Being from the US, this is what I have always done. Outside of Friday or saturday night or possibly a great steakhouse, you can show up and wait 30-40 min on a busy night or most night get a table right away. How many times have you called ahead to an Irish pub and asked for a reservation. Or let's say you wanted to go to your local bar and grill for lunch. You would just show up before 12 or after 1:30 or so if you wanted to be seated right away but otherwise wait 10-20 minutes and you will have a table no problem.
After having been to many corners of Europe and especially southern Germany that is simply not the case. Monday night 17:30 you are headed to the local augustiner pub. You re greeted by the staff as you enter with a quizzical look on their face. They proceed to ask "reservert bitte?" (Do you have a reservation). You are thinking, why would I it is monday night. So you answer no, I only need a table for 4, looking at a mostly empty restaurant in front of you, but you notice all of the tables have little table tents with the word reservert on them. They reply I am sorry sir we do not have any openings and proceed to walk away. What do you do now?
First let's just say that whenever you want to go out to eat in Europe in general it is always good to call and get reservations, even if it is only 30 min ahead of time. You can run into the problem of it being a holiday you don't know about so they are closed. The family has decided to leave for 3 weeks and leaves a handwritten note on the door that they have left till next month. They could have decided it was not busy enough to stay open that night. Or there is a special event and the whole (tiny) restaurant is booked. It is always a good rule of thumb to call and get a reservation. It truly satisfies a German desire to be organized and they love it.
Second thing is to never be late for your reservation. In Europe 10 min late is the very very most you could be late without losing your cherished reservation. Although they love you making reservations, you have to show up on time or else it is rude and they will take it away from you without hesitation. We also would like to highly recommend calling a restaurant is you are not going to make your reservation and cancel it or move it back an hour or so.
There are a few things that you do when faced with the situation we described at the outset. You can always just leave and head to the next place. But there are a few other options.
If anyone has tips for eating out in europe please leave them in the comments below.
Thirsty Historian Partner and Guide