Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dining Across the Pond

Following on from last week's comments about dining, we decided to take a closer look at the whole experience on either side of the Pond.


If you want to go out for an evening in the States, don't just count on dinner. Here in Chicago, we have hundreds of great restaurants from posh to ultra casual. Unless you go to the uber expensive Charlie Trotters or Tru, where it's a guaranteed three hours, you can literally have a full dinner and be back in your home in about an hour. Thirty minutes if you ask them to hurry. Some restaurants and take-out sandwich places even have signs promising that if your order isn't produced within a certain time frame, it's free.

Here's how American dining goes -

Sit down at the table, waiter comes immediately with menus and to take the drink order (that bit I like), and tell you the specials. S/he will be back within two minutes to take your order, which isn't good for ditherers like me, or if you want to have a conversation with your fellow diner. Unfortunately, if you ask them for more time, they will disappear for what seems like hours. Courses will arrive in record time on the whole, sometimes before you're quite finished the one before. When you've finished your meal, they'll ask you if you want coffee, holding the bill behind their back, all the better to whisk you out of the restaurant should you decline. Gotta turn those tables.

Sometimes at this point I deliberately sit and chat just to mess with the waiter. (Very cruel I know. They have a living to make.) If you don't sign the bill and leave your credit card out (none of them fancy hand-held whats-its here), the desperate waiter will return to your table several times begging "Please pay and leave Can I get you anything else". I have never actually been asked to leave, but my goodness they come very close.

Dining in the USA - enough to give you heartburn!


Dining out in the UK can either be described as an enjoyably relaxed experience, or, if you’re an American in a big hurry (as we always seem to be) a waste of time.
Back in the States, I used to be able leave my office, go to a nearby restaurant, have lunch and return before my half-hour lunch break was over. I get a 45 minute lunch break at my current job, but I wouldn’t try something like that over here.

Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. People like me need to learn to sit and relax, but when I am seated at a table, I expect a waiter to come by before it occurs to me that I have been sitting, unattended, for quite some time. To me, it is perfectly acceptable to walk out of a restaurant after ten minutes have elapsed without someone appearing at my table to take my order.

But that’s just me and my inborn impatience. Free ice water and immediate service are my birthrights, and I expect them. Now. But once you get into the rhythm, and leave the frenetic pace of an American meal behind you, dining in the UK is actually quite agreeable.

First of all, the table attendants generally don’t greet you like an old friend and leave you feeling like you should add them to your Christmas card list. They will take your drink order, then leave you with enough time to make a meal decision (or, in my wife’s case, to decide on something, change her mind, change it back and then decide on something else). The food arrives, sometimes very soon, sometimes not so soon, but it always arrives at the same time (though I don’t know of this being a problem in the US, either).

But the biggest difference is after the meal, when the dessert is finished and the coffee has arrived. They don’t bring the bill with it. They leave you completely alone, allowing you to sip your coffee or the last of your wine, have a nice, leisurely conversation, and only bring the check (sorry, the bill) when you are ready for it.

This is pleasant and enjoyable and, having been here so long, something I have grown to expect, so does come as a shock when, during visits to the US, I find the check accompanying my apple crumble, along with the clear expectation to pay up and leave.

It’s enough to want to make me remove “Hi, I’m Mandy and I’ll be your server,” from my Christmas card list.

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  1. Spot on! I've lived in the UK for 5 years now and every time I go home to the US for a visit I'm surprised at how quickly they get you the bill. At one place they left it on the table with our meal. Crazy!! But then when my family comes to visit and get impatient that the bill hasn't arrived yet I realize that it's all what you are used to. Although I think I prefer the UK way.

  2. I can't bear it in restaurants here when you are half way through your main course, and they ask you if you've thought about dessert. I just say "no, not yet, could you come back in a while?" I also hate it when you find yourself eating a main dish at the same time as someone else on the table is eating their dessert (this is probably only the case if you have kids in the party who order a 'kids menu' so the dessert is decided from the outset).

    On the other hand, I did find myself getting irritable in the UK last summer, when it would take forever for a waiter to appear and take your order.

  3. We got a big kick out of asking for the 'Czech' when dining in Prague :)

    You are right - I think both experiences are exactly what you would expect from each culture.

  4. That does sound a bit fast the way USA does it. Sometimes its too slow here though.
    Something midway between the two would be good. I wonder what country I would have to try?
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  5. I think the UK has it just right to be honest. It sits right between the US way and the European way which is so relaxed that one might slip into a coma before the main course arrives.

    I like the immediate service in the US, but I always feel pushed out afterwards and I, much like Toni, do enjoy just sitting there after I've finished toying with the waiters who are coiled like springs waiting to turn the table. It's pressurising.

  6. I like the fact that the service is quicker in the US. I know its only so they can make more money but, it suits me. In the UK its usually far too slow!

  7. The feeling of getting pushed out makes me usually go to buffet-style restaurants. We pay for our drinks as we go in and eat to our heart's content without getting hassled.

    Though, with this style of restaurant you completely miss the courses and not everybody finishes eating at the same time.

    Also, it is a strong tradition (at least where I hail from in the Bible-Belt) that after Sunday church people eat out and fellowship together. And waiters tend to dislike them because they're very slow about leaving and they tend to be bad tippers.

  8. I like the fast service here when we're dining with the kids - they have a pretty short attention span, so it's good to get on with it and out before they start dancing on tables and annoying other diners. However, when it's a night out with your spouse, it would be nice to be just a little more relaxed. The other thing that annoys me about New York is the number of places that don't take reservations. You just have to turn up and queue (or get on-line, as they say here). Fine if you have all evening but not if you have a babysitter being paid by the hour...

  9. ...and even worse if it's a restaurant with a teeny bar area, so you get bumped by the waiters every time they leave the kitchen. I don't go to places like that if I have the option.

  10. My mother has a lifelong (well all of my life anyway) obsession with being given crappy seating when dining with other women. I asked my ex-server bff and she said it was because groups of women will chat too long, ignore servers unsubtle hurrying tactics and so ultimately are a money loser even if they tip well.

    I've never experienced this this silliness of people getting their courses at different times, but possibly it's because I don't have kids and don't have any friends with kids.

    And Expat mum, I think Michelin has now made it official, Charlie Trotters and Tru are total slackers. Alinea and L2O are now the fanciest outfits in the city.

  11. Elizabeth - see- what do I know! I never go out. Actually, I went to L2O when it first opened and I'm still paying off the loan!

  12. This is all so true! I haven't yet got the hang of thinking up a drinks order before I even sit down in the US.

    Though on the other hand I hate how hard it is to get a waiter to bring you the bill in the UK. Sometimes you can wait half an hour... then they don't come back for twenty minutes... A happy medium would be nice.


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