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I’ll never forget the look of surprise and disgust on my American waiter’s face the first time I asked for mayonnaise and then proceeded to dip my fries in it.
In Britain, going out for a meal is almost always done to mark an occasion: a birthday, a reunion, an anniversary. But in America, it can be done just because you haven’t yet tried Chili’s new Awesome Avocado Bacon Milkshake Sugar Burger! Mmm.
The boozy brunch
The prix fixe all-you-can-drink brunch is a popular weekend pastime in the United States. And although daytime drinking exists in the U.K., flourishes even, the concept of providing customers with unlimited alcohol for a set price doesn’t. It would most likely put any establishment that tried it out of business.
The first thing that happens when you sit down in an American restaurant is that you’re asked if you’d like bottled or tap water. If you choose bottled, you’ll then be asked whether you’d prefer still or sparkling. A moment later your water of choice appears on the table. In Britain, water must be apologetically requested from your server.
In the U.S., it’s perfectly acceptable to customize your order. “I’ll have the Waldorf salad, but hold the pecans, and instead of apple I’ll have cucumber.” In the U.K., you get what you’re given and if you don’t like it then you can jolly well go and eat somewhere else.
If you order a burger in the U.K. (not recommended) the chances of being asked how you would like it cooked are about as likely as bumping into the queen in the frozen food section of your local supermarket. They serve it one way and one way only: very well done. And what about the eggs? The choice of how you want your eggs cooked in the U.S. is so vast that an entire Mind The Gap piece has been dedicated to it. Generally speaking, the American attitude is veered towards accommodating the customer; whereas in the U.K., the feeling is that you’re lucky they’ve got eggs at all.
There is a huge difference in the attitude towards waiters on either side of the pond. In the U.S, waiting tables is a good service job that people are proud to do well. Thus they are treated by customers as consummate professionals. In Britain, waiters tend to be treated more like servants, and the customer finds the relationship slightly embarrassing. Hence the way a Brit might ask for something as simple as a glass of water: “Excuse me, terribly sorry… but do you think it might be at all possible for me to maybe get some water please? Sorry. It’s just… I’m choking… Sorry…”
Coffee and soft drinks will often gladly be refilled with compliments in the United States. A lot of the time it’s done pro-actively by the servers, and they’ll keep doing it until you’re so high on caffeine you’re bouncing off the walls. Bills (checks) can mount-up pretty quickly in the U.K. if the kids are slurping down three or four Cokes per meal.
Complaining and sending food back
It is set out in America’s Bill of Rights that restaurant patrons are entitled to send dishes back to the kitchen as freely and as often as they see fit until they are completely satisfied. Brits, on the other hand, find the process of complaining too painfully embarrassing to be worth getting what they actually ordered. Even if Brits find a sock in their soup, they’d sooner eat it than cause any bother.
There seems to be an unfair stigma attached to the American custom of taking your leftovers home in a bag. But surely not wasting food should be encouraged?
This is probably the biggest and most obvious difference. First-time British visitors to America never fail to be completely flummoxed by the custom of tipping. They feel cheated by it. But what they don’t realize is that a lot of American wait staff don’t get paid an hourly wage and are reliant solely on tips for income. Problems arise in the U.S. if the service happens to be below par; Brits feel like they shouldn’t leave any gratuity for poor service, but really they’re just being cheap so they can spend their dollars on cheap Levi’s.
What differences have you noticed between eating out in America compared to the U.K.? Tell us in the comments below:
View all posts by Jon Langford.