We all do it, probably more than we should. Germany has a lot of options to eat out, from fast food to immigrant-influenced cuisine to the quintessential sausage and sauerkraut. When you’re planning to go to a restaurant, there are distinct differences between the American and German experience that you should know about:
Just do it yourself. Unless there is a hostess greeting you when you walk in, just go ahead and take a seat. There will often be a stack of menus somewhere near the entrance, grab one on your way to an empty table and make sure one of the wait staff notices you on your way.
If there is a longer table with only a couple people on one side, feel free to take up an open spot on the other end. Just be sure to ask if the seats are still open: “Ist hier noch frei?” This is usually just a formality, but there's a possibility that they're waiting on friends, so be sure to ask before you sit down.
Water will not be free, so don’t be surprised when you see it on your bill! Normally, you'll be offered the choice of water with or without “gas”. The water will likely come in a small bottle, served alongside a glass. You can ask for table water from the tap but most restaurants still won't do this, and you're likely to get a bemused look from your waitress in response. Don't expect a basket of bread, either.
If you can't finish and want to take your meal home with you, be sure to ask. Doggy-bags aren't common in Germany, and your waiter most likely won't expect you to want to take your food home with you. Most restaurants will box up your meal if you ask, though.
Soft drinks are almost always served without ice, and if your drink is served with it, you'll likely only get two tiny cubes. If you prefer your drink with lots of ice, be sure to ask for it when you order.
Germany doesn't not have a tradition of tipping, and service industry workers do not live on tips like their American counterparts. Waitstaff in major tourist areas are usually somewhat accustomed to (and appreciative of) US tipping customs, but countrywide, there is no expectation of high tips. When tipping, you can use one of three strategies. One option is rounding up rather than using a percentage of the total bill. For example, if the bill is 18.86 euros, and you hand them a 20, you could say either just give me one back, or “stimmt so” (keep the change). Another way is to do the percentage game. In Germany, however, 5 to 10% is enough. If you're on vacation, though, we always recommend to just do whatever makes you comfortable. If you'd rather just pay 20% every time, you'll never have any problems.
German restaurant culture has changed a lot due to the increase in tourism over the past 20 years. Even so, it's important to keep a few things in mind before making your reservations. Now that you know them, as the Germans say, "Enjoy your Meal"!