13 Things About American Restaurants That Amaze International Visitors

Some norms in American dining culture surprise visitors from outside of the U.S.
Updated July 18, 2024
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waiter serving friends

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Many Americans are surprised to learn that our restaurant culture is not universal — in fact, it’s far from it.

International travelers often report feeling perplexed by the customs in American restaurants. Of course, if you decide to step up your travel game and visit other countries, you might feel the same way about their dining culture.

Here are 13 things about American restaurants that frequently shock international visitors.

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Tipping is expected

EdNurg/Adobe anxious woman at restaurant taking out money from wallet

This is the top complaint that foreign visitors tend to have when visiting U.S. restaurants. Elsewhere in the world, wages for the wait staff are built into the prices you pay at a restaurant.

The American expectation of tipping 15% to 20% of the bill is not the norm around the world.

For example, in many popular European tourist destinations, customers will tip a few euros if the service is exceptional or if they want to help the server stop living paycheck to paycheck. But overseas, tips aren't considered obligatory.

The dining experience can be rushed

Pintau Studio/Adobe smiling waiter in cafe

Another thing that may shock European visitors is the mad dash at many American restaurants to get food served and eaten and tables cleared so a new batch of guests can come in.

Many Europeans are accustomed to a more lax dining experience, which may include a relaxed aperitif or espresso after a meal.

Water comes with ice

rawintanpin/Adobe glass of water with ice

Many foreign travelers are surprised that all drinks in U.S. restaurants — even water — seem to come with ice.

On the other hand, many Americans traveling outside of the country for the first time may be shocked when they are given a small cup of room-temperature water with a meal.

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There is a menu just for kids

Stanislaw Mikulski/Adobe mom and daughter studying the menu

Kids menus — which tend to include child-friendly options such as chicken tenders and grilled cheese — are the norm in the U.S., even at some high-end restaurants.

Yet, in many places around the world, kids are expected to order from the adult menu and offerings just for children are deemed unnecessary.

The drinking age is 21

Kelly Castro/Adobe no person under 21 allowed sign

Many young travelers are shocked to find that they can’t drink alcohol in the U.S. even though it is perfectly legal to do so in their home countries. 

While the federal drinking age in the U.S. is 21, much of Europe, South America, and Asia let young people drink at age 18 or at least by 20.

In fact, countries such as Mali, Germany, and Malta have even lower drinking ages — 15, 16, and 17 respectively.

Restaurants are open 24 hours

Gitzz/Adobe 24 hours neon sign

Americans know and love their 24-hour diners — whether you have a go-to local spot or a neighborhood Waffle House or Denny’s. But this is not the norm elsewhere.

Some Europeans may even expect restaurants to close at midday, between lunch and dinner. They marvel at American restaurants that are open not only throughout the day but all night as well.

Taxes are not included in the price

nicoletaionescu/Adobe woman checking restaurant bill

The custom of not including the tax in the final price in America can be shocking for visitors when they are dining out or shopping.

Depending on which state they are visiting, travelers may be surprised to find their final bill at a restaurant is quite a bit higher than they anticipated.

Meal portion sizes are huge

Joshua Resnick/Adobe holding huge sloppy cheeseburger

The portion size Americans are used to is not the norm around the world. Research indicates that American plates started growing in the 1970s and 1980s, and many restaurants keep their customers coming back with super-size dishes.

Thus, international visitors may find they need to take advantage of our “doggy bag” culture as well.

Free refills are standard

ภาคภูมิ ปัจจังคะตา/Adobe ice americano coffee

Free refills are another distinctly American dining expectation. In the U.S., patrons can expect to get free refills of soda and juice at many dining establishments.

However, this isn't something travelers from overseas are accustomed to.

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Server check-ins are the norm

elnariz/Adobe friendly waiter serving food to friends

Servers in the U.S. are often trained to check in on customers regularly to see if they need anything else.

This attentiveness can often lead to bigger tips from American diners, but check-ins are not customary worldwide. Some foreign travelers may be put off by the practice, as they are used to asking if they need anything from a server.

There is a tendency to ID everyone

CupOfSpring/Adobe  man show valid ID to buy alcohol

Some restaurants in the U.S. ID patrons even if they look like they are more than 50 years old. The process likely comes from the fact that consequences can be severe for any establishment found to serve alcohol to patrons under 21, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

This can be perplexing for visitors from countries that have much lower drinking ages.

Servers take your card away

davit85/Adobe  waiter in apron at counter

At some American restaurants, servers bring you a credit card machine so you can pay from your table. However, most American diners are accustomed to the waiter or waitress picking up a credit card and taking it away to process the bill.

Many foreign travelers expect to pay at the table and might wonder where exactly the staff is taking their card.

Air conditioning is everywhere

epic_images/Adobe waiting to order food

International travelers may be shocked at how commonplace air conditioning is throughout the U.S., including in pretty much every restaurant.

Air conditioning is far less common in countries around Europe, so the arctic feel in American restaurants in the summer may come as quite a surprise.

Bottom line

Jacob Lund/Adobe couple sharing milkshake at a diner

Foreign visitors who eat in U.S. restaurants are shocked by many of the customs they see. But you likely would be just as surprised by the things you might witness in overseas eateries.

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Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.