Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Germany is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your German language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, you should be prepared for when you dine out in Germany and know what to expect.
There are three things you are likely to find in popular establishments that have no booking. The first is smoke. Smoking is banned by federal law in public places and on public transportation [What to Know When Traveling Through Germany], but it’s up to the Bundesländer (States) to implement the ban, and so enforcement varies. If you’re in a bar that’s less than 75 square meters the law may even permit smoking. Bavaria has imposed a universal ban on smoking in public and other Länder are following its lead, but be prepared for smoke anyway. Secondly, from under one of the tables you may hear a bark or a yelp. This is a dog, for pet dogs are welcome in most of the restaurants.
Thirdly, the thing that may throw Americans most for a loop: shared long tables. Americans might get used to this in high school and college, but very few American restaurants have shared tables. Truth be told, very few German restaurants do either. It’s much more a feature of informal eating establishments and beer halls. Sit down at a bench and talk to people you don’t know, raise your big stein and say “prost!” – that’s something you can do in a beer hall.
“Unterhaltung” or “conversational entertainment” is considered an important part of any mealtime gathering. Do your best to contribute.
“Kaffee und Kuchen” (”coffee and pastries”) is a weekend occasion that generally starts at 4:00 p.m. Participants will enjoy a variety of pastries and cakes, many of them homemade. Guests often bring food like shortbread or cookies and then join their hosts for relaxed conversations that can last for a couple of hours.
If you’re invited to dinner, you need to be punctual, for Germans don’t believe in being “fashionably late.” The dinner may start as early as 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. By the same token, you shouldn’t offend your host by leaving too early; 11:00 p.m. is an acceptable time.
Germans will make toasts during the meal, and you shouldn’t start drinking until after the first toast. People look one another in the eye when toasting, and they will make many toasts before enjoying the wine. The toast for beer is “prost!” (“cheers!”), and the toast for wine is “zum Wohl!” (“to your health!”). After the meal, people will stay and chat for a while. If you are asked to come over at 8:30 p.m. or so, you may be joining your host for some after-dinner coffee and cheese rather than a full-blown dinner.
If someone invites you over for lunch, the host may greet you with “Mahlzeit,” a shortened version of “gesegnete Mahlzeit” (“blessed meal”). They are saying that they hope you enjoy your lunch. The correct response is either “Mahlzeit” or “danke” (“thank you”).
Aside from traditional German food, there’s also many other types of authentic cuisine to be sampled in Germany. The major cities all offer multicultural cuisine as many Germans travel abroad and acquire different tastes. So if you’re looking for great Italian food, check out a “Pizzeria” or “Ristorante Italiano” in a bigger city like Frankfurt am Main.
For traditional German cooking, try a “Gasthaus” or “Gasthof”, which means “inn.” Depending on the area, they will have regional and local dishes. The menus are usually in German and English, or the waiters will more than likely be able to convey the different dishes. Many restaurants are closed on Mondays. Germans take pride in the preparation and quality of their food, so you can expect decent food just about anywhere in the country. Vegetarian? No problem. You can find these restaurants easily as well. The stereotype is that German food consists mainly of sausage and sauerkraut. While it is true that sausage is a main food and consumption is more than other foods, there’s also a variety of meats and seafood similar to what you would find in America or the UK, and several less common meats, such as venison, boar, and quail.
For fast food or a quick bite, Germans visit a “Stehimbiss” or “Schnellimbiss,” which is like a snack bar; you can get your food to go or eat it there standing up.Popular selections are “Pommes frites” (“French fries”)colloquially called “Fritten” or “Pommes”, “Kartoffelsalat” (“potato salad”), “Bratwurst” (“sausage” or “brat”), “Currywurst” and “Döner Kebab.” These types of establishments are usuallylocallyownedsmall businesses, wherebymany Americancorporate chains like McDonaldsalso exist. Food chains local to Germany include Nordsee, who specializes in fish, and Wienerwald, whose specialty is chicken.
When you think of German cuisine what comes to mind? Sausage, sausage, and more sausage. Yes, there are a lot of sausages being eaten in Germany; more than 1500 different varieties. “Bratwurst” made with pork is one of the most popular and prevalent. The casings are made with pork, sheep, or lamb intestines. The foods differ according to area; for example, the state of Bavaria and region of Swabia eat foods that are common to neighboring countries, Switzerland and Austria, lots of meat, potatoes and pasta. The main meats eaten in Germany are pork, beef, and poultry, with pork being the most consumed. Poultry products include duck, goose, turkey, and chicken, with chicken being the most common. There is also a market for boar, hare, lamb, goat, and venison.
A variety of salt and freshwater fish include Alaskan pollock, trout, pike, carp, tuna, salmon, and herring. Organic food has a small market share but is expected to increase in the future. “Breakfast like an emperor, lunch like a king, and dine like a beggar” is a well-known expression in Germany. Breakfast normally consists of a variety of breads and rolls, jam, honey, or cold cuts and cheese, maybe with a boiled egg. Cereals or “Müsli” with milk or yogurt is another option. A traditional and heavier breakfast is the “Bauernfrühstück.” Bread is another popular food with more than 300 kinds available in bakery shops throughout the country. It is usually eaten for dinner with cold cuts and cheese (“Abendbrot”), or as the Bavarian “Brotzeit” with “Weißwurst,” sweet mustard and wheat beer.
One thing you won’t get in a German eating establishment, even in a beer hall: Finger food. Germans are much more punctilious than Americans about having proper table settings. (One might say that Americans are a bunch of gross weirdos who eat food with their bare hands, but we’re writing from an American perspective here.)
Germans are also punctilious about eating at tables. If you’re in a restaurant, you’re eating at a table. If you’re in a pub, you’re eating at a table. If you’re in a beer garden or a beer hall, you’re eating at a long communal table under the spreading chestnut trees. The chestnut trees have a purpose: the beer garden is over the beer cellar, and the trees keep it cool.
Whatever brewery you go to, you get to sit in their beer garden or beer hall and drink their beer at a table. Enjoy the beer, and enjoy whatever food you brought along – the beer gardens let you bring your own food as long as you purchase their beer. Enjoy the music, as well – the long tables have given rise to a tradition of drinking songs. Take a big swig of beer and sing along.
How do you manage to get the attention of a waiter? Do you just sit there, hoping you catch their eye? Fortunately for you it’s much simpler than that (which may be what you are accustomed to having to do). You raise your hand and try to make eye contact. You might have to say “Entschuldigung!” but avoid calling “Bedienung!” (“waiter/waitress!”), “Herr Ober!” (“waiter!”) or “Fräulein!” (“Miss!”), which are considered impolite and old-fashioned.
If your party is paying separate checks, it is courteous to let the waiter know beforehand. When getting the bill (“die Rechnung”), if you need a receipt, ask for a “Quittung”.
When paying the bill, the service is included in the charge by law; anything beyond that is considered a personal gift for good service, not an obligatory gift to keep the waiter in good financial straits. Waiters in Germany do not depend on tips to augment their salary. Most Germans who do tip simply round up the bill to the nearest Euro and ask for their change less the tip, and call it “Trinkgeld” (“drink money”). Sometimes they tip five percent. This is for the lower-priced meals; if the bill is over ten Euros, Germans will typically tip ten percent. In an expensive restaurant, unless you managed to find the one item on the menu that’s less than 10 euros, you are probably tipping ten percent.
One thing you probably won’t get in a beer hall: violently drunk. Drinking in a beer hall takes place over time and involves lots of snacking. (It is, if you will, a more sober way to drink than the American style of tossing back shots or drinking wine on an empty stomach.) People get merry, people get tipsy, you get merry enough to sing all the drinking songs without worrying how you sound. But it is very unlikely that you will get violently drunk. People will raise their glass and say “prost” and clink glasses with you, or “zum Wohl” if they have wine in hand.
Germans will probably not say anything like “give me one for the road.” Very strict drunk-driving laws exist in Germany.
They will say “guten Appetit” before eating, to which you might politely respond “danke, ebenfalls” (“thanks, you too”). The people around you will very likely be keeping both knife and fork in hand when eating, as opposed to the American way of cutting things up and then using the fork alone. They probably won’t be cutting up the dumplings or the vegetables, though – that suggests they’re underdone. Quite rude. As is chewing with an open mouth. As is chewing gum.