Dining out in America is a very different experience to dining out in Europe. I have grown used to many of the differences, and can adapt easily, but some still baffle me after 30 years.
The most common observations of British people dining in America are around how frequently Americans dine out (don’t American houses come with kitchens?), portion sizes (are you sure this meal is for one person, not a sharing plate for the table?), speed of “service” (wait, bring that back, I was just having a rest between mouthfuls) and tipping culture (the restaurant pays employees, right?).
There are other issues that it pays to be ready for when dining on a foreign continent. Here’s my unreasonable rant about them …
Mellor, Party Of Four
The very first oddity for a British person is asking for a table. “I’d like a table for four please”. We’re immediately upgraded to a “Party”. Yes, no longer are we a group of four people having dinner, we’re a “Party of Four”, we better get ready to have fun.
The first time this happened I panicked a little. I hadn’t ordered a party, I didn’t want a party. Would they make me wear a hat? I don’t like elastic anywhere near my face. I’m a little scared of balloons. I really don’t like restaurant cake. O heavens, did they think it was my birthday? Please, please, please don’t let there be singing.
My fears were ungrounded. Any group of people is deemed to be a party, “Mellor, party of four” was us, not a new political movement or a tiny rave waiting to happen. There would not be clowns, I did not need to lock myself in the loo.
My Name Is Erin And I’ll Be Your Diner Tonight
Next up the “host/ess” (that’s a Maitre d’ to me) hands us over to a “server” (waiter/ess). Then the server says “Hi, I’m Taylor and I’ll be your server tonight”. How strange. I don’t know this person, I’m not quite sure why they’re telling me their name. Don’t get me started on whether Taylor is a first or last name.
I’ve asked around and it seems that dining establishments like their staff to tell their customers their names, it’s perceived as friendly. Staff suggest that it may result in extra tips, they’re not sure. Some give their real names, some have a special stage name they just use at work, usually one that’s easy to say and easy to hear.
It’s strange. I don’t want to enter into a social relationship with my server, and if I ever have to call them by name it’s probably because something has gone very wrong in our business relationship.
In Europe servers don’t introduce themselves, and customers don’t call them by name. The job of the wait-person is to spot when the customer is likely to need them and come over at that time. If a diner finds themselves in need of a server they’ll attempt to make discrete eye contact with them. It’s not OK to rattle your glass, wave your hand or, heaven forfend, say “garcon” to gain their attention, so why would I want to know my servers name, I’ll never going to say it.
Now I venture a “Hello Taylor”, or, if they’re passing me a menu at that exact moment, “Thank you Taylor”, but it still makes no sense.
Now people are starting to ask my name. I’m not going to tell you. I may look at the server in a way that tries to communicate that they have overstepped the mark in their attempts to be friendly, and that I enjoy them asking my name about as much as I enjoy a puppy trying to hump my leg, or I may just give a fake name.
Just Cook Will Ya?
So I’m ready to order. I order. Now I expect to wait for my meal to arrive. But wait, there’s a pop quiz I hadn’t expected. A quick fire round of questions. These days I’m ready for them, but back in the day I was baffled. They came so fast, and Americans I don’t know sound a little like extras from the Muppet Show until I tune into the accent, so it takes me longer to understand them.
What salad dressing would I like? Whilst I sit for a second and think about a way to make “whatever the chef has decided would go best with the salad s/he has prepared” not sound condescending, Taylor has interpreted my silence as a cue to give me the choices. So many choices. I understand what Ranch is, conceptually, and Italian. I’m not quite sure why Blue Cheese has to be pronounced Bleu, but it does. There’s a few I don’t catch, but then there’s French – I know that one! Phew, French dressing, I’ll take that.
Americans lie about French Dressing. Not just a little fib, but a great big huge lie. To a British person, a French one for that matter, French dressing is olive oil and vinegar, maybe with a hint of Dijon mustard at a fancy joint. Imagine my horror when my salad came with some sort of sweetened ketchup squirted all over it. Once you know about the Great French Dressing lie, it’s OK, you’re ready for it, but it’s a mean trick to play on an unsuspecting person. Since then I’ve only ever ordered any sort of dressing “on the side” to avoid a similar panic.
Then there’s bread or potatoes, do I want rye, wheat, Italian … wah, wah … baked, sauteed, string fries, home fries …wah wah … it all sounds like the teacher in Peanuts to me.
I have now learned that “surprise me” is a cheerier, more acceptable response than “Seriously, I am not a chef, you have a chef, let’s pay the chef to decide what would go well with the meal”.
The Great American Steel Shortage
The meal arrives, it looks good, there’s lots of it, it came quickly, Taylor is charming and efficient. Taylor has brought us wine, and depending on where I am, has not raised an eyebrow at mealtime drinking, or drinking in the presence of minors. Taylor has brought everyone glasses full of ice, with some water in, thank you Taylor.
America is doing really well at this point in the food service cycle.
Taylor comes to take my appetizer away, but then a strange thing happens. Taylor takes my flatwear (cutlery) off my dirty plate and puts it back on the table in front of me. OK, I’ll eat my salad and ketchup with my appetiser covered cutlery if you insist.
Taylor comes back with my “entree” (again this is a little confusing, as an entree is an appetizer France and fancier bits of England, but I’ve guessed it means main course). There’s no cutlery on the table for me to eat it with. I ask Taylor for cutlery. She points me to the ketchup coated salad cutlery. I’m to use that.
America, support your steel industry, use clean cutlery. I have found this at almost all grades of restaurant in the US, I simply don’t understand it. Americans are generally quite fastidious about hygiene, they have disposable toilet seat covers, why not clean cutlery? The transfer of flavours from one course to the next should be upsetting to chefs, why isn’t it?
It gets a bit tiresome to have to drop your knife and fork on the floor after each course to get fresh ones.
People of America, rise up, demand clean cutlery!
Never Eat Yellow Snow
Europeans have a reputation as poor tippers. Here’s the problem, we consider a tip of 10% to be really rather generous, a gift for a person who has really excelled above expectations, whereas that’s absolutely not the case in the US.
There’s a simple cultural misunderstanding.
European people assume that the restaurant will pay its employees at least the minimum wage, and if those employees are full time then they will also assume that the restaurant pays them holiday pay, sick pay, maternity/paternity pay and a contribution to their pensions.
It takes a while for a British person to get to grips with how “businesses” can justify not paying their employees and still call themselves successful. Once we tune in to that we’ll tip, but don’t expect us to feel good about supporting deadbeat employers.
Taylor comes to take the plates away, half of us are still eating. How odd. One guest has merely paused between mouthfuls and has to defend his plate against Taylor’s efficiency (that fork with three courses of food debris on it comes in handy).
In Britain a person signifies that they have finished eating by placing their knife and fork at roughly the 4:25 position on the plate. If one person has ordered the pumpkin ravioli lunch portion and someone else has gone for the Paul Bunyan (Desperate Dan) sized New York Strip, then they’ll likely finish at different times, that’s fine. Once everyone’s cutlery is at 4:25, we’re done and the plates can go.
I find the rush to get everything cleared away stressful whilst people are still eating, I don’t like feeling that I’m being “turned over” ready for the next guests, unless I’ve been advised when booking or being seated that the table is time limited. I have American pals who find that sitting with an empty, dirty plate in front of them is stressful. We’re different.