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, if it actually comes from a French native? For over fifteen years, I instructed France travel workshops in the Seattle area. The 3-hour Paris class consistently sold out. Since I can’t share information with students anymore, this blog, and the French Girl in Seattle Facebook page still enable me to reach out to France lovers, whether novices or experienced travelers. One thing I have noticed over the years: I receive a lot of emails from future travelers around this time of year, asking for advice and recommendations. So, les amis, voilà  French Girl in Seattle’s French dining tips.

Ardoise

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 mineral water. There is still water, de l’eau plate, (Vittel, Evian, Volvic,) and sparkIing water, de l’eau gazeuse, (San Pellegrino, Perrier.) Typically, a restaurant will offer one brand in each category. I have read on other blogs that water can be difficult to get in French restaurants. These comments may come from visitors and expats who are used to having a waiter stop by their table constantly and refill their {large} glass with ice cold water. This won’t happen in France once la carafe d’eau is on the table. You are expected to fill your own glass. The same thing happens if you go to French natives’ home. It’s a fact the French are more frugal with water (and electricity) than Americans. I have often observed this in restaurants, or in public bathrooms in both countries. This being said, you will not  have to go without water in France when you need it, even if you have to purchase a cup of espresso at a corner café with a free glass of water; or get a small bottle of mineral water in a store or newsstand while you explore an area. Once again, the concept of bottomless drinks does not exist in Western Europe, and may be considered wasteful, and unnecessary.

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.

Iceindrinks
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.

HouseWine
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.

MenusPostedoutside
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
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.

RestaurantEtiquette
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.

RestaurantEtiquette2
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:

Express
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.

Additionwithchange

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

I hope this story answered some of the questions you may have about ordering food in France. It does not aim to drill in rules; scare you; and spoil your experience. In France, especially in touristy areas, everything goes. Still, we enjoy our travel experiences more when we expect cultural differences. One truth about international travel: No article or list can fully prepare you pre-departure. There will still be many discoveries, good, or bad, along the way, and being exposed to them challenges us, and makes us better travelers, and better human beings — or at least more open-minded ones.

A bientôt.

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58 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

  4. So much enjoy all of your posts and tips…I long to be back en la belle France…soon, I hope…merci tellement…

  5. Merci! Two questions: 1)does one wait to be seated at a café (whether inside or outside), or is the customer expected to find his/her own seat? 2)Is there such a thing as “un déca crème,” or “déca au lait”?

  6. Bonjour !
    Je vous suis déjà sur Facebook avec ma page “La Bourgogne de Nathalie”, aujourd’hui je suis ravie de m’abonner à votre blog ! Les photos sont belles et il donne envie. Je ne suis pas sûre d’avoir toujours le temps de le lire, mais c’est pas grave. C’est amusant de voir décrit des détails auxquels on ne fait plus attention mais tellement vrai !
    Très bon week end !
    Nathalie

    • Merci de votre visite, Nathalie. Je reconnais votre nom pour l’avoir vu sur ma page Facebook. En ce qui concerne le blog, vous n’aurez aucun mal à le suivre, car je n’ai plus trop le temps d’écrire depuis que j’ai changé de travail il y a deux mois. La page Facebook, en revanche, est mise à jour quotidiennement. A bientôt.

  7. What valuable tips we found here! My daughter Kathleen and I enjoyed our meals near Beauvais, where our meals included lively conversation and informal French lessons. We have much left to learn so we feel we must return!

  8. If is so refreshing to hear someone speak of French waiters and not end the sentence in swearwords. I spent part of my youth in Orleans and have returned to France many times. I am so tired of people telling me the French hate Americans. Too many Americans do not appreciate that eating should be an experience to be savored ( no pun intended). Many wait persons in this country will hover over your table, interrupt your meal to see if you are satisfied, refill your water and generally make pests of themselves to prove their efficiency. When I tell them a good French waiter will come to your table when you indicate a desire for further service, not before. One of my most pleasant experiences with my wife was a spring afternoon and wine with a cheese side on the Rue De Rennes that lasted two hours. Great people watching. We are looking forward to an upcoming visit to Bordeaux l’ete prochain.

    • Merci beaucoup James. I recently posted a couple of articles about French and American waiters on my Facebook page, and it was obvious most people felt very strongly about the differences in service. I do enjoy my French waiters, indifferent or attentive, and even the occasionally surly one (but that’s probably because I miss France, and Europe ;-))

  9. My ‘boyfriend’ and I are traveling to Paris, Montpelier, Perpignan and Barcelona in September. He sent me a link to this blog post and I am delighted to have your advice to ‘study’ before our visit. It is a first trip to France for both of us.

  10. Love your practical information.
    After an ill afted trip with an American pal who
    was let’s say not receptive to French culture, I may travel alone next time.
    I really love the culture and the cuisine!
    My french is not to great,but I can improve with practice.
    I want to know how to make friends in while France?
    Sometimes I do see when waiter or shop worker finds out Im American
    the attitude is somewhat mean(not all the time ofcourse)
    Any tips??
    Merci

    • As a young man I lived in Orleans. I’ve returned to France on numerous occasions over the years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “the French hate us. French waiters are mean” I’ve found this not to be true. Yes, we’ve had our differences with the French government. Thats the government, not the people in general. I think the perception that waiters are mean is a mis-understanding. The French enjoy eating. They appreciate good food. There is an understanding in France that dining is a pleasure, it is an activity to be thoroughly enjoyed. The idea that you rush in and consume a meal in less than twenty minutes is a catastrophe. The typical waiter fully understands that dining is an experience. They do not constantly interupt your dining experience by refilling your water, emptying your ashtray, taking away empty plates or asking how your are enjoying the meal, or if you want anything else. They will wait and watch. When you indicate you want service, they will come. They are not mean, they are leaving you alone.

  11. Great blog!
    We’re excited, but feel helpless when communication is an issue.
    My tongue is all twisted now from practicing my very limited french.
    It would be a perfect trip if only we can take you!
    😉

    • Well, merci beaucoup. I would love to tag along and be your interpreter 🙂 You will be fine if you learn a few greetings and basic expressions. Many people in Paris and on the French Riviera speak English quite decently. What matters is to make them *feel* like speaking English to you. A friendly attitude and a respectful greeting usually do the trick.

  12. What a wonderful & thoughtful idea! Thank you. I hope to receive, by email now, all additional blogs from you. My goal is to head to France next year(2017) for an extended stay. What time of year do you find the weather to be most suitable for travelers use to desert climates? I am thinking perhaps April, May, June?

    • The weather can be unpredictable, like everywhere else in the world right now. June is the busiest month in Paris so plan ahead if you are staying in a hotel. Spring and fall tend to be popular, because there can be fewer crowds then; and the weather is more pleasant than in the summer or winter. Still, I have been hot in Paris in June; and other years, I had to wear my trench coat and run between raindrops. I truly believe there is no bad time to see Paris. For a first visit, I’d go for spring or fall. Happy planning!

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