When it comes to food, Europe does it right. Whether a hearty shepherd’s pie in the U.K., a flaky croissant in France, or a divine risotto in Italy, travelers to Europe are in for a treat.
Yes, it’s true that sometimes budget limitations, fatigue, or lack of know-how means visitors to Europe may feel frustrated or that they’ve wasted their precious travel dollars on a less-than-satisfying dining experience, but it doesn’t have to happen.
Keep these dining tips in mind, and you’re likely to find eating in Europe one of the highlights of your trip.
1) Tipping practices vary by country, so research the customs in each location you’ll be visiting. In many places, the restaurant adds a service or “cover” charge to the ticket – or suggests one – so first check to see if you’re already paying a tip of sorts. If not, and you think the service has been worthy, leave a small tip on the table. You are rarely able to add it to a credit card charge. Waiting tables is often a good career move in Europe, and waiters tend to make a living wage. Nowhere is it customary to leave more than 15% as it is in the USA. Follow your gut, and show your appreciation without breaking the bank.
2) In many European cafés and bars, you’ll pay more to sit at a table than to drink coffee at the counter or take a pastry with you. Ask in advance or review the menu to see if there are different charges for the extra table privilege.
3) It’s reasonable to check the ticket before you pay. If you see an error, politely bring it to your waiter’s attention. Smiles and kindness make a difference, so use both liberally in these instances.
4) True restaurants are often more expensive than their more-casual counterparts such as bistros, pubs, and trattorias.
5) You will generally pay more at restaurants, bars, and cafés located in popular tourist hotspots such as Saint Mark’s Square in Venice or Place de Tertre in Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood. Sometimes a good deal more. Veering just a few streets off the beaten path can yield a variety of reasonably-priced and higher-quality alternatives.
6) In addition to better pricing, you’re also likely to find higher quality food when you skip the tourist-filled restaurants and cafés. Sure, a 3-course tourist menu at €15 may seem nice on the wallet, but it’s not so great on the palate. If you’re looking for delicious food – and value for your money – resist the restaurant touters and find a place a few streets away where your language or accent isn’t the first one you hear spoken. Or better yet, ask a local shopkeeper where he likes to take his wife for dinner. That’s where you want to go.
7) You’ll eat best when you eat the food of the region you're in and when you eat seasonally. It’s also a good idea to ask the waiter what he recommends. He’s going to suggest the best dishes on the menu – not necessarily the most expensive – and ones that feature local, in-season products. This approach to eating is called Slow Food, and you're going to love it.
8) Water is not customarily provided. You may ask for tap water, but be prepared to pay for bottled water, which must be ordered with or without gas (that is, still or sparkling). Drinks are usually served cold, but not with ice. Wine can be less expensive, per person, than water or sodas. House wines are typically quite decent and very affordable.
9) Dining in Europe is often the evening event. Don’t feel rushed – your waiters won’t. Give yourself plenty of time, and let the servers lead you through the experience. They’ll ask for your appetizer order, perhaps a starter course (pasta in Italy, for instance), the main and sides, dessert and/or cheese, and coffee or finishing liqueur, step-by-step as you progress through the meal. Take your cues from the menu, which is usually laid out in the order in which you’ll dine. You may certainly skip or share courses if your appetite dictates, and you should order only what you think you can eat. Doggie bags are not common in Europe, and wastefulness is frowned upon. When you’re finished, you’ll need to request the bill. Occasionally, a busy restaurant may offer early and late seatings, but otherwise the table is yours for the duration.
Savvy travelers keep their expectations realistic for the best experiences. You should eat well when abroad, and with a little effort, you can do it with gusto on your next trip to Europe.
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