The vast majority of cafés, bars and restaurants in Vienna are table service only. Often even those that look like you should order at the bar. And often even those that look like British pubs.
- Ordering from the counter is generally considered quite rude
- Some exceptions exist, of course (particularly in pubs and bars)
- Patience is a virtue, especially in coffee houses
- You generally pay waiting staff face-to-face
- See also:
How to order
(Expect table service)
When you arrive at an establishment, you usually find your own seats. Unless the staff are hovering suggestively around the entrance, which probably means they’ll take you to a table. Or (um, obviously) if there’s a “please wait to be seated” sign.
If the place you want to sit at has a sign marked Reserviert on it, this means it’s reserved.
As far as getting food and drink is concerned…the vast, vast majority of places to eat (and even drink) take orders at the table.
Only a few are self-service only, such as small cafés around tourist sights: look for a sign saying Selbstbedienung (self-service).
Some places (usually pubs and bars) do allow you to order at the bar as well as get table service, especially if you’re actually seated at the counter. Some may even have counter service only.
If you’re not sure, simply watch what other people do.
The key message is that table service is far more common in Vienna than in countries like, for example, the UK.
In most places, then, ordering direct at the counter and taking drinks to your table, for example, is considered impolite and likely impossible anyway.
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.
Once seated, staff should see to you pretty quickly unless they’re very busy. Don’t be surprised if you find no menu already at your table: they’ll bring you one.
Waiting staff will typically ask for your drinks order quite quickly and give you time before asking about food. Note that water is rarely served automatically with meals: you need to ask for it.
It’s fine to stick with drinks and decline ordering food anywhere that isn’t a restaurant in the very formal sense of the word.
And it’s also fine to try and catch the serving staff’s eye when you’re ready to order food and/or drink. Just don’t chase 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 in Vienna.
How to pay
(Coffee houses usually let you take your time over paying and leaving)
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 leave a running bill with you, but it’s not usual to put the money on the table and disappear; you normally pay the waiting staff in person, though one or two places may send you to a cash desk.
It’s fine for each guest to pay separately for what they’ve consumed. But you can pay in one go as well. You’ll be asked if everyone wants to pay separately (German: getrennt) or all together (German: zusammen). For information on tipping, see this separate article.
Should you only want to use a credit card, check the location takes your card before ordering…it’s not common practice in Vienna, though more usual in tourist haunts.
(Waiting staff and a cash desk in Café-Restauration Niebauer in the Augarten park, photographed in 1897; Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 166545/13; excerpt reproduced with permission under the terms of the CC0 licence)
Debit cards are more widely accepted, but not everywhere: I know popular cafés (and even one major tourist attraction) in the centre that take cash and nothing else.
After paying, you don’t have to leave immediately.
Viennese establishments rarely put you under pressure to disappear as soon as you’re finished or even to keep on ordering more food or drink while there.
This applies particularly in those traditional cafés and coffee houses. There, you can happily nurse a single coffee all afternoon while reading a book and decline enquiries as to whether you’d like anything else.
Nevertheless, if a place is busy, it’s obviously polite to make space for others if you’re not consuming anything.
As with everything in life, there are always exceptions to the rules, but the above is more or less how it all works in Vienna.
Enjoy your meal. (Or coffee.)