By Deborah Bowers –
We all travel for different reasons – a search for family roots, or a visit to far away friends. Some of us travel to shop for the perfect artifact for our home, others to visit historic sites or to practice a foreign language. But for virtually all of us who love food, no matter what the original travel motivation, there’s always the draw of foreign cuisines to keep the trip fascinating. It’s a fact. No one in the world eats the same food in exactly the same way.
On a recent trip to Lisbon, we booked a hotel with “breakfast included” which we assumed would be a minimalist menu of Portuguese pastries and coffee. How wrong we were. Our breakfast reality was a dining room with groupings of food designed to provide every nationality in the hotel with the breakfast food they normally ate. An array of salami, cheeses, hard-cooked eggs and hearty dark breads was set out for the Germans. The English were catered to with bacon, baked beans, fried mushrooms and fried tomatoes. There were croissants of all kinds and fresh baguettes for the French, and for the Americans cold and hot cereals, square white bread, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon. For the Scandinavians there were fruits, yogurts, and several varieties of granola. Here was a cultural education expressed in breakfast foods. And most of the diverse breakfast crowd crossed national borders with their choices. I couldn’t resist being British for a day and had big sautéed mushrooms with my meal.
However, to reap the full benefits of food experiences on the road the food traveler must look beyond the food to presentation and service. Over the past few years our travels outside the United States have opened our minds to the convenience and good sense of having portable wireless credit card machines brought to the table when the meal is complete. The device is only slightly larger than a cell phone. In both Canada and Europe, these devices are used absolutely everywhere, even at the smallest and most modest of eateries. In Canada tableside credit card processors even calculate your tip for you – you can select 15%, 20%, put in a specific dollar amount, or even choose nothing at all if your service was poor. In most European countries, service is included in the cost of the meal so this feature is not needed.
Why in the world is this service not available in American restaurants? Sure, there might be some minor adjustments, like using a credit card with an identity chip. Most American banks will provide one if you ask and the “chip” card is essential for travel outside the US where magnetic strip cards might not be accepted. The result? Your credit card never leaves your sight in a restaurant to be squirreled away by wait staff in another room while visions of identity theft swirl in your head. Europeans and Canadians watch their card being swiped and returned to them instantly, the wait staff only makes one trip to the table, and everyone is happy. Come on, America, let’s do it!