Eating Out: 10 Differences Between Britain and America

Always pouring: free refills are much more common on the left side of the Pond. (Photo:  	Florian Plag via Wikimedia Commons)

Always pouring: free refills are much more common on the left side of the Pond. (Photo: Florian Plag via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The occasion
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.

Food preparation
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…”

Free refills
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.

Doggy bags
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:

See more:
8 Stupid Mistakes Brits Make in America
Tipping in America: How To Do It and What To Expect If You Don’t

Jon B&W headshot

Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and journalist, and has been published in many sports and pop culture outlets including Major League Soccer, Time Out magazine, Inked magazine and Smitten by Britain. As bassist of alternative rock group The Chevin he has toured the world over, appearing on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC.
View all posts by Jon Langford.
  • Toni Hargis

    Table turnover. While in the US, when you book a table you’re rarely told you have to be done by such and such a time (as often happens in the UK), but the need to “turn tables” is very evident. As soon as you sit down someone comes and fills your water glass, then your waiter comes for the drinks order. (A good thing). Typically as soon as the drinks are on the table your order will be taken. If you haven’t decided the waiter will give you “a few more minutes”. If anything on the menu is going to take more than ten or fifteen mints to prepare (such as a soufle or certain pizzas) there will usually either be a warning on the menu or from the waiter.
    And when you’ve finished your meal, your check is presented immediately, with a “Can I get you anything else” interruption at five minute intervals if you don’t pay and leave. Great if you need to eat and run, not so great if you’re meeting friends and want to sit and gossip.

    • Mark Smith

      Another unintentional symptom of this efficiency, from my perspective, is the habit of clearing a table piecemeal as each diner finishes, even if they just dally a little too much on the back half of their meal. It feels like you’re always under starter’s orders!

      Same applies with snatching away the last few mouthfuls of my beer when I can’t necessarily afford another.

      • sara

        Interesting. When I have finished eating I much prefer the waiter remove my plate right away. If I am almost finished with a drink or food item and they motion to remove it I simply tell them I’m not finished yet. It’s really not complicated.

        • Mark Smith

          I think it’s also that Brits have it drilled into them that it’s rude to clear anyone’s place until everyone has finished, though my American wife dislikes it as well.

          As for the drinks, if asked, obviously it’s not complicated. I’ve often had drinks removed while I was deep in conversation though. I’m not really going to go chasing it through the restaurant.

          • Toni Hargis

            In the UK the sort of unwritten rule was that if you were finished, you put your knife and fork together vertically on the plate. If you were still eating, you left them apart. I have had quite a few waiters in the USA try to take my plate when I thought it was clear that I was still “working on it”.

          • Mark Smith

            That phrase makes me chuckle :-) Sounds like a child!

          • frozen01

            Oh, how bizarre! I put my fork and knife together when I’m done just instinctually. I didn’t realize it was a thing that people did.

        • gn

          I find it embarrassing as it draws attention to the fact that I finished my dish before my companions. (Clearly my British upbringing!)

      • gn

        Agree. I really hate it when my plate is cleared away, even if my companion(s) are still eating. I’ve learned to deliberately leave something on the plate to prevent this.

    • gn

      The opposite happens in places like Italy, where waiters will generally leave you alone for about half-an-hour after you have finished your meal before bringing the bill. To be honest, I found this rather uncomfortable.

      • Shaun

        Long time since I was in Italy, but in UK, and I think Italy, the expectation is
        that, within reason, they don’t bring
        the bill till you ask for it.

  • passportsandpushchairs

    Love this! Ice in drinks, or lack of in the UK, is something I never got used to, ever!

    • Mark Smith

      I’ve never understood why you would volunteer to have whatever you’re drinking watered down to the Nth degree, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen unless you go through it at a reasonable pace.

      • gn

        If you’re already drinking water, then watering it down isn’t a problem. And, once you’re used to iced water, un-iced water really doesn’t cut it any more :).

        • Toni Hargis

          I also don’t like it when waiters make you keep your knife and fork from one course to the next. What happens if you’ve had a fishy starter? I usually ask for clean silverware.

          • Jwb52z

            Wow, I’ve never heard of anyone who wouldwant separate silverware for each course. Of course, where I live, people will eat, for example, pinto beans, cooked with salt pork as is common in the Southern US, and then almost certainly eat a piece of pie or cake on the same plate directly afterward with the same utensil. Perhaps that is a “low class” thing to do.

          • Toni Hargis

            I can’t comment on the class thing but it’s a question of not wanting your main course to taste of your appetizer if you’ve had something like ceviche. And given the British dislike of sweet and savory combination, I certainly wouldn’t want my pie on that plate.

          • Angie Poole

            Perhaps it’s just my lack of proper table manners, but needing separate flatware is a sure sign you didn’t lick the food off of the first ones well enough.

            Also, no thanks on fishy starters!

      • Tara

        I like my cold beverages VERY cold… and yes I usually consume them at a pace that getting watered down isn’t an issue. I can’t stand less-than-ice cold, cold drinks.

        • Shay

          Tara, I’m with you. I can’t drink any cold drink (water, soda or tea) less than ice cold. With water, it has to be cold enough to hurt my teeth. I guess one of the ways I’m weird is I also like ice in my milk (my mother used to drink it that way). I don’t drink alcohol at all and neither does my husband (he’s a recovering alcoholic and my father was one as well).

          • Toni Hargis

            Ugh – ice in milk. If anyone is old enough to remember when they gave out free bottles of milk to every child in British schools, we often had to break through the ice at the top. Yuck.

  • Banksy

    So is waiting table a good service job, or is it an underpaid job that requires tips to supplement a waiter’s income?

    And I don’t know where you’re eating, but I always get asked how I’d like my burger.

    And I don’t know when you were last in Blighty, but we go out for meals all the time.

    Other than that though, yeah.

    • gn

      So is waiting table a good service job, or is it an underpaid job that requires tips to supplement a waiter’s income?

      Both. Waiters (in the US) can make decent money, but generally only if they get tipped well. Therefore, service is usually enthusiastic and excellent.

      The opposite situation holds in France, where waiters are like government bureaucrats — you should be grateful they are paying you any attention at all. The UK is in between.

      • Karen Frenchy

        Ooooh that’s not totally true for France… I guess it depends on the waiter 😉

        • John Davenport

          I agree. I’ve always had excellent service from waiters in France. In the UK I have had to ask waiters to take my order.

  • Kelsey

    what snazzy US restaurant are you eating at that offers bottled and tap water?

    • Sara

      Most all US restaurants offer the choice of tap water which is always free or bottled water for which you always pay extra. You may need to take the initiative to request the bottled water.

      • Brittany

        Where? No where around where I live offers bottled water, just tap.

        • Toni Hargis

          They do in Chicago.

        • Karen Frenchy

          they do in Houston

          • John Davenport

            I’ve only had bottled water initially offered at expensive restaurants. Most places the complimentary water service that is initially given is tap water. Bottled water is on the menu that you can order with your drinks.

    • Mark Smith

      Yeah, that’s a fair point. I feel more like that’s a question you have to respond to quite a bit in the UK, whereas here virtually nowhere would even be serving bottled water.

    • Mark

      Yeah, normally at US restaurants the waiter will bring out glasses of ice water and then proceed to ask if you’d like anything to drink.

    • gn

      In my experience, only the more expensive places (say the ones where the average entree is over $20) will offer bottled water.

    • Vivian

      yeah, I’ve never heard of that before… maybe just a big city thing

    • Alison Jones

      He just switched that. We were in London for a week and always had to specify tap water, which is free, instead of bottled, which you pay for and comes as either still or sparkling. We never did sodas; you get one can or bottle
      and no free refills.

  • gn

    One thing I hate (not sure whether it is US-specific — maybe others can confirm).

    When a restaurant is serving a buffet (and diners can go back to the food repeatedly to get further helpings) sometimes the waiters will remove my dirty plate, but not the dirty knife and fork, leaving them on the table. YUCK!!!!!!

    • Toni Hargis

      I don’t like it when a waiter will put your silverware back on the table when clearing your plate, or ask you to keep it. What if you’ve had fish as a starter? I usually ask for clean ones.

      • gn

        Yup. I’ve only had this happen with buffets.

        Either take everything or nothing!

        • pathfinder_01

          With a buffet if they take your silverware it will cause you to make an extra trip to get more silverware. So, I would rather they keep it there unless I want it gone. If I want it gone I will leave it on the plate or tell the waiter. Buffets are kind of low end dinning so in those you don’t get full service.

          Also some people get the silverware they need for something later ahead of getting the item (like say a spoon for ice cream). So taking it in all cases would tend to annoy some.

          • gn

            I leave the silverware on the plate: they remove it (soiled) and put it back on the table!

    • Shay

      A local chain restaurant (Golden Corral) always takes our utensils. But then again, when we finish a meal, we always put our used forks and knives with our dirty dishes. I’ve never had a wait staff there tell me I had to keep them.

  • ravenclaw1991

    Surely someone is exaggerating the American side of this.. I’m American and I have never been asked if I want bottled or tap water in any restaurant ever. And I’ve never even heard of this ‘all you can drink brunch.’

    • Tom Gardiner

      The choice of bottled or tap seems more prevalent in larger cities and/or more upscale restaurants. As for the “all you can drink brunch” there’s at least a half-dozen places within a 10 minute drive from my home that have them. BTW, I’m an American who’s always lived in the US.

      • Jonah Henry

        I’ve never heard of an all you can drink brunch. I’ve lived my whole life in the US too. Where are you in the US? And are any of those places chains I might recognize? (I’m near Seattle)

        • sara

          They have them here in Wisconsin but I don’t eat at chain restaurants so I can’t list any for you.

        • Tom Gardiner

          I’m about an hour away from New Orleans and none of the places are chains. They’re all locally-owned and moderately upscale. I’ve tried them all, but mainly for the food as I’m not a big drinker and really don’t enjoy alcohol of any kind with a meal.

        • John Davenport

          There are no chains that do all you can drink brunch that I am aware of. It tends to be mostly trendy, local places that do so.

    • frozen01

      I’m in the Chicago area and it’s the same for me as Tom. There are a large number of places in the city that do bottomless mimosas for brunch, sometimes bloody marys as an alternative.

      I’ve only been to one restaurant that openly offered bottled water, but the restaurant was of a price point I normally do not enjoy.

      The sparkling water was the one that really threw me off, as I’ve only even experienced the “fizzy or still” option in the UK!

      • Toni Hargis

        Ha ha ha – I still ask for fizzy and have to correct myself.

  • Tom Gardiner

    I’ve found here in the US that at most restaurants you’re not asked if you want water at all. If you do ask for water, it’s usually assumed you want tap. Being given the option of bottled is less likely even if the establishment has it.

    My problem with eating in other countries is the lack of ice for drinks. A couple of cubes really doesn’t do anything for the drink and because it can’t chill the beverage as well as a glassful of ice, it tends to water the beverage out even more. I’ve always assumed this was just a matter of custom as Ice in the modern world isn’t a rare commodity.

    • colinmeister

      My biggest complaint about water, and even soda in the United States is that restaurants always load it up with ice. I do not like ice in drinks. Another thing I don’t like about eating out in America is that in Mexican restaurants they always bring corn chips and salsa, even though I did not order them and do not eat them. Even Indian restaurants bring poppadums which I neither ordered nor want.

      • Tom Gardiner

        I’d argue that it’s better to be given more than you wanted than to be denied a product or service. All you have to do is ask for little or no ice in your drinks, tell the waiter you don’t want chips or poppadums, or whatever you’d prefer. I definitely understand you don’t like ice, chips and all, but it beats not having an option, don’t you think? One of my daughters hates ice in her drinks so she simply asks for no ice…and gets it that way.

      • gn

        British restaurants bring more, and bigger, poppadoms than American ones, in my experience.

    • John Davenport

      I was positively thrilled to be offered iced tea by the owner of a little cafe in Windsor on a hot summer day. It’s such a staple in this part of the country and my most consumed beverage by far (unsweetened). We had to laugh when a woman at the next table over exclaimed “Cold tea! How disgusting!”

  • penjab

    The tipping section that says “a lot of American wait staff don’t get paid an hourly wage and are reliant solely on tips for income” is not entirely accurate. Wait staff do get paid an hourly wage, just not much of one in many cases.

  • tinking

    …a lot of this does not ring true…too many generalities – the USA is so diverse region to region, city to suburb……and I go back & forth across the ponds lots…

    • Toni Hargis

      Very true, but it makes for learning don’t you think? I’ve been here 23 years and traveled in the US a lot, but am still learning, thanks in part to this web site.

      • tinking

        …not so sure about that – I don’t want to read ‘content free’ material….

        • Toni Hargis

          Just because something doesn’t “ring true” for one person doesn’t make it meaningless or untrue. As is evident from the many comments here, when one person says “Ive never had such and such”, there’s at least one other person from another part of the US saying they have it all the time. As you say, The US is diverse from region to region. You can’t dismiss things just because you haven’t seen them on either side of the Pond.

  • frozen01

    Substitutions, refills, good service, preparation options, and sending food back are not universal. It depends on where you’re eating, and how much you’re paying.

    All-you-can-drink brunches, I think, are much more common in the larger cities, but you have to remember that they usually consist of drinks not very high in alcohol to begin with, and tend to be more watered down than normal. The most popular where I live are “bottomless mimosas” (cheap orange juice and even cheaper champagne). When a lightweight like me is on my second carafe and barely feeling a buzz, you know there’s not much liquor there.

    Also, the only restaurants I have ever been given the option of sparkling water were in the UK. Only very fancy restaurants here tend to have bottled water, much less offer it up front.

    • Toni Hargis

      In Chicago, as you say, the only “all you can drink’s” tend to be not worth drinking. However, a lot of restaurants (and not just upscale) will ask if you want tap or bottled water. If you say “bottled” they will then ask about the fizz.

  • Jwb52z

    After reading this article, I’m surpised anyone in the UK eats at any restaurant if you get surly or rude servers and “penny pinched”, I almost said nickled and dimed, when you simply want refills or making it a pain to get a glass of water. How do they make money with such service and stingeyness? Don’t get me started on not getting a choice on how certain food items are cooked. It’s madness to be in a service industry and act as if you’re doing the customer a favor by existing.

    • Toni Hargis

      It can certainly be a slightly less relaxed experience, depending on where you go. My most hilarious experience was after I’d lived in the US for a few years. I was in England and out for Sunday lunch with the family. I asked what the Soup of the Day was, the waitress said she didn’t know and then stood with pencil poised, to take our order. (I know.) I asked her if she could go and find out ’cause I quite fancied soup. She sighed heavily, and my English sibs looked uncomfortable at my American-ness. Turns out the soup was French Onion, which no one really liked. Unbelievable.

  • colinmeister

    The servings in American restaurants are too big. Maybe that is why there are so many fat Americans?

    • gn

      Probably. I believe the rise in obesity happened in the 80s, coinciding with an increase in eating out.

      Of course, it’s now a chicken and egg situation. Americans are so accustomed to oversized helpings that many see a restaurant with only healthy-sized portions as being bad value.

      • Angie Poole

        It also coincided with other trends, but I think what we eat is as big of an issue as how much.

  • wayneluke11

    Have to ask for water at most restaurants in California.

    • gn

      Never had to, in 15 years of living in California (SF Bay Area).

      • wayneluke11

        Have to in Southern California then.

  • REW

    Really, British restaurants don’t do substitutions, huh? Guess I’m stuck eating lots of fish and chips if I ever go across the pond.

  • nitalynn

    I was stationed in Britain during the late 80’s and early 90’s. What most Brits do not get is the size of the United States. You can fit Britain into the state of Oregon and have a little room left. Very few Americans have tried all the cuisine this country has to offer. People came from different parts of the world and settled different areas and in some of those areas there was an infusion of cultures making whole new cultures and it is still going on to this day.

  • Becca Wright

    Half of these do not hold true in Atlanta, GA at all. Bottled or tap water? I have never been given that choice and I have been to enough “up scale restaurants” to have a good ample size. Also, we treat our wait staff like crap and very few people who work in the food industry are “proud” to do well. I seriously need to find out what this guy is talking about when he says ” all-you-can-drink brunch”. I had no idea that this was a thing but I would love it! Maybe he is talking about the northern or western US but in the south, this list does not hold water.

  • Chris

    I’ve lived in London for 10 years. None of this rings true. Eating out here is a perfectly lovely experience. I do it all the time, in all sorts of places, and I almost always ask for substitutions, I never have a problem. I tip, about 10% is normal. It’s generally true about the free refills but I drink wine, not soda. Because I am a grown up. (and people give their kids a lot less soda here anyway). I am soooo sick of this misconception that service here is terrible. I am surrounded by fantastic restaurants who are doing their best in an expensive city and a poor economy. Its a wonderful industry in a world class city. I say all this as an American expat with very high standards.

    • Toni Hargis

      London isn’t really representative of the rest of the UK. The concentration of Americans for one thing, would probably make restaurants far more accommodating.

      • Angie Poole

        Size of the area matters, for sure. There’s very little fine dining where I am and you expect service to be decent, not necessarily spectacular.

  • under_electriclite

    ” 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

    Who told you this lie?

    Servers here are, culturally, treated like the crap on the bottom of a shoe. Customers will delightfully run a new server ragged for their own entertainment and absolutely treat them like like some feudal serf. And then after all that, just for good measure, probably stiff them on the tip. And that behavior ranges from your Applebees to your Nobu’s. Not to mention the restaurant lobby has made it so they are to make less than minimum wage in perpetuity.

  • Jennifer Rada

    As an American who traveled to Britain and Europe a few years ago, I had no idea that it would perplex the waiters there when I would ask for ice in my Coke or water, especially since I was there during a record breaking heat wave. A waiter in Italy actually seemed annoyed, which embarrassed me a little. At a huge buffet in one of the train stations in Rome, there was a self service soda machine with no ice in sight. However, they seemed almost overly friendly, but maybe it was because I was a solo young woman. One brought me a free half carafe of wine and bruschetta without me asking for it. Also, a half carafe of wine costs less than a soda! And many of them refused being tipped! I did it anyway, after they left. I realized later, they may have actually thought it was rude, thinking I was taking pity on them. I did, however, understand why we rarely have to ask for the bill here. Americans, as a culture, are usually in a hurry to eat and go. Over there, they actually take time to relax and savor their food, sometimes for hours. I guess I should’ve studied my Lonely Planet book a little more closely :)

  • Anna Deis

    Great article, but i’ve never noticed a stigma on taking food home. “Would you like a box for that?”, is common and restaurants keep Styrofoam containers on hand in different sizes for convenience.

  • Wendy Eames

    My husband & I were in a pub somewhere in the Cotswold’s last year. He asked for a coke & I for an iced tea. The waitress stared at me, seemingly godsmacked, then uttered ‘we don’t have iced tea’. So, I changed to hot tea. She delivered my hot tea & DH his coke w/ ice. Looking at both our drinks, I said to DH ‘they have tea, they have ice, but they don’t have iced tea.’ I laughed so hard I thought I was going to pee myself (or maybe it was jet lag…) It’s still an inside reference between us, a metaphor for being inflexible.