French dining tips (Travel Tips Series)

French dining tips (Travel Tips Series)

When you travel in France, you eat at least three times a day. Even if you rent an apartment and cook at home, you still enjoy a few meals out. You have already heard about French dining etiquette. Does the world need another article on the topic? Pourquoi pas? I still have a few photos to share from my last trip to Paris. In a few weeks, I will show them to the participants of my France travel workshops at local community colleges. Most of you will not be able to join us, so today, I will be taking you on pictorial dining experience in my homeland. Voilà French Girl in Seattle’s French dining tips…


Dining and ordering in a foreign country when one does not speak the language may feel intimidating. Good news: There are many similarities between France and the United States. For example, French and American waiters will ask you before the meal if you would like to order a drink. The French waiter will refer to un apéritif. You can read more about it here. In both countries, you can accept, or refuse. In both countries, a wide range of options are available. Be aware non-alcoholic drinks in France are never bottomless. You are expected to pay for each glass, and sodas aren’t cheap, especially in big cities like Paris.

In France, there are two things you should never have to pay for, and should feel free to order if the waiter does not bring them to your table at the beginning of the meal: Bread and tap water. Order them by asking: “Du pain,” and “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît.” Tap water in France tastes perfectly fine, but if you don’t like it, order some mineral water.

Eau de Paris

Pain et carafe d'eau: Look for the two sidekicks next to your plate
Baguette et carafe d’eau: Look for the two sidekicks next to your plate

Even if the carafe d’eau has been refrigerated beforehand, there will be no ice cubes in the water. The French prefer their water at room temperature. If you need ice (as I do,) order “des glaçons, s’il vous plaît.” When a drink is served with ice cubes, there will be a couple in the glass. Again, ice-cold drinks are not the norm in France.

Vite! Count les glaçons before they melt!

Since we are discussing drinks, you can save, when ordering wine. Wine connoisseurs will peruse la Carte des Vins, (wine list,) and they will be charged for their selections, as they are around the world. Other people, especially at lunch time, will go for the house wine, often presented in un pichet (pitcher, carafe.) Un petit pichet (small pitcher,) serves two to three glasses. Un grand pichet serves at least four. The house wine never disappoints: It is affordable, and local. You will be pleasantly surprised by the quality (and price tag) of red wine from overlooked Southern regions like the Languedoc.

Le Picotin‘s house wine, Paris 12th arr.

How do you select a restaurant? Restaurants and cafés have to post their menus and price lists outside by law. This means you can do some window shopping before stepping inside, a must in touristy neighborhoods. I assume you know better than sitting down for a meal at la Place du Tertre in Montmartre or on les Champs-Elysées, but just in case, a reminder: Always explore side streets, and you shall be rewarded. On the other hand sitting down in touristy areas to indulge in people watching while sipping a(n overpriced) drink, or a cup of espresso is perfectly acceptable in my book.

A Priori-Thé, Galerie Vivienne
Chez Bouillon Chartier
Chez Bouillon Chartier

A difference between France and the United States: Most French restaurants offer several prix-fixe meals, on top of their regular menu, la Carte. Prix-fixe meals come with benefits, especially if you do not speak the language: Selections are limited (that saves time and trouble;) products are fresh (they feature ingredients the Chef found at the market that morning;) they are always cheaper than ordering à la carte, American style. A prix-fixe meal is called le Menu, or, at lunch time, la Formule. For a pre-determined price, you may get to choose between une Entrée + un Plat (a first course/starter and a main dish,) or un Plat + un Dessert (main course + dessert,) or you can get all three, if you pay more. Alcoholic drinks, mineral water and coffee are rarely included with a prix-fixe meal.

Formule du Midi (offered at noon.)
Passage Choiseul. Prix fixe options
Passage Choiseul. Prix fixe options “Everything here is home made!”

More French dining tips:

Ordering food is one thing. Dining like the French is another. Eating out, for les Français, is not just about the food. It is a ritual, a special occasion, a moment to be enjoyed. leisurely, with a loved one, with friends, or by yourself. An important thing to remember before you arrive in my homeland: Expect everything to take more time. This includes meals. American-style efficiency does not apply across the pond. When you sit down in a French restaurant, you will never be rushed, or interrupted by your waiter. On some occasions, you may have to beg for the check! How I miss French waiters (yes, even the surly ones.) I once wrote a tribute to them. I suggest you read it pre-departure.

A young American-born French boy discusses sodas with a Parisian waiter
A young American-born French boy discusses the soda selection with a Parisian waiter

Dining like the French implies patience, and it also involves understanding the concept of (limited) personal space.

Gatti chairs, Café Charlot, Haut Marais

In restaurants, whether sitting inside or outside (be aware café prices vary with the location of your seat,) patrons keep their voices low, and do not stare at their neighbors. They respect other people’s privacy. They may be listening to your conversation. They just won’t let you know. In the photo below, should you be seated next to that young couple, you would discreetly acknowledge them with a nod when sitting down; then you would be expected to tune them out and carry on with your meal, keeping your voices low. Of course, if your neighbors decide to connect with you at some point during the meal, feel free to engage them.

In a cozy bistro somewhere in the 12th arrondissement

At the end of a French meal, as you order dessert, the waiter will ask: Et avec ça, un café? (and with that, a coffee?) If you do not like espresso, decline. Non, merci. For coffee, in a French restaurant, is always offered after the meal, and looks like this:

Un Express. French style

Could you order un thé (some tea,) un cappuccino, or un déca (decaffeinated espresso)? Of course. But forget Starbucks-style fancy coffee drinks, or drip coffee. Customization is not France’s forte.

Finally, when the time comes, ask for the check: L’addition, s’il vous plait. Look for the price in bold, sometimes followed by TTC (all taxes included.) TVA/VAT (Value added tax) rates (10% on restaurant food; 20% on wine,) may be mentioned on the check, but do not impact you. They are included in the total amount.

Le Picotin's house wine, Paris
Le Picotin’s house wine, Paris

Service 15% compris indicates that a 15% service charge has already been added to the check. Your waiter is getting paid. There is no need to tip, American-style. Round off the bill with a few small coins, or leave 1 or 2 Euros after lunch, as I did, below.


Americans feel guilty about not tipping. European waiters, in touristy areas, have taken advantage of this, occasionally complaining or making a face when “the tip” was deemed too low. Do not let that affect you. The small change left by most French people I know amounts to less than 5% of the check. I have seen friends leave nothing, when the waiter had not provided good service. In a travel presentation I attended a few months ago, a presenter declared: “Europeans typically do not tip, but Americans are creating a counter-culture, by tipping more, so waiters expect it now. Feel free to leave 10, 15, or 20%” I travel to France every year, and disagree with that statement. In the end, it is your choice, but there is no need to overpay. Save your Euros and order un café gourmand  (espresso and small, sweet bites,) instead:

Café Gourmand

There are more photos, and travel tips, I would like to share with you. They will have to wait until next week. Let me know what you thought about this article, and feel free to make some suggestions.

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Merci, et à bientôt.

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11 Responses to French dining tips (Travel Tips Series)

  1. Though I will never be able to travel to France, I love reading your blog and learning about the culture! Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Thank you, this is appreciated-very much. There are so many places I would like to try. I need to just jump in and “do it”! Your description of the various steps will give me courage

  3. Love your tips…and your photos! We will be traveling to York, London and Paris mid-September so your tips for Paris are invaluable! We bought a couple of french language CD’s but not sure if taking a class is better….perhaps both! I will have 5 days in Paris so I’ve got to make good use of my time and we will be photographing as much as we can! Thanks so much for your lovely blog! Dj

    • Dear Dj. Thank you for your visit. Your trip sounds like a lot of fun, and you will be staying in two favorite European cities of mine. I do hope these tips come in handy once you reach France! There will be more coming your way over the next few days.

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