Dining in France – Avoiding French Restaurant Pitfalls

Mr Bean in a restaurant

Here are a few restaurant tips to help the uninitiated sidestep this cultural and linguistic minefield!

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.  It’s a new trend that many restaurants are starting to offer two seatings, one at 7ish and one at 9ish, especially in small restaurants with limited capacity.

Home-made icon on chalkboardWhich restaurant?  Look for this tiny icon (or the words fait maison, or even just maison) all of which mean homemade, to avoid the dreaded tourist traps that churn out industrial frozen fare. The little icon is a promise that everything is not only made in-house, but using locally sourced fresh ingredients.

French Handwriting:  As you compare the chalkboard display menus, know that a French ‘1’ has a long tail, so looks like a ‘7’ to Americans…

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?”

2 French martinis

What the French call ‘martinis’

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 are un martini Américain.

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 have to ask for it with your water (“…avec des glaçons”), and even then you will only get a few cubes!  On the other hand, in the summer you might be surprised to get a glass full of ice cubes when you least expect it:  to drop into your white or rosé wine!

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 most 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 ‘starter’ and ‘main course’ or “plat“.   Here are a few other common menu surprises…

  • ‘Pate’ (pronounced ‘pat‘) means pasta, not pâté
  • Mesclun refers to a salad of local mixed-greens, and rocket is arugula
  • An ‘escalope’ refers to a veal scallop, not a sea scallop (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
  • Tagliata is an Italian thin-sliced rare steak, not tagliatelle pasta
  • Snackee or Snacked means flash fried

two big slabs of raw meatHow to order meat:

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, or when you are eating raw oysters(!), so if you want it at lunch or dinner you usually have to ask for it (and you will get a low-key weird look from the waiter).   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 knife and fork, as are French fries, chicken drumsticks… it’s even common to see 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:  Requesting le doggy bag used to be the fastest way to get shamed by your French waiter, but this has completely changed in the last few years after being promoted by the government to combat waste.  Now, it’s easy and accepted to get your food wrapped up, but best to ask to have it to take away  (“pour emporté”), which is far more polite than asking for le doggy bag, as that implies that you will be feeding their cuisine to your dog.

a cup of espressoDessert 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 ‘Café Gourmand’: an espresso served on a tray with 3 delicious 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 américain 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 au lait… 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 probably have to ask for the check (“l’addition, s’il vous plait”) or it may never come.

Tipping:  All restaurant prices are “service compris” — they include the tax and the tip — however it is increasingly common to leave a couple extra euros on the table, maybe 5-10% (especially if the restaurant is in a tourist town).  If you don’t have coins, you can add the tip to your credit card, but only if you tell the waiter before he runs your card: European credit card processing doesn’t provide for leaving a tip after the transaction has gone through.

Photos credits: martinis by JPS68, rosé by Jeremy Atkinson, steaks by Glane23, and  espresso by cyclonebill.  Photos licensed under creative commons.  Mr Bean: Steak Tartare from  Mr. Bean – The Whole Bean – Episode 2.

Related Pages with more tips on Getting by in France:

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