Differences in dining - Welcome to America! [pics]

Welcome foreign readers (yeah, we know you read us!). Chances are, you've been reading the news, and with a little bit of luck, you'll take advantage of a favorable exchange rate, and come pay us a visit this Summer. [via gadling]

If so, here are 10 things we do differently in this country when it comes to eating (and drinking) out.

Free soda refills

In the vast majority of establishments, you'll only have to pay for your first soft drink. Unlike Europe, where a refreshing beverage is usually served tepid, we like to fill up on ice, and provide complimentary refills on drinks.

Most fast food restaurants will let you tap your own drink, and unless there is a sign specifically banning free refills, go ahead and fill up.

Smart people will wonder why stores sell small, medium and large drinks, when you can essentially get the same amount of drink for a lower price. That my friend, is the right way to think! And before you ask - no, you won't get free refills on beer, and if you do, please let me know where that was!

Portion sizes

Yes - I'm fully aware that the United States is the source of many jokes about big portions and big people. We actually have ourselves to thank for that. Times are slowly changing, but there are still plenty of restaurants where the portion size is picked so it looks huge, not based on how much food one person actually needs.

The Doggy bag

The doggy bag picks up where the previous topic ended. Large portions are not served just to make you overeat - you paid for your food, so feel free to ask for a container at the end of your meal to carry any leftovers back home (or to your hotel).

Nobody will give you strange looks; quite the opposite in fact. You'd better have a good reason to leave food behind.


Tipping is a really complicated topic, because it differs from anything you are probably used to. Tipping in most parts of the world is what you do to round up the check (cheque). If service was really good, you might even throw in an extra Euro or two.

In the US, tipping is what you do to pay your server, maître d', sommelier or other hospitality worker. Your tip is their salary, as they most likely won't be making anything over minimum wage, or less.

Refusing to tip, or tipping less than 15%, is what you do when your service was abysmal, not when you run out of money or don't think it is worth it. When you order in a restaurant, keep in mind that you'll have to add between 15% and 20% of your final bill for the tip. Tipping is not expected in fast food restaurants.

When you dine with a group, you'll often be expected to pay a mandatory tip, which will be added to the bill. Unless service was horrible (in which case you should have asked for a manager), the restaurant will expect you to pay this. Sadly, the definition of "group" has decreased in recent years, and nowadays 6 people is usually where you start to be considered a group. The mandatory group tip is usually between 18% and 22%.

And if this wasn't enough, you'll be expected to tip the valet, cab or limo driver, bellhop and bar tender, and some people may even suggest you leave a tip in your room for the maid. The Internet is full of tipping resources, so to prevent an embarrassing situation, do a quick search for a crash course on tipping.

Credit card for bar tab and bar ID policies

Want to sit at the bar and keep ordering drinks? Be prepared to hand the bartender your credit card. For some reason, you'll usually only see this in more upscale establishments. Essentially, it is their way of preventing you from walking off without paying.

Also, unless you look like you are pushing 70, don't bother ordering alcohol without bringing ID. The legal age for drinking in the US is 21, and bars get in a ton of trouble if they are caught serving underage patrons. For this reason, they usually have very strict "carding" rules for their staff, and some places simply "card" everyone - regardless of age.

Yes, this is a real hassle, as you will have to carry your drivers license or passport everywhere you want to drink. If your license does not include English, you'll need to carry your passport. The same rules also apply to purchasing alcohol in retail stores - in fact, the law is so strict, that underage checkout clerks will have to call for someone over 21 to scan your alcohol purchase.

Opening hours and breakfast

Restaurants are open when people are hungry, so don't be too surprised if you find a Taco Bell or McDonalds serving people 24/7. In fact, if you are in a major metropolitan area, you should be surprised if you can not find somewhere to eat in the middle of the night. The only downside is that many of these 24/7 places only serve people at the drive up window.

Breakfast is big here - forget the British with their fried breakfast; the US is where you'll find fried chicken, gravy and steaks on the menu at many breakfast establishments. Oh, and for those of you visiting from the UK - bacon is served fried and crispy, not raw and dripping in grease.

The bathroom crack

Filled up on free Diet Coke refills and need to visit the bathroom? If you step into a stall, don't be alarmed by the large crack in the walls and door. Most US bathrooms are made of privacy unfriendly panels, and the gap between the wall and door is often half an inch or more. Most of them are only high enough to reach your shoulders, so if you value your privacy, I suggest doing your business, and getting out of there as soon as you can.

Yes, the same country that freaked out over seeing half a nipple during the Super Bowl, has no problem with people being able to see you poop. Ironic eh?

The good news? Bathroom access is almost always free in the US, and when compared to some countries, our facilities are generally clean.

Choice is king!

Be prepared to be overwhelmed when it comes to ordering your meal - most places work hard to offer a large number of dishes. Don't be surprised if you are presented with a 16 page menu and a separate wine list.

Tea is a drink served cold

If you order "tea", be prepared to be served with a cold beverage. Tea in the United States refers to iced tea. If your idea of tea is something steeped and served in porcelain, then be sure to ask for hot tea.

Don't be surprised to dine somewhere with 4 different flavors of iced tea, but no hot tea.

Free condiments!

If you are from Western Europe, then chances are you are perfectly used to paying for your condiments (ketchup, mayo etc.). Thankfully we here in the US will have none of that.

Some fast food restaurants may have a limit on the number of freebies, but you won't run into anyone asking for 25 cents just so you can get a single pouch of ketchup.

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