Amerika und ich

Amazed in America
Dining: We don't get service like this back home

By Christian Thiele
Special to the Tribune
Published September 28, 2005

Back home in Berlin, going to a restaurant is like volunteering to become a hostage: a hostage to the moods of waiters and cooks.

"Could I have vinaigrette dressing with the salad instead of Italian?" If I'm lucky, the waiter will make a sour face, take a deep sigh and say: "I'll go ask in the kitchen and see what I can do." If I'm not lucky, he'll tell me: "On the table comes what's on the menu." He won't care about me tipping him lousily, because he'll get his $10 an hour, fixed by the union he probably doesn't bother to pay membership fees to, anyway.

In American restaurants, it's way different: I am the ruler -- cooks, waiters and all the other exploited staff are my servants. They depend on my mood -- because they depend on my tip. So they're being attentive: Which kind of dressing with the salad? Baked potatoes or french fries? The meat well-done, medium, medium-rare or rare? So many choices, even at the hot dog stand. Sometimes I think: "I'm hungry, just get me whatever you consider to be appropriate." But I don't want to be impolite, so I virtuously assume my royal duties as King Customer and make my decisions.

And the American waiter is so quick! Barely have I taken my seat, I get the menu. Barely have I taken a look at the menu, I get some (free!) water. Barely have I taken the first sip, he's ready to take my order. Barely have I placed my order, food's there. Barely have I finished half of my plate, the check arrives.

Actually, most of the time I'm only able to finish half of my plate. I'm doing sports, I'm 6 foot 1 inches tall, and I consider myself a good eater -- but here, I often just can't finish it all up. You might think that we Germans are used to heaping mountains of bratwurst and rivers of beer into our bellies. But those days are over, so in Germany I actually have to have soup or salad -- or both -- before my main course in order not to starve. Here, even the salad plate is a challenge for me.

So, usually, I come home from the restaurant with a bad conscience. Because I was brought up with the saying: "Eat up, or the weather will be bad." So should I start ordering children's plates? Or does taking home your food in a doggie bag and eating it up a couple of days later count weatherwise?

Plus, I'm amazed by the fact that from pretty much every table at pretty much every restaurant, I can follow the Bears against the Bees or the Hedgehogs against the Hornets or whatever: There are TV sets all over the place -- at this fancy Asian place west of Michigan Avenue, at this after-work hangout east of Michigan Avenue, even at the students' cafeteria at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In Germany, we expect people to at least be able to talk to each other when they go to a restaurant together. But I have to admit that this is a very optimistic assumption. So actually, in this respect, the American way is much more honest.

The other day, though, my friend took me to this vegan restaurant on the South Side. Maybe it was the way we looked, maybe she just had a bad hair day -- but the waitress treated us like few people would treat their dog.

We asked, "Could we have the sprouts on the side?"

She groaned.

"Could we get a second plate to share the salad?"

She moaned.

"Could we have forks?"

She banged the silverware on the table.

My friend got more and more irritated by this horrible waitress.

But I was happy and told her not to worry. It felt just like home.


Thursday: Driving a Hummer.

Christian Thiele, who lives in Berlin, has spent the last two months working at the Chicago Tribune as the newspaper's Arthur F. Burns fellow. You can reach him at: cthiele@tribune.com.


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