There's a different pace in Europe

This month, Frank Bruni of the New York Times is writing about his experiences eating in Rome on his Diner's Journal blog. One of things he mentions is what he perceives as the inferior level of service in most Rome restaurants. A number of commenters chime in, some claiming variations of "it's because Europeans hate Americans".

This is basically nonsense. What a lot of Americans, or travelers in general for that matter, don't get is that every culture and country has a different pace of life, including eating. (Bruni addresses this in his most recent post.) Europeans in general, perhaps with the exception of the Brits, take a lot more time over their meals than Americans. This of course includes restaurants. While there are many fast-food type places nowadays where people grab a quick meal, the more expensive or more traditional a place is, the more time it takes from start of meal to finish.

I think that one big reason for this is that for many people in Europe, eating out is entertainment in itself. In the U.S. we are accustomed to planning dinner before or after another activity - the "dinner and a movie" model. In Switzerland though, and in a lot of other places I've been to (I've been to most western European countries), if we're going to go out and see a movie or a concert, the meal is just something to fill the stomach, not an occasion. So we never go to a fine restaurant - we go to a fast-food place, or the increasing number of restaurants who cater to people who want a fairly fast meal. (A lot of these places have vaguely Americanized menus that are sort of reminiscent of TGI Friday's or Olive Garden, at least in Zürich.)

Some years ago we went to one of the most renowned restaurants in Switzerland, the Hotel Fischerzunft in Schaffhausen. In our party we had a couple of Americans and Swiss. The meal took 5 hours from start to finish, and the Americans were almost out of their minds with impatience halfway through at the slow pace. While they didn't raise the specter of anti-Americanism (since their hosts were Swiss after all), they were openly wondering why they were 'so damned slow'. I have to admit, one of those people was me. I was used to the pace of things in a typical New York restaurant, where you can chow down a first-class meal at a place like Union Square Cafe or even Daniel (a starred French restaurant) safely in 2 hours or under. That just doesn't happen at a top level restaurant in Europe.

Most American restaurants take at least two seatings for dinner, if not more. A European restaurant only takes one.

Now I've learned to relax a bit more, but the slow pace still throws me off sometimes. The experience we had a few months ago at L'Esperance in France is typical I think. We got there a bit past noon, our reservation time. We were seated in the lounge area, where we were served drinks. Time passed. Around 20 minutes after noon, we were served some little appetizers or amuse-bouche. We munched on them, and re-ordered drinks. Time passed. Around 12:45 we were finally lead to our table in the main dining room (which was maybe half full that day). I think our first course was finally served around 1:30. When we were done with our dinner it was about 3:30. Then, we had coffee and petit-fours back in the lounge. We finally left around 4:30. And this is for a mid-week lunch.

(Mind you, the restaurants with the best service make things so smooth that you barely notice how fast or slow they are. Restaurant Beurehiesel in Strasbourg, which may still be my favorite top-class restaurant in Europe, comes to mind as the best example of this.)

So, if you're going to be visiting Europe and you're going to be going to a top level restaurant or one that is not on the tourist track, don't plan anything else for that evening, and if you reserve for lunch forget about that afternoon. But if you are in a hurry, any number of restaurants cater to, and know all about, tourists-in-a-hurry. Street food is always fast of course, as well as restaurants (especially self-service ones) in department stores. Many cafés or pubs (or the pub equivalent depending on where you are, like a bierstube in Germanic areas) serve quick, tasty meals. And if you just want fuel, there's always fast food.

The only people in a bigger hurry to finish dinner than Americans are Japanese. If you always want to eat on the run, try visiting Tokyo. :)

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Hi from Tokyo! We just got back from a 2.5-hour lunch at an amazing retaurant. Thanks for the warning not to expect that everywhere we eat...

In my experience, the Germans move pretty quickly as well, although the "service with a smile" aspect is a lot more variable. I think that might be a European thing as well.

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