What to Know About Dining Out in America

A man and woman are being served a meal by a waiter at a restaurant. They've taken a virtual language training experience to understand how to dine out in America.

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Dining out is a great way to get out of the house and explore your new home! Restaurants offer a glimpse into the iconic cuisine of many areas of the United States. Like any country, though, the US has its own policies and customs—some official, some not—about restaurant dining that is important to know. 

Before you plan your next meal out in America, here are a few things to keep in mind: 

Tipping

American restaurant workers make a state-mandated minimum hourly wage, unlike other places worldwide. The rest of their paychecks comprise customer tips, often earned through high-quality customer service.  

In many cases, if an employee does not make enough tips to cover the minimum required wage, restaurant owners/employers must make up the difference. Because tipping is so critical, it is typical to see a gratuity line on your receipt when you dine out.  

Most Americans tip between 10% and 20%, depending on the quality of the service. In many restaurants, this gratuity is automatically included for large parties (typically of 8 or more) to help ensure adequate tipping. Of course, some patrons choose to leave an additional tip on top of this for exemplary service. It's expected that you should always leave a tip when you dine in a restaurant unless the service is truly terrible.  

If you order food to go and pay when you pick it up, you may also notice a gratuity line on your receipt. Tipping is up to your discretion, and it is acceptable to leave a minimal amount in this situation. 

Drinks and Smoking

Many American restaurants offer free refills on things like sodas, water, and iced tea, so don't be surprised if your server continues to top off your beverage of choice. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, remember that the legal drinking age in the United States is 21. If you're planning to drink alcohol, be sure to have a state-issued driver’s license or passport with you to serve as your ID, even if you’re over this age.  

Restaurants and bars are closely monitored to ensure they do not sell alcohol to minors, and you should expect to be asked for your ID when you order alcohol. This is commonly referred to as “getting carded.” Many restaurants and bars also offer a happy hour during the work week. This is a period, usually between 4 pm and 6 pm, when patrons can get specials on select food items, cocktails, and beers.  

Smoking is less socially acceptable in America and is prohibited in many restaurants and bars. If you’re unsure about the policy, ask or play it safe and head outside. 

Reservations

Some restaurants in the states take reservations meaning guests can book a table in advance and avoid wait times. Policies vary greatly, and some restaurants that don’t offer reservations will have a wait list, so you can put your name in for a table about 30 minutes before you arrive, to get seated faster. The restaurant may require a reservation if you are dining with a large party. You can call or check policies online. 

Odd Hours

Business hours in America change from one restaurant to the next. It sounds strange, but some establishments may be closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Sundays. If you have a favorite spot, be sure they’re open before you head there to grab lunch or dinner. On the other hand, some diners and chain restaurants in America are open 24 hours a day, so you can grab fast food or eat quickly at any hour. 

Kids' Menus

Many family-friendly restaurants in the US will have kids’ menus, typically designed for children ages 12 and under. These may include meals like chicken tenders, pizza, macaroni, and cheese, or hamburgers that are appealing to less mature palates and come in smaller portion sizes. Some restaurants even designate one day of the week when children under a certain age can eat for free during dinner. This helps make dining out more affordable and accessible for families. 

Restaurant dining is a wonderful way to experience local culture and get to know people in your new home. Global LT’s Language Experiences, which are a benefit that our language students receive, focus on topics like dining out so you have all of the information you need to confidently explore your new surroundings.

If you want to see what our Language Experiences are all about by signing up for language lessons, let us know! 

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