The tablecloth: If you’re just looking to have a drink, don’t sit at a table that has a tablecloth, or an annoyed waiter will swoop down and shoo you away. The tablecloth is the code for knowing which tables are ‘restaurant’ and which are ‘bar’.
Timing: The earliest you can get a table in most restaurants is 7pm or 7:30, and most diners arrive around 8ish.
Which restaurant? Avoid the dreaded tourist trap eateries that churn out industrial frozen fare by looking out for this tiny icon (or the words fait maison, or even just maison) all of which mean homemade. The icon is a promise that everything is not only made in-house, but using locally sourced fresh ingredients.
The Thumb: American’s hold up their index finger to signal ‘one’, but in Europe they count the thumb, so that same gesture means ‘two’. This mixed message causes much confusion, from asking for a ‘table for one’ while making the sign for two, to ordering 2 coffees and the waiter bringing 3.
Getting the waiter’s attention: No matter how many times you’ve seen it in the movies, nobody snaps their fingers and says “Garçon!”, it’s the equivalent of “Boy!” Better to flag him down with, “Si’l vous plait? Monsieur?”
Ordering an aperitif: This is the first thing your waiter will ask… do you want a before-dinner drink? Just know that a regular cocktail (scotch and soda, gin and tonic) is shockingly expensive here (you pay twice: once for the pricey shot and then separately for the mixer!); locals will more often order a less expensive kir, glass of rosé, beer, or martini… which, by the way, is Martini-and-Rossi, a fortified sweet wine (white or red) served on ice. American-style martinis (un martini Americain) are only served in high-end hotels.
Water (and ice): If you just ask for water they will bring you pricey bottled water; the code word for tap-water (which is perfectly drinkable) is “une carafe d’eau”. Oh, and ice is not automatic, you generally have to ask for it (“…avec des glaçons”), and even then you will only get two cubes!
Wine: In the South of France, locals drink almost exclusively red or rosé, and almost never drink white unless it’s a really nice bottle. If you were going to order white, go local and try a rosé from Provence instead.
Menu confusion: To see the menu ask for ‘la carte, s’il vous plait’; the ‘menu’ is a low-price set-course meal, so if you ask straight away for ‘the menu’ the waiter will think that you don’t even want to see what they have, and are only interested in the cheap tourist meal, getting you off to a bad start.
Ordering: The next common miscommunication stems from the word ‘entrée’, which means appetizer in French, but main course in American English. If you order an appetizer and then say, “…and for my entrée I’ll have the duck,” it will really confuse things. Better to say main course, or “plat“. Here are a few other common menu surprises…
- ‘Pate’ (pronounced ‘pat‘) means pasta, not pâté
- An ‘escalope’ refers to a veal scallop, not sea scallops (which are noix de saint-jacques or coquilles de saint-jacques)
- Ris de veau will get you sweetbreads, not veal with rice
- Filet mignon is a tender cut of pork, not beef
Big tip for Americans: order your meat one degree above what you would order in the US; for example, if you like your steak medium-rare back home, order it medium in France. If you don’t specify, it will come out very pink, and this goes for hamburgers, too.
- The French word for rare is ‘bleu’ … for Americans = raw
- Medium-rare is ‘saignant’ (which means bloody) for Americans = rare
- Medium is ‘à point’ (means just right) for Americans = medium-rare
- Well-done is ‘bien-cuit’ for Americans = medium
- Really well-done is ‘carbonnisée (burnt to a crisp) …for Americans = well-done
Bread and butter: Just so you know, bread only comes with butter at breakfast, so if you want it at lunch or dinner you usually have to ask for it. And only in fine restaurants do you find a bread plate; locals put their bread on the tablecloth!
Fingers vs Forks… In restaurants, pizza is usually eaten with a fork, as are French fries, chicken drumsticks… I’ve even seen a Frenchman eat a cheeseburger with a knife and fork! Mussels, on the other hand, are eaten using an empty shell as if it were tongs.
When ‘thank you’ means ‘no’: If you are asked if you want more wine, bread, etc., know that in French “merci” can be short for “no thank you,” and does not mean, “yes, thank you,” as in the US and UK.
Hands in your lap…or not: Forget what mother taught you: polite French diners keep their wrists on the table… and definitely not in their lap! Hands in the lap implies, and I’m not kidding, that you are doing something…er, improper under there! I fell down laughing when I first heard this, thinking is was one of those “only in France” kind of things… but it’s the same all over Europe as well as in South America… and they fall down laughing to see the prudish Americans in restaurants with their hands in their laps!
Done! To get the waiter to remove your plate, the signal is to put your knife and fork together across the plate. Otherwise, if there is any food on it at all, they will wait, assuming that, bien sur, you plan to eventually mop up that wonderful sauce with your bread, as one does.
Doggy bags: There is no custom of doggy-bags in France, but this is changing as the concept is being actively promoted by the government to combat waste. If you want to take that food home, lament to the waiter how much you wish you could eat it but just can’t, and really, really hate to just throw away such good food, and maybe… is it possible to get le doggie bag?
Dessert and coffee: In France, these are two separate courses, and even if you ask for them to come at the same time, the waiter will just assume he misheard you. The one exception to this is the ‘Cafe Gourmand’: an espresso served on a tray with 3 mini-desserts.
If you just say ‘yes’ when you waiter asks if you want coffee, you will get a small strong espresso; specify a café americain to get something closer to what you might be expecting, but since it won’t come with milk on the side (done only at breakfast, like the butter…), if you want American coffee with milk, order a café crème … got it?
Getting the check: You’re getting annoyed that your waiter seems to have forgotten you, but it is actually intentional… a very nice courtesy to insure that you never feel rushed. You will have to ask for the check (“l’addition, s’il vous plait”) or it will never come.
Tipping: All restaurant prices are “service compris” — they include the tax and the tip — however it is nice to leave a couple extra coins on the table, maybe 2-3%, but it is not expected (unless the restaurant is tourist-based), especially if you pay with a card. European credit card processing doesn’t provide for leaving a tip, so if you have a few coins with you, great, but if you don’t, don’t stress.
Photos credits: martinis by JPS68, rosé by Jeremy Atkinson, steaks by Glane23, espresso by cyclonebill, and tipping by imelenchon. Photos licensed under creative commons. Mr Bean: Steak Tartare from The Return of The Return of Mr. Bean.
Related Pages with more tips on Getting by in France:
- How to Café like a pro
- Tips for Shopping like a local
- French Grocery store tips
- Dealing with French Public Restrooms
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