There have been many words written on this topic, some of them useful, but as with so many other aspects of getting along in the world (never mind on a trip abroad), there are subtleties and exceptions, and this is particularly true of the experience of eating in restaurants.
First, let’s look at restaurants from the perspective of an American: When I walk into a restaurant in the U.S. and am escorted to a table, fairly soon afterward a server walks over an introduces her- or himself, saying something like “Hello, my name is Jake, and I’ll be taking care of you today.” From that moment, you know that your server is eager to earn their tip, and will do his or her best to do so.
The main thing about restaurants (and other institutions) in the U.S. is that service workers rely on tips. Everyone who eats in restaurants or rides in taxicabs learns this. So, during your meal, the server is going to swing by and ask, “How is everything? Do you need another beer there?” This is to make sure no one is unhappy, but it’s also your server’s way of reminding you that you are receiving special service, and it should be rewarded. In monetary terms, this generally means that, at the end of the meal, the server will expect to see a 20 percent tip. Anything less and they will wonder either (a) what went wrong? or (b) what kind of jerk leaves me less than 20 percent?
Now, let’s compare that with restaurants in Europe. The experience of eating in a restaurant there is different, and takes a little getting used to. When we walk in and sit down, it may take a few minutes for a server to come by and notice me. And once the server comes over, I am greeted with a sincere smile, and no high-octane greeting like “Hi, I am Tiffany…” The server may ask, “Where are you from?” since it will be obvious that we are Americans. Further, once I give my order, it may take a while. From the over-programmed, task-oriented perspective of an American, this may look like poor service, and we may even mutter “this is ridiculous” while waiting for our cappuccino and tart to arrive.
The food finally arrives, and we dig into our food. Then, after we have cleared our plates, we begin looking for the server to bring the check. But very possibly, the server has busied him- or herself on other customers, or may even be seen taking a break.
Let’s broaden our view of this European scene. Look around, and you will likely see other customers lingering over the empty plates, talking, laughing, maybe having a cigarette (typically only if they are dining outside). In short, European customers, especially those who are on holiday, are in no hurry. After all, that’s what holidays are for, right? You may see a group of several people seated around a table, everyone talking at once, and no one looking at a phone or watch. Holidays are family occasions, and families are people you hang out with, not some people you avoid contact with except at Christmas or Thanksgiving. A U.S. couple seated nearby, meanwhile, has a pile of brochures spread on the table, and they are trying to figure out how to see everything before the end of the day. There is a grim expression on the husband’s face, as he consults messages on his iPhone. Does he even notice where he is? Could he describe this place to someone in a meaningful way?
If this is a half-decent place, service will be quite satisfactory, in that pains are taken to make sure the customer is happy with her meal. The server is friendly (in a sincere and attentive way), and even more importantly, the food is excellent and fresh; unlike most of what you’ve experienced back home. And there is a hidden benefit: we are not whisked out of the place by a management that wants to get the next customer quickly into our chair. We are free to sit, and talk, and enjoy, for as long as we wish. If there is WiFi, we could check online, work on that memoir we’ve been meaning to get around to. But here’s a thought: put away the iPhone, look up, and have a conversation with your partner.
My point in all this is that what we view as “neglect” or “indifferent service” is just a reflection of a philosophy of life: enjoy the moment, breathe in the freedom from jobs, from deadlines. Enjoy your family. And for heaven’s sake, try to avoid seeing your vacation as a to-do list of must-see’s. You are not required to do anything, by anyone. (Read that sentence over a few times; it can’t hurt.) No one will quiz you on the sights you managed to find time for. It’s that simple. Just think about what would make you happy, and do that.
Now as to tipping in Europe: there is no hard and fast rule, but generally a 10 percent tip is considered quite satisfactory, and not by any means required. Working as wait staff in a good restaurant is considered an honorable occupation, something to take pride in. Tips are not expected. Emigre friends of ours suggested that in the classier places, it is considered dishonorable to receive a tip.
This does not mean that there are not servers out there working their tails off, in hopes of getting a nice tip from a rich American. (We’re all rich, right?) It’s so difficult to generalize about these things. But you can’t go wrong if you remember to relax, watch what people around you do, and above all, take the time to enjoy.