There are a few odd things about dining out in Germany that you should know before you sit down to enjoy some fine German cuisine.
It’s no big deal to pay for your 3€ street kebab in cash, but when it comes to a big sit-down dinner for a larger party, most visitors to Germany are used to whipping out a credit card at the end of the meal whenever they dine out at home. Which is why it can be a big shock to find out that most German restaurants refuse to accept plastic – neither credit nor debit! And it’s even worse to realize this only after you’ve been presented with the bill, and stare into your wallet at a single, lonely, woefully inadequate 10€ note. Add to that the relative lack of ATMs, and you’ve got a small problem on your hands.
Thankfully, now that you’ve read this, you’ll make sure to bump up your cash stash before you head to the restaurant.
In many places in the world, water is a given when dining out. Sometimes with ice, sometimes already waiting for you on the table, and always free of charge. Not so in Germany. The gastronomic powers-that-be in this country realized long ago that people would pay for water if it came out of a bottle instead of a tap. This remains true today. Many travelers assume that the tap water must not be safe to drink if even the locals order bottled water. Again, not true! Tap water in Germany is 100% safe to drink.
Many locals prefer sparkling water, however, which is exactly what the waiter will bring you if you simply order “water”. If you can’t stand the bubbles, simply order “stilles Wasser” (plain bottled water, usually the same price as the bubbly water) or “Leitungswasser” (tap water, usually free of charge).
There’s no need to go overboard on tipping, but don’t leave it out completely unless you are on an absolutely bare-bones budget or the service was astoundingly horrific. Servers in Germany expect around 10% in “Trinkgeld”, which translates as “tip” but literally means “drinking money”. (At least they’re being honest!)
As awkward as it may feel to you, it is completely normal in Germany to pay your tip directly to your server when it’s time to settle the bill (never leave a tip behind on the table). So if your beverage costs 4.50€, give 5€ and say “stimmt so” (that amount is correct). If you only have larger bills, pay with one and just state out loud how much you want to pay in total; in this case, say “5€”. Your server will give you the change and always thank you for the tip.
There is a German word, “Servicewüste”, which literally means “service desert.” And they use it to describe the relatively low standard of customer service in their own country. It’s true: smiles from servers are rare, checking in on a table during a meal is unheard of, and you may experience a curtness that borders on rudeness – at least it would if you were back home.
But you’re in Germany, and even though it might seem like your waitress is going out of her way to be hostile towards you, chances are she’s not – in fact, she’s probably behaving in a perfectly normal, culturally acceptable, “Service Desert” way. So don’t take it personally. She didn’t smile at you? You don’t have to smile, either. Or you can go the other way with it and make a joke or two to see if she’ll crack. She hasn’t checked in on you? If something’s not right with your meal, be assertive and call her over. And if her attitude really rubs you the wrong way, you can tell her. If she really can’t handle the feedback, your tip can reflect your opinion.
Asking for the check
You may feel like your server is ignoring you when it comes time to pay the bill. In your native country, the server probably brings it automatically once the meal is finished and plates are being cleared. But in Germany, the customer is left to enjoy their place at the table and their company for as long as they wish, without being rushed out so as to clear a table for the next customer. This means you’ll have to ask outright for the bill. But the good news is that splitting the bill is easier in Germany than in most places in the world. Just tell the server which items you want to pay for. You’ll be given a verbal total just for those items. So you can enjoy your 3€ beer (adding 10% tip, of course) and let your companion pay full price for that costly mojito.
If you’re dining with Germans and one of them says ‘I invite you’, this means that they would like to pay for your meal. Accept the invitation with gratitude.
Toilet cleaning staff
Bars and restaurants in Germany are obligated to provide their customers with a free working toilet. That doesn’t stop many places from posting an attendant outside the bathroom door with a sign stating a monetary amount. If you are a patron of the restaurant, you do not legally have to pay this amount. Then again, you’re not legally required to tip your server, either – but it’s a nice thing to do. If the bathroom was indeed clean and well-stocked, anywhere from 20-50 cents is enough of a tip to leave on the collection plate.