Food, Lifestyle

Turning the tables on American table-turning food culture

Everyone travels for different reasons. It could be to visit the city’s greatest museums and landmarks or for adventure if you’re someone with a hunger for an adrenaline rush. I like to travel for the food and the immersion in history and culture.

Annika Morris | Senior Graphic Artist

I spent a week in Madrid earlier this month. Despite leaving with a full stomach, I was left with a lingering feeling of general disappointment in going back to the American style of dining. Mission accomplished on my trip — but now I’m hungry for more. 

“Later” and “longer” are words that I would use to describe the timing of the dining scene in Madrid. Mealtimes aren’t just about the food itself. It’s also about the experience. The food is better — though that’s an opinion research can’t exactly support. 

Even without the emphasis on service and hospitality, I found European servers to be kinder and more attentive, even after I butchered the name of nearly every item on the menu. 

The major difference between European and American dining cultures is table-turning habits. Table Turnover Rate (TTR) is a metric used in the restaurant industry to measure how many parties occupy a single table during a serving period. TTR is typically measured by operating shift or by day. 

A higher turnover rate means the restaurant was able to accommodate a greater number of customers, and further, bring in more business. That is the heart of American dining, where restaurants consider zeroes on checks more than customer complaints. 

I would know. I worked in a sports bar — that’s about as American as it gets. “Fly, Eagles, Fly” found its home on our bar stools in our Philly suburb, where not a single game day passes without a packed house. 

A packed house, though, lengthens wait times and hands us an ever-growing, impatient crowd awaiting their seating. This is undoubtedly great for business, but for customer experience? Not so hot. 

When I was training to be a server, one of the first pieces of advice my manager ever gave me was that if I truly wanted to make good money and be successful,  quickly turning over my tables was key. There wasn’t a note in there about hospitality, teamwork or attention to detail. 

Sure, it’s fairly implied, but not many servers place priority on hospitable behavior. Anyone who has dined out can attest to at least one negative experience they’ve had with a server, whether it’s because they play the disappearing act as soon as they’ve taken your order or simply because they’re just downright rude. 

Now, staff in Europe may still play the disappearing act in the eyes of an American, but really it’s just in the culture. They are in no hurry to bring you your check and get your table cleared for the incoming party. Our group found ourselves flagging down our server for another round of drinks or the check, almost as if we were doing something prematurely. That’s just not the way in Europe — they adopt a more leisurely way of dining. 

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that tipping isn’t as customary in Europe as it is in America. I know as well as any other server in the US that the more tables you serve, the more tips you make — and God knows we need it with how low our hourly wages are. 

Even though my morals clashed with the general advice that I got in my server training, my managers were right.  

Meal times are prioritized and elongated in Europe, and in Madrid, they lacked the traditional courses that you typically find in restaurants in the United States. There were no starters, no entrees and no desserts — it was simply tapas. 

More restaurants in the U.S. seem to be adopting this style of dining, and they’re certainly better off with it. I find that tapas allows for a more interactive experience, where a bunch of small plates are passed around the table rather than each person individually ordering their meal. The experience becomes shared, and in turn, more special. 

Yet, even with tapas becoming a consumer favorite in the US, we are still overlooking our chance to adopt European style dining. 

Of course, we have Boston favorites like Barcelona Wine Bar with locations in Brookline and the South End, as well as Toro in the South End, both serving up Spanish classics. 

However, even these restaurants, which can attract a full house on any given evening, can’t give you the experience that accompanies tapas in Spain. 

A packed entryway puts pressure on seated parties, and a return to table turning forfeits Spanish authenticity for an American dining experience more catered to capitalism and the crowd. 

The European lunch break becomes a social hour, and never with a quick hurry to return to work. My American lunch breaks are 20 minutes to house a sandwich before I’m back to work or headed to my next class. 

If I can barely make time to eat as a teenager, I’d hate to think what my break will be like when I dive headfirst into the dark depths of our workaholic-cultured real world — and that’s coming from someone who derives their happiness from food. More time for meals makes me happier and thus allows me to forgo unnecessary hanger (hungry anger). I think you know which style of dining I’d prefer.  

Maybe I’d appreciate it less if it were a norm, but for now, my preferred dining experience remains a commodity to me. Until my next European rendezvous, I’ll allow my experience to fuel my wanderlust, even if it diminishes my appreciation for the booming Boston food scene.

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