I spent the first 22 years of my life in this country and never gave America’s dining culture a second thought.
Listen up though… this situation is nuts.
America’s dining culture is WEIRD AS HELL. There are literally zero aspects of it that are replicated anywhere else in the world because pretty much none of it makes any sense at all.
After spending over three years living abroad on three different continents, I realized that we are pretty much doing it all wrong (although I admit a few of our dining practices are quite enlightened and really should catch on elsewhere).
Read on to see the good, but mostly the bad, of America’s dining culture compared to the rest of the world.
Paying for a meal abroad is so dang simple. You look at the menu, choose a meal, then pay the listed price.
In the US, estimating your total bill is pretty much impossible and the final cost is usually a complete surprise due to two reasons: tipping and tax.
Lets start with the tip.
Tips are supposed to be based on service and encourage great work from the waiters and waitresses. However, at some point that got warped and now a 20% tip is completely expected.
Just yesterday I had a dinner where the waitress accidentally brought me three ciders instead of the one I ordered, brought my husbands food before mine, completely entered the wrong order, and forgot to give my husband the sauces he asked for on the side.
Guess what we still tipped her?
Yep, 20%. Because Americans have successfully been conditioned to feel guilty if they don’t. Now, a 10% tip is reserved for basically the worst service imaginable, and if you don’t tip at least 18% every time you are literally a monster.
The second reason why payment at restaurants is a total crapshoot is because of tax.
For some unknown reasons, the taxes in the US are not included in the price like they are EVERYWHERE ELSE ON EARTH.
Why? Why add it at the end?? No one knows, but everyone accepts it. So, be prepared to blindly pay a couple bucks extra for every meal on top of the menu price and tip.
BTW for those of you saying, just calculate the tax when you order, it’s not that easy.
Remember, some states tax food and drink and store items. Some only tax products in stores, but not food and drink. Some tax neither. Some only tax food and drink if you consume it in the restaurant, but not if you get it to go… yeah.
Good luck keeping all that straight and completing “Beautiful Mind” level calculations in your head to properly estimate the price of every meal.
Bringing the Bill
The last and weirdest aspect of America’s dining culture when it comes to money is that waitresses bring the bill without asking. I totally thought this was the norm until I moved abroad and realized this is actually SO. RUDE.
Everywhere else in the world, you can sit and chat and browse dessert, cocktail, and coffee menus to your hearts content. The waitstaff would never dream of bringing the bill without being explicitly asked. This is because they make a living wage and feel no need to rush out every table to get more tips.
In the US, I’m always surprised now when the waiters bring our bill.
Usually, I’m still taking my last bites. They almost never ask if we want another drink or anything else to eat before they do. They pretty much lay it on the table and expect us to pay it and GTFO asap.
I just paid ridiculous prices for this meal, can I sit and digest it for a minute before you make it clear you want me gone? This aspect is due to the tipping culture, both of which need to be remedied in my opinion.
America’s dining culture is also weird because it has conditioned us to accept and expect horrible produce.
For example, one common food that most children hate is tomatoes. They’re weird and mealy and overall a pretty controversial food. Once I went abroad, I realized tomatoes are actually delicious when they’re grown without ten million pesticides and genetic modifications.
In fact, so many fruits and veggies actually taste completely different and way more delicious outside of the United States, like strawberries, cucumbers, and avocados just to name a few.
Buying produce abroad is also a completely different experience than in the United States.
Confusingly, the US adds tons of chemicals and whatevers to their produce, but it still goes bad so fast. When I lived in Italy, the UAE, and Colombia, I was always surprised because my produce never. went. bad. Seriously, it would last like three weeks.
Something strange is going on with US produce, and I don’t like it one bit.
Ok, we got the money and the food issues with America’s dining culture out of the way. Now on the to super weird time issues!
When I eat out in the US, food comes sooooo fast!
The waitress will hand you the menu and pretty much immediately ask if you want to order. I’ve found after living abroad I have to tell her I’m not ready to order two or three times in a row before I finally have enough time to look at the menu and decide what I want (and even then, I still usually feel rushed).
After you order, your appetizer will come in about 10 minutes, and as soon as you take the last bite (or even before) your entree will arrive. Eat it in about 15 minutes and the bill will be on your table.
In America’s dining culture it’s honestly normal to be in and out of a restaurant in less than an hour. This weekend, our food took about 30 minutes and the manager was so apologetic he gave us one of them for free… I didn’t mention that I was actually happy for the “slow” service.
Abroad, and especially in Europe, I’ve found that eating out is a much slower and longer experience for two reasons.
First, eating is more of a cultural thing and families and friends are expected to linger over meals to chat and connect. Second, the waitstaff isn’t relying on tips to make money so they have no reason to rush out each table to get on to the next. It actually makes their work easier to have the tables linger while eating.
If you’re wondering if not tipping means terrible service abroad, I found it did not. It was definitely a little slower and the waiters weren’t quite as friendly, but I will gladly take that for a properly paced meal and low or no tip.
People in the US eat so early!!
I think this is also part of the reason why we have such an obesity problem. If you eat dinner at 5pm and go to bed at midnight, there’s a seven hour window without food (that most of us and me included usually fill with snacking). It doesn’t really make any sense at all.
When Daniel and I live abroad I find our meal times, even in our own home, shift later and later until we find it normal to eat around 7:30 or 8pm every night. Every time I head home for the holidays and my mom has dinner on the table at 5pm, I’m shocked all over again.
The Best Things About America’s Dining Culture
I’ve been bitching for awhile about my least favorite things about America’s dining culture. But, there are many totally awesome aspects to it as well (still very very weird, but awesome none the less). Here we go!
The number one best thing about America’s dining culture is FREE WATER! F R E E W A T E R wahooo.
Huge soda drinkers might not even notice this anomaly when traveling outside of the US, but ew. I pretty much only like to drink water or alcohol. Unfortunately, restaurants across the world do not offer glasses of water for free! I never want to spend $2 or $3 on a bottle of water though, so I end up buying a soda or a beer just to feel like “I got my money’s worth.”
After all that complaining about tipping in the US, I’m just realizing as I write this that the basically forced purchases of drinks in restaurants abroad probably adds up to spending about the same amount of money.
Daniel and I got around this by pretty much just bringing our own water bottles out to eat whenever we went and declining to order any drinks at all. Trashy? Maybe, but I found when I asked for tap water I often got declined and hey, I like water with my meals and hate overpaying for it!
Along with the free water comes the free refills.
I have had to teach myself to ration my drinks when I eat out abroad because one glass just isn’t enough for a whole meal and you will never, ever, find me paying for two.
So, that sucks.
I can only keep living with the dream that free refills will become a popular practice all around the world in my lifetime… maybe one day.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind American coffee is the best.
Most other countries only serve espresso and espresso based drinks. I was seriously confused the first time I got a coffee in a cafe in Florence and it was so tiny! I like my coffees giant and, you know, coffee flavored. If I drink a giant cup of espresso it’ll either taste like hot milk (ew) or I get the jitters from caffeine overload.
I also found that when I’m traveling and do find a coffee place, I can only order it black. Asking for “a little bit of milk” means I’ll get it almost white, and just ordering it with cream or milk means it will be whiter than snow and sweeter than candyland.
Baristas outside of the US uniformly cannot be trusted to add milk or cream to a coffee without destroying it. I found myself drinking lots of black coffee or being that super annoying customer asking for it on the side to do it myself.
Sorry guys. American coffee is the best, and something I always miss when I live abroad.
Offering free bread or chips and salsa before a meal is the pinnacle of human achievement. And no, not only do American restaurants give a small serving to enjoy while waiting… it’s a huge basket that is constantly refilled before and during the meal! This is literally unheard of anywhere else in the world, but also the best.
When Daniel and I lived in the UAE, we found ourselves going to American chains every now and then just to get free rolls with our food because it felt like home.
Even most Mexican and Italian restaurants abroad make you pay for bread baskets or chips and salsa, and I just don’t abide by this practice.
America, your generosity in this matter does not go unnoticed. Thank you for being you.
The second thing I noticed when abroad was that it was totally normal for restaurants to have items on the menu that they did not have in the restaurant. In the US, you may be told a restaurant is out of something you want once a year. Abroad, it’ll probably be once a meal.
However, this may be changing in America too because of the push to source locally and farm to table and all that, but there are so many chains here it will probably always apply.
I think this is because the restaurants abroad actually use seasonal/unfrozen products, and people generally have no problem being told no. Americans, on the other hand, will write a scathing Yelp review before the words “Sorry, we’re out” completely leave the waiters lips.
Ok, the last thing on my list of American’s weird and terrible and great and strange dining habits (whatever this blog post has turned into) is that there are noooo pushy sales people in restaurants in America.
Phone stores? Sure.
Car dealerships? Definitely.
However, restaurants are generally a customer service dream. I found when I was abroad (mostly in the most touristy places) that peoples’ sole job was to come up to me on the street and try to shove a menu in my hand while convincing me to eat in their restaurant.
Respect my personal space.
This is the fastest way to make sure I never eat there cause the second I see you approaching I WILL run to avoid conversation. I appreciate the American people’s total disinterest in me until I am actively seated at a table.
This got really long, but the truth of the matter is that America’s dining culture is frickin’ weird and the world needs to know.
Nonamericans, do you notice these practices when you travel to the US? Americans, what do you think when you eat abroad and it’s totally different? I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below!
PS looking for more of my rants and raves about all things travel? Peep my latest thoughts In Defense of the T Word: When Did Tourist Become so Negative? or read the six ways traveling full time changed our relationship.