It’s actually considered extremely impolite to order direct at the bar and then take drinks to your table, for example. You can expect quite rude treatment if you do that. Many a visitor has complained bitterly at the unfriendliness of bar staff, only to discover they were breaking a major rule of etiquette by not waiting to be served at their table.
When you arrive at an establishment, you normally find your own seats. Unless the staff are hovering suggestively around the entrance, which usually means they’ll take you to a table.
If the place you want to sit at has a sign marked “Reserviert” on it, it means it’s reserved.
Once seated, you’ll find staff will see to you pretty quickly unless they’re very busy. Don’t be surprised if there’s no menu already at your table: the staff will bring you one. They’ll ask for your drinks order straight away and usually give you time before asking about food. It’s OK to decline ordering food anywhere that isn’t a restaurant in the formal sense of the word.
Etiquette tip: It’s OK to try and catch the serving staff’s eye when you want to order food and/or drink, but it’s not OK to run after them – patience may be required.
The ordering process is then just like anywhere else in the western world. Most places can be flexible. So if you want an extra plate or fork to share a dessert, or a salad with no dressing, it’s rarely a problem.
When you’ve finished your meal or drinks, you ask for the bill. In German you would say “zahlen bitte” (pronounced “zar-len bitter”) or nod knowingly while holding a wallet or purse. Some places will leave a running bill at your table, but it’s not usual to leave the money on the table and go, though you can get away with it for smaller amounts and if you’re in a hurry.
It’s standard for each person at the table to pay separately for what they’ve consumed. But you can pay in one go as well. Normally the serving staff will ask if you want to pay separately (German: getrennt) or together (German: zusammen). For information on tips, see this separate article.
Once you’ve paid, you don’t have to leave immediately. There is no pressure in Austrian establishments to disappear as soon as you’re finished or to keep on ordering more food or drink while there.
You can happily nurse a single coffee all afternoon while reading a book, and politely decline enquiries as to whether you’d like anything else. Nevertheless, if a place is busy, it’s polite to make space for others if you’re not consuming anything.
As with everything in life, there are some exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you’ll be asked to pay before you’ve finished your meal or drinks. This can happen, for example, if the staff are changing shift, so your waitress or waiter will settle up for what you’ve ordered so far.
A few places (usually pub-like bars) do allow you to order at the bar as well as get table service. And a very, very few are self-service only – often small cafes around tourist sights.
If you’re not sure, simply watch what other people do. If there’s no table service, you’ll normally see the sign “Selbstbedienung” somewhere (means “self-service”).
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