I just got back from 3 and a half weeks in the USA. I went to Chicago to speak at the Podcast Movement conference, and New York City and Miami to visit friends and family.
And while I was there, I spent a lot of time eating.
Mmm – burgers, pizza, ice cream, burgers, mexican, ramen…and did I mention burgers? I do love the food in the US. There’s no wonder I’ve come back a little bit roly poly and am into a solid detox.
Anyway, I thought I’d write a piece on the American dining experience, because I’ve noticed there is quite the cultural difference from dining in Australia. There are things I love about it, and things I don’t love.
Here we go…
What I love about dining in America:
1. The friendly service
“Hi and welcome to Wildberry! My name is Evan and I’ll be your server today!” the bubbly waiter gushed as soon as my friend and I sat down at the popular Chicago pancake cafe.
“Here are your menus! Can I get you some tap water to start? Ok, I’ll be right back, if you need anything else, please let me know!”
If it’s your first time to the US, you may get a shock at the impeccable service. Yes, Americans are generally friendly anyway, but the wait staff also depend on your tips to make up the bulk of their salary. Which means they want your dining experience to be as awesome as possible.
By contrast, in Australia, sometimes you’ll be at a cafe, trying desperately to catch the eye of the bored looking waiter. When he finally wanders over, you ask “Excuse me, can we please get another fork?” and with a nod and the faintest roll of his eyes, he reluctantly turns around to grab the cutlery, as if you’ve created a massive hassle for him.
In Hong Kong, you’ll go to pay for your meal and the lady at the register won’t even look at you. She’ll take your money, grab the change and dump it in your hand whilst shouting the bill total at the next person in line. Over there, customer service doesn’t even exist.
But in America? They’ll make you feel like you’re best buddies! So make sure you tip them – they’ve worked for it.
2. They split the bill at the drop of a hat
I’m always shocked at how obliging the wait staff are when you ask them to split the bill. They’ll split it 2 ways, 3 ways, (the most I saw was 12 ways), all on separate credit cards; you can even say “$21 on that card, and $36 on that one, and here’s the rest in cash.” No problemo.
In Australia, they rarely let you split the bill, so you all throw in $30 and then you have to scramble for your correct change in the return pile of notes and coins. Sometimes you’ll end up with a huge amount of change that no-one claims – but the mediocre staff don’t deserve it, so you have to find something else to spend it on, like an extra dessert.
Or the person with no cash ends up paying with their card, and collects a giant pile of cash from everyone else. It’s a big mess, and would be so much easier if they just let you split the bill!
3. They will make any change to the menu you want
Want your burger bunless? Done.
Want to switch out onions for pickles? Absolutely.
Want your mushrooms served on the side instead of in your omelette? You got it.
Americans are happy to fulfil any request you have. In fact, they’ll even ASK you if you want any changes: “Are you happy for your salad to be served as is? Want to make any changes?” which is something you NEVER hear in Australia.
In Australia, some places will charge you extra for menu changes, or they’ll have a sign up that says “No changes to menu.” I’m serious!
What I don’t love about dining in America:
1. It’s never the price you see on the menu
In Australia, our tax is always included in the price you see on the menu.
In the US, it isn’t.
So you may be looking at a burger that costs $10, but in reality you’ll need to add, say, 10% tax (it differs per state), plus at least 18% for the tip.
Which adds $1 for tax and $1.98 for the tip, so your $10 burger will actually cost you $12.98.
Doesn’t seem like much when it’s just a burger, but when you add sides and drinks, the ‘extras’ you pay for add up.
So be warned.
2. The service can be overbearing
I know I just raved about how I love the friendly service, but at times they can take it to extremes. After all, they want to make sure you’ve got everything you want. Plus, the more you order, the more they get tipped.
But here’s what happens:
You’ll be sitting there, happily eating your meal and getting into a nice deep conversation with your dining companion, when you’ll be interrupted with a “Is everything alright over here? Can I get you anything else?”
I’ll smile and nod and say “Yes, we’re fine thanks”, when inside I’m thinking “You ruined my punchline, dammit! Where was I??”
If things weren’t ok with the meal, I’d be looking up to get the attention of the staff, right? Can’t you tell I’m in the middle of a great story?
It’s like trying to have a conversation with your friend and a 2 year old child at the table. Constant interruptions.
At least in Australia, the staff will mostly leave you alone until you give them the eye.
3. Too many options
You might be noticing a pattern here that the best things about the American dining experience are also the worst things. Depends on how you look at it, right?
I remember the first time I went to Bareburger, my favourite burger joint. They had a whole menu of burgers, but you also had the option to make any burger a salad or a wrap. And if that wasn’t enough, you could build your own burger from scratch.
I finally picked a burger, and when I ordered it, the guy asked me: “How would you like that cooked?” I’d never been asked that about a meat patty before. I went the same as a steak: medium rare. He then asked me “And what bun would you like? We have white, wholemeal, multigrain and tapioca.”
Tapioca? What the hell?
“It’s gluten free.”
Oh ok. It was all too much. I’d used up so much of my brain power deciding on which burger, I barely had any left to make decisions about the bun as well.
It was the same thing when I went to a smoothie bar:
I’ll have the green guardian smoothie, please.
“What size? Regular, large or tall?”
Umm, large please.
“What milk would you like? We have soy, almond or hemp.”
“Would you like sweetener?”
Umm, I guess so…
“Which sweetener? Would you like agave or dates?”
I almost collapsed to the ground in decision-making paralysis.
So here’s a warning for you: whenever you go to a restaurant in America, be prepared to play a game of 20 questions when you order.
But overall, I’m still a big fan of the American dining experience. After all, who doesn’t like being served by people who just want to please? I’d like to see more of that in other cultures. Now, if only I can place some constraint on the types of burger bun I choose to eat…
So there you go – my likes and dislikes about the American dining experience. Do you have any others to add? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Leave a comment below :)