In our travels about the continent, here in Ireland and across the States, we have eaten a great number of meals in true restaurants. Here I distinguish a true restaurant from a false one by the presence of wait staff. That is, McDonalds, SuperMacs, and White Castle (where Harold and Kumar went), are not true restaurants while Denny’s, Buffalo Grill, and your local favorite table service restaurant are. Now that we have that sorted I can proceed….
There is a vast difference in the types — I hesitate to say levels — of service that one receives in different countries. I put this down to differences in culture. In the States one’s server tends to hurry over, introduce themselves with something like “Hi! I’m James, I’ll be your waiter.” (To which I always want to respond “Hi, I’m Claude, I’ll be your customer.”) The server then makes sure you have a menu, gets the drink order, makes a little chit-chat and generally executes an excellent artificial schmoozing. The server becomes an adjunct to one’s meal party. During the course of the meal the server will continue to return to one’s table asking if the food is OK (generally right after one has taken a bite of food so can’t speak), will return constantly to ask about the meal and any desires and are even known to interrupt conversation. While traveling in Europe I have noticed that the server will come by, ensure one has a menu, get drink orders and then retire from the scene until all members of the meal party have closed their menus — thus signalling they are ready to order. The server takes the orders, brings the food, clears the plates after, might ask if the party would like dessert, and then retreats into the background again. They do not try to join one’s party, they don’t hover like an eavesdropper, and they don’t try to usher the party out by bringing the bill. It has been a long time since I was traveling in Australia and I don’t recall the actions of the wait staff there.
So as an American traveling in Europe, remember that you and your party can expect to have quiet, intimate conversation without interruption, but you will have to be proactive to bring your meal to an end. You have to get the attention of the server and ask for the bill — or perhaps dessert first. Thus if you are on a tight schedule you might want to tell the server before you start so he or she can be more “attentive” (as they say in America). It is not bad service when the server does not bring the bill after taking away the plates, in fact they are waiting for you to tell them you are done with your meal. Perhaps you want some coffee/tea and a nice dessert while you and your companions talk on through the night. Perhaps you want to head out and explore the city. In either case the server will cater to your needs; you just have to let him/her know.
For the European traveling in the States remember that the server is trying to make a social connection with you. The server in the States probably makes less than minimum wage and is trying to make the social connection in order that you will feel more obliged to tip heartily. They are not trying to hurry you along, just trying to be helpful. When the bill arrives at the end, they are not trying to hurry you out — or perhaps they are. I always think that US restaurants miss out on many dessert and after dinner sales because the bill is already there and asking to reopen the bill is just too much.
But wherever you are: enjoy your meal.