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I passed through Munich last year and stopped at one of the biergartens. Well I tried. It was absolutely packed, it took forever to find a seat. At least one I could sit at. Seems like there's lots of rules about who can sit at what places, I found out afterwards. Depends on the size of the table, the shape of the table, if there's a tablecloth, if there's a plaque, if you're bringing your own food, if you're buying food there but bussing it yourself, if you want a server...

I'm taking a longer trip there this year and I want to be sure I got the rules in advance this time so I don't waste valuable travel time or make a faux pas and make the stupid American tourist stereotype true. What are the types of seating in a traditional biergarten? What can I do in those seats/how do I know if I can use them? Is there a common etiquette/unwritten rules?

(I found a little info already and can post my own answer later but it's not that good, I bet Travel SE can do better.)

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    Let me just drop a comment there: if you went there on a Saturday, especially during Oktoberfest, no wonder it was packed and you couldn't find a seat. The following may not be question-related, but in Rosenheim there is "Herbsfest" at the end of August. It's 70km from Munich and you can get there by train. Less crowded, better beer, more traditional than Oktoberfest – Noldor130884 Jul 7 '16 at 8:24
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    I'm german and.... there are rules? I didn't know. – Gigala Jul 7 '16 at 10:13
  • That's because we never notice them. We just acquire them slowly, over time. But, one thing is sure, after a few Mass, there are no more rules :-) and I also recommend Rosenheim (for Munich, Waldwirtschaft, Großhesselohe translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://… Jazz musik, not Blass musik) – Mawg Jul 7 '16 at 10:16
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    Just to help you not feel bad about the "stupid American tourist" thing: I was recently there with two friends, all of us Germans from outside of Bavaria, and we, too, were a bit confused because there were tables with and without services, and different menus for those with service. – Carsten S Jul 7 '16 at 11:34
  • Matter of fact I think it prob. was a Saturday night. Not Oktoberfest though. That's a future trip... – Europe2015 Jul 17 '16 at 16:06
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The best source I can find is this picture gallery of the local newspaper (Süddeutsche Zeitung, in German). My advice is based on that, own experience and other sources where mentioned:

  • You can bring your own food. (Within some limits, see below. Unless it is a "Wirtsgarten".) In case you bring food, you might want to think of napkins, cutlery, tablecloth, etc. as well. Of course you can also buy food at the Biergarten. You buy drinks from the Biergarten, do not bring your own.
  • Do not order food to the Biergarten (i.e. calling a pizza service), that is frowned upon and can get you kicked out.
  • Do not expect service at the tables, it is all self-service. Unless there is a tablecloth ("gedeckter Tisch"). These serviced tables could also be distinguished as smaller, having chairs instead of benches (see below), but your best bet is the tablecloth. See also the comment by @mart below.
  • Typically there is a deposit on the beer mugs (and/or bottles). It is still not allowed to bring home the beer mugs as souvenirs (but many try to).
  • Biergärten are social places so you can take seats also at a table that is partially occupied. You might want to ask first if they are waiting for others though. That's slightly impolite on their part but happens frequently.
  • Wait, that last rule only holds true for the longish tables with two benches on the sides ("Biertischgarnitur"). If it is a small table with (e.g. 4) chairs it would be strange to ask to join someone there.
  • A "Stammtisch" (table for regulars) is another exception, you need to get invited to sit there. If you are a foreigner I would not expect you to know which table is a Stammtisch, but "table with a plaque" as you describe it is a good indication. Here are some pictures of Stammtische in Biergärten. Also I would expect at most one Stammtisch per Biergarten.
  • Be social and talk (and drink) with your neighbors. Use first names and "Du" (familiar form of "you" in German) if you decide to speak German after a couple of beers. Also it's not impolite if someone starts conversation with you.
  • Clink beer mugs with others at your table. Often! Look each other into the eyes while you do it. The way to say cheers is "Prost".
  • Don't drink the last sip of stale beer, get a new glass instead!
  • Biergärten can be plain full at peak hours. Either be there early, or eye around tables where people might be getting up to leave soon. It might still be a long wait.

  • If you want to blend in, be aware of what type of food you bring: people might find it funny if you bring e.g. Chinese noodles. To be on the safe side, get your food from the Biergarten or be inspired by their menus. E.g. Brezeln and Obatzda are a safe choice to bring.

  • Also be aware that you should bring a "Brotzeit" (cold snack) and not a four-course menu. This is a judgement call but people have been kicked out for this (link in German). Generally better if it looks like homemade stuff and not taken from the e.g. Pizzeria or Vietnamese place around the corner.

  • Biergärten have to close by 11pm at night and will stop serving drinks by 10:30pm. Music and/or shows will end by 10pm. Yes, there is a law for that, named after the Biergärten.

Image from Wikipedia

In this example image you see benches only so you can join any party when there is space. E.g. I suppose the lone guy in the brown shirt in the foreground did just that and is occupying the seats while a friend is getting beers. The table in the front is a good example of bringing your own food.

That should give you a good start, but I am sure the locals will be happy to explain and give you their personal advice while you are socializing. Here is another article (in English) that explains basic Biergarten etiquette.

Which one is the best Biergarten (in Munich, and around, and in general) is a whole new discussion and beyond the scope of this site. This Wiki of Biergärten around Munich lists at least 100 of them (link in German), including how to get there, opening hours, beer prices and beer supplier (very important to locals!) as well as other particularities. This site is similar but more searchable and has reviews, tripadvisor style (in German).

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    And when bringing your own food, make sure it consists of Brezen and Obaztem ;) – Jan Jul 6 '16 at 17:31
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    I’m from the countryside, we don’t have many of the typical Munich byo-f beer gardens here (in fact, I wouldn’t even know one). Instead, they are all Wirtsgärten. I’m not a good person to answer this ;) – Jan Jul 6 '16 at 17:34
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    "Biergarten netiquette" - didn't know Biergärten are virtualized these days ;) Great answer otherwise :) – O. R. Mapper Jul 6 '16 at 19:39
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    One thing I'm missing: The distincion between tables with service (usually samller tables with tablecloth, close to the kitchen) where you are not supposed to bring your own food (and the waiters may frown if you get yourdrinks from self service, depending on biergarten) and the other places (usually a biertischgarnitur) is not clear enough from the text, and I think this was the biggest source of confusion for the OP. – mart Jul 7 '16 at 8:15
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    "There are further rules about what type of food to bring". Will you get kicked out for bringing Chinese food? – JonathanReez Supports Monica Jul 7 '16 at 8:43

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