Belgian dining

Belgian dining

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Expatica's blogger compares the smiling American-style restaurant service with the stand-off nature of Belgian waiting staff.

One of the adjustments we faced in moving to Brussels has been the nature of our restaurant experiences. The typical American restaurant experience focuses on speed and customer service, not just food. An American server will introduce themselves, smile a lot, make small talk, describe the specials, answer questions and take your drink order within 5 minutes of you taking a seat.

His or her job is to anticipate your needs, refilling your drink glass regularly or topping your coffee mug and checking back at regular intervals to let you know the status of your order or if it has already been delivered, to ascertain that everything is satisfactory and to clear empty plates from the table.

A good American server is friendly, personable and strikes just the right balance between being available to the customer but not intrusive. Serving in the US is an art form and the national chain restaurants provide their staff with extensive training not just in how to complete their tasks, but how to set a proper tone with the customer and anticipate his or her needs. Local restaurants develop their own personalities. Dependent mostly on tips for their income, a smart server works hard to make your meal as enjoyable as possible and to connect with the diner.

In Belgium, dining out is an entirely different experience. Belgians — who are always in a hurry when they’re in the car — are in no rush when they enter a restaurant. Your server will wander over to deliver menus whenever it’s convenient, will tell you about the daily specials only if asked, will not offer refills on your drinks unless summoned to the table and will charge for every drop of coffee or cola that splashes into your mug (no bottomless cups or glasses here). You won’t be interrupted, engaged in conversation or rushed to complete your meal, but the down side of this is that receiving and settling the check can take quite a lot of time.

I’ve read that Belgian wait staff keep their distance as a way to convey respect to the customer. Maybe so. Maybe not. Cynic that I am, think the real issue is that in America, servers work for tips and here they do not. I think servers here see themselves as people who carry orders to the kitchen and food from the kitchen. End of story.

Until we went to England, the only taste we’ve had of American style service in Europe was at a Chinese restaurant in Zaventem where the proprietor waited on us herself and did so with great warmth and graciousness.

When we visited the UK recently, we once again tasted service with a smile. At restaurants and pubs, coffee and tea houses, our servers were friendly, thorough and eager to top our glasses and offer extra gravy. Dining was a pleasure, whether we visited American-bred restaurants like TGIF in Bath or family-owned cafés in the Cotswolds, the staff was eager to please, happy to adjust the menu, solicitous to our children.

The whole experience left a sweet taste in our mouths. Belgium may be renowned for its cuisine, but the dining experiences we had in the UK make us eager to grab a ferry back over.


V-Grrrl / Expatica

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