Sunday, February 15, 2009

A guide to eating out in Germany

Germans are slightly divergent in the way they behave at a restaurant. If you are new to Germany, here are few tips that would help you dine out - alone or in a group.
Some tips below are not specific to Germany, but are dining etiquette followed in many western countries. They are included here for completion. If you feel you are reading the obvious, all you need is a perspective switch.

Finding a restaurant

Germany offers you international cuisine. You could find restaurants that offer dishes from C
urrywurst to Sushi to Chicken Vindaloo. If you have the new 3G IPhone or a GPS receiver in your car, it wouldn't be tough to locate one. Else you need to plan ahead by doing a bit of googling. In the city centre and other busy areas, you would always find a McDonald's or a Burger King. But once you are away, hunting for a restaurant is not all that easy without some support.

Finding a table (once you are in)

Most German restaurants are crowded during peak hours. Hence be prepared to share the table with someone else, if you happen to be in a restaurant at this time (surely not at places which costs a pretty penny).  Undoubtedly, it is considered boorish to stand near a table that would be emptied soon and wait for them to finish (incessantly looking at them). If you are lucky, a waiter might dope out something for you. If you are not privileged to have a waiter to help you, look out for a table where a single is sitting. 

If you see a single girl, it is better to leave her out, as chances are that she would be waiting for her boyfriend (nevertheless, you could take a chance if you wish). 

You could politely ask the single g(u/a)y if it is OK to share the table. If you don't see a single, you could go to a family. As mentioned before, this would be totally inconsiderate if you do this at an expensive restaurant and ask a couple enjoying a candle lit dinner. You could greet the family with a Hallo and MYOB. It is not necessary to enter into a conversation with them, unless they initiate it (which is again atypical). In case the dish for the couple arrives after you are seated you could wish them "Guten Appetit". They may repay it to you when your dish arrives.

Menu (Speisekarte)

Many restaurants have their menu (or part of it) laid out outside the restaurant. It would be a good idea to go through it briefly before entering the restaurant to see what the restaurant has in store and the price range.

For a single meal with a drink, €12 - €15 per head could be considered as an average in major cities of Germany (as of this date).

Some restaurants would also have a Tageskarte (Menu of the day) displayed outside. This would be some special dishes available on that day and it mostly comes at an offer price (Angebot). It is not necessary that all dishes in the Tageskarte are available. They might be "sold out" already, if you are late at the restaurant. So don't ask questions to yourself or the waiter like - "If you don't have it, why do you keep it in the menu".

The menu is most of the time in German. Some restaurants have them in English too. Sometimes the waiter would bring it for you without asking, after identifying you as a foreigner. Else you could ask for it. 

Following the norm, the menu mostly would have dishes classified as Vorspeise (Starter), Hauptspeise (Main dish) and Nachtisch (Dessert). Many menus would also carry a unique number for each dish. You could either read out the name of the dish, tell the number or point at the dish in the menu (incase you don't want to try your German skills). 

If you know the number of your most-liked dish, you could even order it without asking for a menu. This could impress the waiter and German with you (as it confirms that you are a frequenter there)
A good "English-German Food & Drink Glossary" can be found here.

Placing the order

Don't be taken aback if nobody attends to you for a long time (this has nothing to do with you being a foreigner. Germans get the same treatment too). You could try to get the waiter's 
attention by signaling with hand (no clapping!) or saying Kann ich bestellen, bitte (Can I order, please")?

It is customary to place the order for a drink first. Remember that, nothing comes free in Germany - not even water. If you order Mineral Water (Mineralwasser), mostly you would be served with water containing gas (Kohlensaüre). If you need water without gas (Stilles Wasser), you need to specifically ask for it. If it is not available and you don't mind some flummoxed faces, you could ask for Leitungswasser (tap water). 

According to a German, water without sparkle is for washing, bathing and plants. 

If you are not in a mood to drink or you think the drink is too expensive, you could freely say "Nichts zum trinken (Nothing to drink)".

Beer is the favorite drink in Germany and they cost at times the same as water. It is OK to order a brew any time of the day (even for breakfast if you are in Bavaria, together with white sausage). A typical German who needs to drive after dining would stay away from beer, or have at the most one glass of beer. It is not common in Germany to "force" anyone into drinking.

Once the drinks are served, you could place the food order. Even if the menu has starters, main dish and desserts, it is not necessary that you order all of them. You could dive straight into the main dish. Even if all of them are ordered together (most cases the first two), you can be sure that the dishes are brought to you one after the other.

It is not common in Germany to share a dish with another person dining with you. Most dishes are meant for one person (an average German) and everyone places their own order. 

It is also considered OK to ask for small tailoring to the dish you ordered. For example, you don't want tomatoes in your Salat, you would like to have Pommes instead of Späzle etc. If it is possible, the waiter would say so. If you are at a restaurant that offers spicy food, you could say "Normal/Mittelscharf" if you want it medium spicy. Brave ones could say "Sehr scharf" (Very hot). But there is not guarantee that it would be HOT.


Even though public smoking is banned in many states in Germany, some restaurants offer special areas for smokers within the restaurant. If it doesn't, it is advised not to smoke and irritate your non-smoking neighbour.

Toilet (WC)

Toilets (or WC as they are called in Germany) are available in most restaurants and they are almost always clean. There are separate WCs for men and women . They would be marked as  Damen (D) for women and Herren (H) for men or with the respective symbols.

It is OK to chime in during any part of the dining and attend your nature's call. In some restaurants, you would see a cleaner in front of the WC with a plate and few coins in it. If the WC is maintained clean, it is a practice to drop a few cents (the gold ones) into his/her plate as you come out of the WC. In some other places (like BurgerKing), to avoid misuse, you would find the WC door number locked. You could find the secret code to open it in the bill you received.

After the food arrives

Normally food for everyone arrives together or one after the other in short span. It is considered courteous to wait for everyone's food to arrive before you start eating. If there is a big delay you could ask others to start off by saying Laßt es euch schmecken, as it is clear that their food is getting cold. 

Everyone starts the meal by wishing "Guten Appetit (Good Appetite)". If you start with a Beer or any other alcoholic drink you could say the equivalent of cheers as "zum Wohl"(formal), "Prost" (informal)  or "All Voll" (extreme).

Most Germans talk while eating (also laugh while eating). But in spite of this, they normally eat their food very fast.

Eating with hand in Germany is considered uncivil. But if you are at a international restaurant and certain dishes demand eating with hand (like Indian or Mexican), you may promptly do so. 
Keep in mind that, many Germans don't eat anything with hand that might stick on to the phalanges.

Closing the plate

Once you are done with the food you close your plate by placing the spoon and fork parallel on your plate with the handle towards the right of your plate.  Once you do this, you might see the waiter coming across your shoulder to clear your plate. You could move your shoulders away to make space for him or even assist him by taking the plate and handing it over.

Keeping the fork and spoon crossed on your plate indicates that you are not done yet.

Commenting about food

While you are eating, the waiter might turn up and check if you are enjoying your chow by asking "Schmeckt es Ihnen?". In case you are,  you could say "Gut", "Sehr Gut" etc. On the other hand, if you are not so satisfied, you could say a passive "Nja Gut" (which would be a lie) or say with a slight sarcasm "Interessant (Interesting)" (which wouldn't be a complete lie, but not insult others who are enjoying it, at the same time). 

The waiter might at times check this while he is clearing the plate (Even if he doesn't ask, it is considered a good practice to pass a comment on the food as he clears the plate). You could also pass on the negative comments during this or while you pay the bill (check). Most of the waiters would listen to you and some might even take notes of it. 

Paying the bill

It is not common in Germany to ask for the bill as soon as the plates are cleared (unless everyone needs to go home and watch Bundesliga). Also don't expect the waiter to bring the 
bill to you until you ask for it. Germans spend a lot of time at the table chatting after finishing the meal. Once it is time to go, you could fish for a waiter and tell him "Wir möchten bezahlen (We would like to pay)".  In many restaurants in Germany you don't get a bill in hand. The waiter would approach you with a note he made of the orders and ask "Zusammen (together) oder Getrennt (split)". If everyone is paying for their part separately, then you could say Getrennt. The waiter would then approach everyone one by one and start asking what you had ordered individually and tell you the part you have to pay based on it. If one in the group is making the payment for all, he would say Zusammen.

Also note that, just as credit cards are not accepted in several stores in the country, so is it in many restaurants.

Who Pays?  (...some tricks)

Eating out in Germany is normally considered expensive. The question "Who pays?" would be decided even before reaching the restaurant. If the one who makes the plan to go to a restaurant sends out an email or tells you (or the group), "I invite you for a dinner at ...", then  it is clear that he is going to pay for everyone. Incase, the intention is that everyone pays on their own (which is quite common in Germany), then the invite would look like - "Can we go out for dinner at ...?". 

If you are a group of colleagues or friends who always go out together, the intentions are mosty clear based on the occasion and you don't have to always read between the lines.

Now what happens if you are a restaurant and you are not very sure if it is an invite or a eating out together. Either case, it is always polite to eat only as much as you would normally eat (helps reduce fat deposits too). Now you have two options when the time to pay comes, 
  1. wait for your friend to call the waiter
  2. you call the waiter
If you do the latter, then make sure that you take out your wallet while you call the waiter. At this point, your friend might say that he is paying (if he intends to) and you could enjoy the last sip of that expensive Schillerwein. If your friend is the one who called for the waiter, the waiter would,  as mentioned before come and ask "Zusammen (together) oder Getrennt (split)". If your friend intends to pay he would say "Zusammen" at this point. It is not common in Germany to have a contest on who pays. If someone says he pays, you simply thank him and keep your wallet back. 


Unlike in many other countries, Germans don't leave the tip on the table when they leave a restaurant.  So, how then can one tip a waiter at a restaurant. 

A service fee of 10% is mostly included in your bill. Regardless of this, you could tip the waiter depending on the quality of service. After the waiter reads out the part you need to pay, you could round it to the nearest Euro and tell him the amount. Lets say, the part you need to pay is €7.25. You could simply round this and tell him €8. However, if the amount is say €7.90, it would be gentlemanly to round it as €8.50 (or €9) and not €8. Incase, you have the exact amount to be paid (including tip) with you, you could hand over the money and say "Stimmt so (It's correct)!". You could also say any of the following:
  • Das ist für Sie.
  • Der Rest ist für Sie.
  • Danke!
  • Passt so!
  • Bast scho! (Bavarian dialect)
  • Passt schon so.
  • Stimmt schon so.
  • Behalten Sie den Rest.
Goodbye time

You customarily leave the restaurant by saying "Wiedersehen (See you again)" to the waiter who served you and the other restaurant staff you meet on the way.

Happy Dining...


Anonymous said...

Now thats a complete guide for foreigners in Germany. Churn out more like these!

Lee said...

Average cost of a meal: this can vary depending on where one lives. In Munich, for instance, it can be a bit higher than in the North.

I think it sounds better "kann ich bitte bestellen?" instead of "kann ich bestellen, bitte" which is more how we would ask in English...

"don't expect to get water without sparkle in Germany"/"nothing comes free in Germany": nonsense! I am currently dieting and drink only water at the moment and have had no problem to order "ein stilles Wasser" or "Leitungswasser" (tap water). The latter I have not had to pay for in many restaurants. You can also ask for water "sanft" or "mit wenig Kohlensäure".

I have never seen a restaurant/bar in Munich where the beer costs less than water. I have seen some that cost about the same, but I avoid these if i plan to drink water. There are plenty of places that will charge half the price of beer for water.

"maybe not ordering a beer in the morning": you obviously haven't been to Bavaria where Weißbier is traditionally drunk at breakfast time with the traditional white sausage.

"It is not common in Germany to force anyone into drinking": errrr, can you tell me of any place where you are forced to drink??? Bit of a strange statement.

Spicy food: generally the Germans don't tend to eat food as spicy hot as we do in the UK, which is the reason why it may not be as hot as you expect if you order it "sehr scharf".

Saying the equivalent of "cheers" is not restricted to the start of the meal. In Bavaria people regularly say "prost!" or "zum Wohl" and klink the glasses together. It is worth noting that "prost!" is more used in less formal situations and "zum Wohl" more in formal situations e.g. business meetings.

I don't think you can generalise about Germans "normally eating their food very fast", just as you cannot say that about British or Americans. It is down to the individual and/or setting.

Tipping: service fees are not necessarily always included. The "norm" here in Munich (from my experience) is 10%. If the meal cost €15 you could add €1,50 as a tip. Since the Euro was introduced, however, people tend to give less as tips. I would probably give €1 in this example. If I had just a coffee for €3,60, I would just round it up to the nearest Euro. Your example of €7,90, I would sometimes offer €8,50.

"Bastscho": no such word... it is "Passt scho" - just sounds like you wrote it :-)

Goodbye time: in Bavaria you may also say "servus"/"tschüss"/"ciao" instead of "wiedersehen".

You don't necessarily place your food order first then
Shouldn't "eaten out already" be "sold out already" to make it a bit more readable? I think it could be slightly better written and there are also a few spelling/grammatical errors in both English and german (e.g. "Scharf" should be "scharf", "Apetit" should be "Appetit").

Kevin said...

Lee, write your own blog next time. I think the guy did a great job and for many, it's very useful. I know it's difficult being perfect. I have the same problem.

mgr said...

Thanks for the blog post. It was very helpful & appreciate it.

Nirmal said...

Thanks a lot Lee for your long review on the guide. It is certainly helpful. I already updated the guide with some of your points. I would in general advise you to view it as a guide not only for the Brits . You obviously seem to have forgotton other cutures when you made few comments.

Lee wrote: Average cost of a mealI have updated this now to include a range

Lee wrote: I think it sounds better "kann ich bitte bestellen?Both works. I have seen bitte mostly at the end in these cases to stress the request

Lee wrote: don't expect to get water without sparkle in GermanyYou haven't obvoiusly read the para on Leitungswasser.

Lee wrote: I have never seen a restaurant/bar in Munich where the beer costs less than waterI updated this now to mean that beer and water costs the same at times

Lee wrote: maybe not ordering a beer in the morningNice hint. Included it.

Lee wrote: It is not common in Germany to force anyone into drinkingI have seen cultures where someone orders a juice and you a beer (or a alcholic drink) and you convice the other guy to take a beer with you (and this is considered OK to do so). So force here only means this and not holding someone by his neck and pouring beer into his mouth. Perhaps the quotes I added will not leave you startled anymore. (again remember, there are many cultures in the world other than just 1)

Lee wrote: Spicy foodI come from a part of the world where you eat spicy food even for breakfast at times. So I guess I am a better judge here of what "spicy" really means.

Lee wrote: Saying the equivalent of "cheers" is not restricted to the start of the mealTaken and updated

Lee wrote: I don't think you can generalise about Germans "normally eating their food very fastYou could do such generalisations based on majority I guess. Please read the word "Most"Lee wrote: Tipping:Taken and updated

Lee wrote: BastschoGoogle for "Bast scho"

Lee wrote: Goodbye timeThats only in Bavaria. Didnt want to make this look like a German learning guide. Hence left it out intentionally.

Lee wrote: Shouldn't "eaten out already" be "sold out already"I was trying to make a new phrase here, hence the quotes. But "Sold out" as you mentioned is definitely better.

Lee wrote: few spelling/grammatical errors in both English and germanWill surely try to take care of this

Once again, thank you for taking the time and doing such a wonderful review. Would be great if you could leave positives (if any) as well during such reviews. It would definitely encourage me and many others like me to write further.

taurals travels said...

wonderful guide for eating out in Germany.

You really covered all the basics and it's obvious that you took a load of time putting it together! thanks for that.

Looks like I'm going to have to update my podcast about this topic :-)

Perhaps you'd like to do an interview on the podcast, too? let me know tauralstravels (at) gmail (dot) com