more often than not, allow diners to take their time dining and digesting, so dining on a many course meal can take 3+ hours, not 1 hour-15 minutes as many Americans are wont to do. There is no rush to eat and go; dining is a pleasure.

                                                                    1. re: LindaWhit

                                                                      I sense there is, possibly, something of a cultural difference in attitude towards restaurant eating between America and Europe that may affect the doogy bag situation.

                                                                      I often read Chowhound threads where American contributors mention that they eat out frequently - several times a week in some cases. Clearly they are doing that as a choice instead of cooking dinner - and there are many American restaurants so reasonably priced and of pretty good quality that it is easy to do this.

                                                                      On the other hand, in my experience, many Europeans may regard dining out as something of an "event" - a date, a celebration, for example. For instance, in my extended family, my partner & I are the only ones who eat out regularly (perhaps weekly), other members of the family will only visit a restaurant for, say, a birthday or aniversary celebration (and some not even always then). That fits with the more leisurely style of service that you're likely to experience nor, as Linda says, are you going to be getting overly large portions.

                                                                      1. re: Harters

                                                                        I don't know if that's a US/European thing or a demographic thing. I think people in urban areas just tend to eat out more.

                                                                        My friends (30s/40s, childless) friends in London and Barcelona and Prague and Amsterdam definitely eat out as much or more than I do (living in a US city). Which is significantly more than say, my sister, who has a young child and lives in a rural part of the US.

                                                                        1. re: Harters

                                                                          ha. in vienna, your living room is the local cafe. It's been that way for generations.

                                                                          1. re: Harters

                                                                            Agree with Chowrin, how much time Europeans spend in restaurants depends on where in Europe it is. (Wechsberg's book nostalgically described at least five restaurant meals daily in Vienna.)

                                                                            And the lack of uniformity in US restaurant habits. In my area, people seldom eat "early," people drink more wine and beer than spirits -- actually more like Europeans than traditional mainstream America -- and restaurants commonly offer basic or "house" wines by the glass.

                                                                            "Doggie" bags went from rare to mainstream during my lifetime, they are one thing Europeans always marvel at. Those of us who keep birds sometimes call them birdie bags, and you might be surprised how much some birds eat. Especially, good pizza.

                                                                            The other source of amazement from European co-workers was American breakfasts. Classic restaurant breakfasts with eggs, meats, toast, potatoes, condiments. "Larger than a typical dinner for us" said more than one Nederlander.

                                                                          2. re: LindaWhit

                                                                            linda, i'm sure your last paragraph is part of it. And wouldn't it be interesting to wiki doggy bag and get the history?!
                                                                            also, i am well aware that the rest of the world suffered from food and other privation far more than we did in WWII, and why, but i would bet that most europeans don't know about our Depression, which is why i suggested telling them about it.

                                                                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                                                                              Europe suffered through the Great Depression in the 1930's as much as the US, and the resulting political situation was contributed to the start of WW2. I am pretty certain most Europeans appreciate the US suffered and also have a good understanding if the "dust bowl” through history lessons and the writings of authors like Steinbeck (we do read American literature and watch US films).

                                                                              My guess is that the doggie bag culture comes not from a lack of food, but more from the bountiful amount of food the US produced in the post war era from the '50's. Mass production, improved food processing and storage and the general feel good factor of that era created a culture of plenty - a culture where bigger was better. So meals grew in size and restaurants competed on the size of the meals (it still happen from what I can see from "Man vs. Food"). Add in the rise of the advertising industry in the 1950's and the everything combines to eventually produce the supersize me culture.

                                                                              People (not just Americans) don't like waste so inevitably people asked to take the excess home. In Europe we had rationing for many years after WW2. In the UK food rationing didn't end until 1954 and so Europeans learned to use food frugally. As a result portions sizes didn't grow as waste was an anathema to the those who grew up in the war. My mother did, and she would only ever cook enough for a meal, or you would only put on your plate what you could doggie bags were not required.

                                                                              1. re: PhilD

                                                                                I just saw the most interesting Modern Marvels, about the rise of the American supermarket. If you get a chance, check it out, it explains a lot about Americans and food over the last 80 years or so. ( I wish I could link it but it doesn't seem to be available online for free.)

                                                                                1. re: PhilD

                                                                                  I actually think it has more to do with leftover culture -- one of the reasons we have much bigger refrigerators as well.

                                                                                  When I cook at home, unless I am cooking fish, I will almost always cook more than I know will be eaten. Having leftovers is a good thing. That way there is a lunch more tomorrow or even a high protein breakfast.

                                                                                  When I lived in Europe, when I was looking for a flat my only special request was for an american style refrigerator. My friends were amazed at how often i would have leftovers instead of cooking something from scratch or just going to a restaurant.

                                                                                  1. re: DukeFan

                                                                                    DukeFan, I am no expert, but I think you are confusing cause and effect in terms of the Europeans having smaller refrigerators and the lesser prevalence of leftovers. The smaller fridges in Europe is, I believe, a function of higher energy costs, similar to the prevalence of smaller cars. Also, secondarily, more compact housing, especially in cities. If you live in an urban environment where the cost of housing square footage is high and you walk past grocers and specialty shops every day on your way home from work, it makes sense to have a relatively small refrigerator and shop more frequently. Not sure when and where you lived in Europe but, since you describe your place there as a flat, I assume you were in a city.

                                                                                    Once you are stuck with a smaller fridge, obviously you are less prone to keep leftovers in them. That said, you are may well be correct that there is a less of a "leftover culture."

                                                                    2. re: thinks too much

                                                                      I bet most American steakhouses start at 1/2 kilo (or so) per steak and most are at least 50% larger than that.

                                                                      1. re: caganer

                                                                        Really? I rarely see steaks over a pound. 8-12 oz. seems to be the norm around here (DC metro area).

                                                                        1. re: caganer

                                                                          So you are saying the smaller steaks are more than a pound? Huh?

                                                                          1. re: sandylc

                                                                            I'm saying that 16oz is the starting point at many steakhouses besides a filet steak or some special "small steak" option.
                                                                            (I just checked the websites of two small chains, Del Frisco's and Capital Grille - the only steaks smaller than 16oz are filet)

                                                                            1. re: caganer

                                                                              16 oz. is the starting point for my home-grilled steaks!