Europe: proper noun
- 1. Continent of the Eastern Hemisphere between Asia & the Atlantic area 3,997,929 square miles (10,354,636sqkm)
- 2. The only reason Vespas and bedazzled jeans for men continue to exist
- 3. An area of the world with decidedly better restaurants than the United States, at least in one person's opinion
Look, there are some things America is just objectively better at than Europe: frying things. Invasive dental care. Being dumb enough to buy and wear "Back-to-Back World War Champs" tank tops. But, there are still areas in which the Old Country wallops the ex-Colonies in conquistadorian fashion.
Europe does this whole restaurant thing better than we do. It's OK. It's had more time to practice.
Now, before you call me a Commie, let me explain where I'm coming from -- with help from some intercontinental chefs and restaurateurs who have worked in both worlds. After that, feel free to spit in my face and call me a Commie. It happens more than I'd like, honestly.
First, let's look at just the tip(ping) situation
Five years ago, as a precocious (aka dumb) 21-year-old dining in a Paris restaurant for the first time, I made the near-fatal mistake of slapping a $10 euro under my water glass. Before I walked out those bistro doors, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder.
"Monsieur, you for-got zis," my waiter said with the most stereotypically snooty French diction, handing me my folded bill. He was insulted by my gaucheness. I was insulted by his aversion to deodorant. We were even.
While the "no-tipping" movement is gathering steam in the States, it's been commonplace in Europe since… well, forever. Dining out there is free of the mental math, or the guilt of judging your servers. In many parts of Europe, being a server is a legitimate, respected, and salaried profession.
"In France, many people are working in restaurants because they want to work in a restaurant," said Daniel Eddy, executive chef of NYC's Rebelle. Eddy worked at Spring restaurant in Paris, so he knows the score on both continents. "It's not just about easy money, they're there for a love of food, or of wine, or the industry in general."
This can bring out the best sides of servers
Sarah Meade, owner of Westbound in Los Angeles, implemented a no-tipping policy based on the European model, compensating her service staff with "healthy wages and strong benefits."
"This creates an environment that lends itself to old-fashioned hospitality," she said. "Don't be shocked if you hold a full conversation with the head bartender or executive chef -- it was intended that way."
It also creates a more relaxed atmosphere
Occasional hostility aside, a no-tipping mandate lends itself to a more relaxed atmosphere. Servers won't remove your water cups passive-aggressively, or circle around a table as they wait to fill seats with fresh guests and new cash. It's not a numbers game. In my own experience as a dirt-poor student in one of the more expensive cities in the world, I'd spend hours milking one thimble-sized espresso in pursuit of free Wi-Fi -- no big deal.
Chefs have room to be creative
Servers aren't the only restaurant workers reaping the benefits of the European system. Think of it this way: if the food world were a brain, American cooking culture would be the pragmatic left side, while EU chefs would be the creatively inclined right.
"I feel like a lot of the prolific chefs in Europe consider themselves to be artists, while many American chefs would rather be considered craftsmen," said Englishman James Lowe, the chef of Lyle's in London. "One of the major differences is the sheer size of many American restaurants. Some high-end restaurants in New York are turning 300, 400 tables a night. You will not see that over here."
"European dining culture is more open to innovation," said Lowe. "Look at Noma or Fat Duck or St. John's -- these are places that came along and changed the world. You don't get as many of those in the US maybe because of volume and pressure. In Europe, there's a lot more room for the quirkiness and idiosyncrasies that breed innovation."
Employees are saved from inevitable burnout
Lowe also credited the common practice of EU restaurants closing earlier, shutting their doors some days during the week, and sometimes even implementing month-long restaurant closures in the summer, to decreasing the "burnout" so many chefs and restaurant employees suffer from due to prolonged and intense work hours, stifling creativity.
Europe might even care about food (and drink) more than we do
The allusion of the Frenchman in a black and white sweater, riding a bike while chomping down on a baguette and guzzling a bottle of pinot is as tired as… well, anyone who would actually do that. But, there is some truth to the trope.
"I absolutely think there's a greater passion for food there, overall," Eddy said. "I mean look at France, food is their source of pride -- they understand the product. They care so much about what they eat, and being educated about what they eat. They expect more. This ripples throughout so much of European food culture."
And, one could argue EU chefs in general are a little more focused on food, rather than celebrity.
"The idea of the 'rockstar chef' really does come from America, doesn't it?" Lowe said. "I remember being in the States with a few European chefs, and we were blown away at how many chefs we met were kind of gunning to be on television before they even got far into the business. It was a 'whoa' moment for us."
American kitchens do have some advantages
"One thing that I learned in New York was the use of masking tape and Sharpies to label food and put a date on things," said Lowe. "I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's something that's only recently moved across here -- and it's a great example of how neatly American restaurants are run."
The massive scale of so many high-end restaurants in the States led to heightened senses of organization and order. Maybe the chefs in Europe were too focused on creating the next culinary revolution to buy markers?
"Another thing, kitchen health and safety standards are more stringent for the most part in the States," said Lowe. "I found the regulation higher work counters in New York to be much more comfortable and cleaner, so I implemented that in my London kitchen as well."
Also -- and as an American, this sucks to admit -- our particularly litigation-happy culture has to make most restaurateurs shake in their apron strings, as they must make sure everything is up to sue-proof snuff.
"Well, the health regulations, along with the reputation Americans have for suing a lot, probably do make US kitchens a little bit cleaner, a little bit smoother," Lowe admitted.
I'd sue him for saying that, if it didn't prove his point.
But consider this
OK. So I do like to not have dishes crawling with unsafe bacteria. And it is true that American restaurant culture has more cheap restaurants as opposed to the EU, where Lowe contends "people cook more, and go out to eat less."
But consider this: let's revisit the same Parisian bistro where my attempted tip brought the wrath of a server scorned. On my second trip there, my server (a new one!) stopped mid-gait to casually drop a carafe of dark red wine on my table with a resounding thud. I told her we didn't actually order any wine (lack of funds, remember?). And I will always remember her response.
"No, it's OK, it's table wine," she told us, pouring us glasses. "It's only a couple euro."
Table wine? A couple euro?
"Haven't you ever eaten in Europe before?" she asked in brisk French, mid-stride. "Wine is cheap, and it's always on the table. You don't eat without wine. This how we do things here. Even at lunch."
Match point: Europe.
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