Living in Berlin

No Water for You, Unless It’s ‘Still or Sparkling’?

Getting a glass of water in a German restaurant is not an easy task. Unless you are willing to pay for it.

After dining at the Fischerhütte at Schlachtensee, and having spent a pretty penny for lunch, I innocently asked for a glass of tap water. The waiter looked at me as if I were very uncouth and replied that water was not provided for free, even though I had just dropped 35 euros. I suggested that it might be against the law for them to refuse me, and this created a scene. I came away feeling like breaking their Flaschen of San Pellegrino.

I admit there’s a cultural issue here. If you’re North American, you are used to having your glass constantly filled with mouth-numbingly cold tap water. It seems ridiculous, especially given the high quality of Berlin’s water, to pay around 5 Euros for a litre instead (more expensive sometimes than beer!). And my suggestion that there might be a law against refusing customers water is not so outlandish, considering that in France, tap water (along with salt, pepper and bread) must be provided for free in restaurants. I believe water is also free in Italy. Brits, on the other hand, are generally unsurprised. The Consumer Council for Water in the UK reports that nine out of ten restaurants there don’t provide free water, even though it’s in pubs’ licenses to do so in some localities.

I’ve adjusted my expectations for Germany. I’m no longer surprised when waiters respond by pretending not to hear that you asked for ‘Leitungswasser’, or tap water, and reply ‘still or sparkling?’ instead. Or if the free water is brought in the tiniest of cups. I’ve learned to swallow my paracetamols dry.  I have learned to lower my voice, wink, cajole, and flirt, as if I’m asking for a dirty favour, just in order to have a simple glass from the tap.  And I am genuinely surprised and grateful if a waiter replies ‘no problem’, like in a Thai restaurant I go to in the Bergmannkiez, or in Hudson’s teahouse where there are actually bottles of free tap water on all the tables.

Still I am baffled. In America you are offered so much free water on the presumption that it makes you hungrier and you will consume more: the free bar-snack theory of marketing. And in Germany, where there is so much claimed environmental awareness, there is little recognition of the true environmental cost of bottled water:  it takes three litres of water to make one litre of bottled water, it produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide, and the production of the bottles and their disposal requires huge amounts of energy and creates vast amounts of waste. This is a clear case of restaurant profit coming first. In Berlin, tap water is excellent, and chlorine and ozone free, so there’s no argument on quality differences.

Next time I’m going to ask if I can just pay for a glass of tap water, saying truthfully I don’t believe in the environmental cost of water from the bottle. Presumably, they’ll just bring me a free glass of what should be everyone’s right, no matter where it’s consumed, instead.


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

5 thoughts on “No Water for You, Unless It’s ‘Still or Sparkling’?

  • actually in italy it is costumary to be served free tap water in bars – if you ask for it, but not in restaurants.

  • At the restaurant opposite the Pfaueninsel, after a long walk from the Glienicke Brucke, I asked for a glass of tap water. When the expensive little bottle of sparkling mineral water arrived, I refused it, repeating my request for tap water. The (Vietnamese) waitress rolled her eyes, and ten minutes later brought me a glass of WARM water!

  • In the UK, it is a legal requirement to supply free water to anyone who asks, even if they simply walk in off the street.

  • Bartenders/waitress in UK establishments will certainly not frown upon the question “please may I have some tap water”. Ask any Brit, they’ll tell you the same.

  • Why not just go to the bathroom and drink it our if the tap :p No need to ask the waiter.

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