In the two months that I have lived in Irkutsk, I have eaten out a lot. Every day for lunch, I like to try a new cafe or restaurant. I work as a host at a restaurant back home, so I’m very familiar with American dining customs and hospitality guidelines. As such, I have noticed several distinct differences between Russian and American customs.
The Server-Guest Relationship
American servers, generally speaking, are expected to check in with their tables periodically. Neglecting this duty results in customers feeling forgotten and undervalued, and often leads to a smaller tip for the server and perhaps even complaints lodged with the management. In Russian restaurants, customers must make the effort if they want attention from their server. If you want to order something or ask a question, flagging down your server politely but firmly is usually necessary. This can take some getting used to, since doing the same in America is sometimes frowned upon.
The above extends even to getting the check, which will generally not automatically arrive at your table. You must flag down the server and specifically ask for it first. Servers in the U.S. are constantly trying to “flip” tables as fast as possible, which increases revenue for the restaurant, and therefore for the servers themselves. In Russia, it is assumed that the guest will decide when they are done and should not be disturbed beforehand. It is also not at all uncommon for Russians to make additional orders during the meal – especially for more drinks. This somewhat helps explain why Russians sit and are not discouraged from sitting longer. For Americans, however, this can be difficult. Therefore, I suggest asking for your check as soon as your food comes if you are in any kind of rush. You might get a weird look or two, but I promise you will be glad you asked.
At American restaurants, you will nearly always be served a cold glass of ice water for free, and without question, usually even before ordering drinks. This is not the case in Russia. Water is always bottled and often the most expensive drink on the menu, priced often at three times its supermarket price or even more. Russians generally abhor cold drinks, believing that they cause health problems, and so you can also be sure there will not be ice served with the water. It will, in fact, usually be room temperature. Finally, it may not even come to your table before your food does. You’re better off ordering a hot tea, a much more standard Russian beverage, and which is both cheaper and will come faster if you ask for it to be brought right away (sometimes you will be asked if it should come before or after the meal).
Additionally, if you buy tea at a restaurant or cafe, you will usually receive a whole pot’s worth, with as many cups as you’d like. Keep this in mind if you’re dining with a group. Some restaurants will not serve alcohol until a certain time of day, even if their alcoholic drinks are featured on the menu before that time. If you order a cocktail at 2:00 in the afternoon after a particularly hard day of classes, make sure to ask if there will actually be alcohol in it. Some restaurants will serve you virgin cocktails at full price and neglect to tell you.
Tipping is a strange yet very important institution in the US. US laws allow servers to be paid very low wages as it is culturally expected that tips should make up the difference. Thus, while specific numbers are debated, most Americans agree that you should always tip something, usually between 15-22% of the food bill. Russian law does not differentiate between tipped and untipped professions and thus the practice of tipping tends to be much more flexible in Russia. Of course, no one will be upset with you if you do tip, but it seems to be much less expected, especially outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Tipping is also complicated by the fact that food is already comparatively much cheaper than food in the U.S. Ordering a business lunch might cost you 300 rubles, which would make an American-style tip just 45-60 rubles, or just .75-1 dollar, which may seem almost offensively low by American sensibilities.
Keeping all these tips straight may seem like a lot, so the best thing you can do is try out a bunch of different places and learn the rhythms of Russian cafes and restaurants for yourself. After a few weeks, ordering and paying will be second nature! Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and if you make a silly mistake, it becomes a funny story! So don’t stress out, and приятного аппетита (bon appétit)!