Ice is rarely given, although if you’re lucky, you may get a cube. Asking for a lot of ice will generally means an extra cube.
Wine by the carafe is normally good and inexpensive in Paris. Unlike in the US, the wine in the carafe is usually of good quality, which is why many French people order carafes. Check the blackboard to see what the wine of the moment or month might be, which is usually a good value. When in doubt, ordering Côte du Rhône is reliably good red wine. For white wine, Sancerre is a good choice.
If you order two appetizers, or a bowl of soup for a main course, the waiter may be taken aback. Don’t take it as an insult; it’s just not done in restaurants (it’s something you could do in a café without raising eyebrows). Proper dining in France is taken seriously, but if you’d rather eat lightly, just explain to the waiter you’ve had so many delicious pastries that day, you need something lighter. That, my friends, they’ll understand.
Meat and Fish
Ordering meat rare, or bleu means that you like nearly raw meat, hardly cooked, which is how many French people eat beef. Saignante is rare, à point (to the point) is medium-rare, and bien cuit or semelle (shoe leather) is well-done—or as we say in the restaurant business, “at your own risk”. If you like your steak well-done, due to the high quality of the beef, a restaurant that specializes in beef may not allow you to order it that was so don’t be surprised if they refuse to cook it that way.
Cuts of meat in France don’t correspond to most cuts of meat in America (and elsewhere) due to different methods of butchering. And the varieties of fish available often aren’t available in other countries and are called by their French name, naturally. Waiters sometimes know the translation – but not always – so if you’re very concerned about which cut of meat is which (or which fish is which) when you dine out, you may want to get a French Menu Translation Guide.
Oh-la-la! Everyone wants a buttery croissant in Paris – and why not? Just be sure to ask for a croissant au beurre, which is made with pure butter, rather than a croissant ordinaire, made with other fats. Pure-butter croissants are long and straight, whereas the ones made with other fats are usually very curved. Note that some bakeries do not actually make their croissants on the premises (mon dieu!) – butter or otherwise; they buy the pre-formed croissants and bake them in their ovens. A very good bakery will make them from scratch. And, of course, those are always worth seeking out.
Lunch and Dinner Hours
Many folks want to dine in non-touristed restaurants, surrounded by “locals”. If you want to eat amongst Parisians, opt for the later seating. Few in Paris eat dinner before 8pm and most will reserve at table for later than that, especially on weekends. Some of the more popular restaurants in Paris now have early seatings to accommodate out-of-towners, and it’s often easier to obtain reservations for the earlier seatings as locals prefer to dine later.
Lunch starts in most restaurants at noon or 12:30, and places start filling up at 1pm. Tip: If you go to a café and just want coffee, don’t sit at tables set up with silverware and glasses; those are for diners.
Don’t assume your waiter is rude just because he doesn’t introduce himself by name and tell you his life story and rush over to refill your water after each sip. Unlike American restaurants with large staffs, restaurants in Paris often only have one or two people serving an entire dining room with no busboys. They are really busy! And when they have to deal with English speakers or people figuring out menus, that slows down their entire process. Don’t think they’re necessarily impolite. Realize that dining in France is important so relax and enjoy your meal.
If you’re not a native French speaker, if you get sat in an area with other non-French speakers, often it’s because one server speaks English, so they will seat you in his or her section. So don’t feel like you’re being treated differently, although sometimes foreigners – especially larger parties – because of the noise level.
You are also considered a guest in France when you go to a restaurant, not just a customer. So you should act like you’re in someone’s home, and being demanding or bossy won’t get you very far. If you have a special request, asking nicely and apologizing is your best bet. It’s not being obsequious, it’s normal. Special requests and food allergies seem to be rare in France and they’re simply not used to adjusting menus for special dietary preferences. But although it’s not common, you can certainly ask.
There is a perception the French are rude which is probably because you never come across anyone rude in America. In Paris, it’s imperative to say ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ when entering a shop or restaurant, and ‘Merci Madame/Monsieur’ when leaving. There is an equally incorrect perception that Americans are impolite since they don’t acknowledge the salesclerks in their shops, which is like being invited into someone’s home and stepping inside without saying hello.
Bread and Butter
Only in fine dining rooms will you be given a bread plate. Normally you place your bread on the tabletop, not on your plate. Butter is rarely served with bread, but it’s usually okay to ask for it. This may answer your question, “How do the French stay so thin?”
Once you place your order in a restaurant, I advise not making any changes, which disrupts the flow of things. For some reason, once that ticket is submitted to the kitchen, you’re pretty much committed to what you’ve ordered.
At least once, you will order some unimaginable organ by mistake. When it happens to me I think of it as an instant French lesson. You will also probably get served a steak that’s not cooked exactly the way you expect it, fish will be served with the head on and bones in (taking them out before cooking dries the fish out, they rightly say), and other foibles. If something is obviously wrong, like your ordered a rare steak in a nice restaurant and it comes out gray inside, or the soup or cheese is ice-cold, you should bring it to the attention of the waiter. In lower-priced restaurants and cafés, you should keep your expectations equally modest, though.
Talking vs. Shouting
Americans talk LOUDLY. If you don’t believe it, watch cable television “news” for a few minutes. It’s gotten so that restaurant reviews in the United States now include ‘sound’ ratings to denote the volume in restaurants. Many of us are used to speaking loudly, especially when we get into groups. If you’ve ever tried to have a peaceful dinner next to a table celebrating their annual office party, you know what I’m talking about. In Paris, people will modulate their voices so as not to disturb other diners; keeping your voice down will endear you to the locals much better.
Except during the morning hours, each time you order café, you will be served a small cup of dark, espresso-like coffee. If you want coffee with milk, when ordering ask for a café crème, not after they bring it. You may get a funny look if you ask for a café au lait, which is coffee with milk served in a bowl, always at home, for breakfast. Café noisette is an espresso with a touch of milk.
No one will automatically bring milk with coffee. If you don’t understand why, assume it’s the same reason that McDonald’s in the United States don’t serve red wine. If you want milk with your coffee, you need to specify each time to each waiter in each restaurant. There’s no master-file on how each visitor to France takes their coffee. (Although come to think of it, with the famous French bureaucracy and staggering paperwork, perhaps they’d be willing to take that on.)
Here’s a list of my recommended places for drinking coffee in Paris.
After dining, you’ll need to ask for the check when you want it, called ‘l’addition’ (le-add-iss-eee-on)—it’s considered very impolite to give a guest the check before they’ve asked for it. If you’re pressed for time or having trouble getting the server’s attention, in casual places, it’s acceptable to go to the bar to pay.
Tips are always included in the amount shown on the check. In Paris, it’s fine to round-up in smaller restaurants, such as if the check is 19€, it’s normal to leave 1€ or so extra if you get very good service, but never required. In general, it’s acceptable to leave up to 5% extra for very attentive service. But some Parisians get upset that Americans leave generous tips, rightfully fearing it will lead to future earnings expectations.
If I could tell visitors to Paris one thing that’ll improve their dining experience, it’s to chill out. Yes, you might get some odd sausage instead of the soup you were expecting, or the steak may be cooked a bit more than you’re used to. (And the tables will to too close together, the service may be pokey, and you’ll have to ask at least twice for water.) But dining in France is not meant to be rushed and you don’t travel to experience things to be like back home, do you?
So take advantage of the leisurely service, inexpensive wine, and multiple courses and relax and enjoy yourself.
As of January 1, 2008, all restaurants, bars, and cafés in France are non-smoking. Smoking is allowed only outdoors. Unfortunately a large number of Parisians smoke so if you go to a café or restaurant and dine outside, there will likely be smokers at nearby tables. If you have an aversion to smoke, you might want to eat inside.
Restaurants and cafés are often not well-ventilated, which locals seem to prefer. (If you open a window, someone will rush over to close it because of a perception that drafts are bad for you, even in the heat of summer.) Air-conditioning is still a rarity as well: even if advertised, don’t expect the full-on blast of cold air you’d get elsewhere. If you are the type of person to get warm in unventilated places, dress in layers so you can remove a sweater or overshirt if it gets too warm for you.
Two Final Notes: One favorite travel tip is to scan your passport and store in a secure place online, such as in a cloud service. That way if you lose your passport, you can access a copy in case it’s lost or stolen.
And lastly, while Paris is a relatively safe city, there is a certain amount of petty crime. When dining out, avoid putting handbags on booths next to you (some folks get their wallets lifted by diners who come in, sit down, the abruptly leave), or leaving them on the floor or hanging off your chair. If dining in an unfamiliar area at night, have the restaurant call you a taxi home. And avoid using your smartphone or other devices on public transit as they are too-often swiped from users.
Reprinted from My Paris Website by David Lebovitz.