Dining In A Paris Restaurant: Avoid A Faux Pas
by J’Nisha Towne
I can still remember the flight from London to Paris. Sleep had eluded me for hours, leaving me to fantasize about pain au chocolat and cobblestone streets, warm milky café au laits, and buttery brioches to pair. “I will ‘oui’ this and ‘s’il vous plaît’ that” I planned, “’ooooo’ at the women’s stilettos and ‘mmm’ at their men.” What I had not prepared for was the common courtesies in eating, speaking, and minding one’s manners in France- all of which left me with a hole in my pocket and going hungry for days (so this is why the French stay skinny…). Steer clear from the faux pas of France with this advice. You’ll look like a local and leave with an appreciation for French food and fine people.
Early To Rise
Meander to a local cafe around 6:00 am when the boulangeries are open for le petit déjeuner . Although heavy laden plates of eggs and bacon are not on the menu for an all-consuming and slightly sedative start to the day, an assortment of tartines, thick slices of French bread, or croissants paired with butter or jam are available for one to two euros apiece.
Stop by a creperie and grab a crepe. A crêpe is a thin pancake fried in butter and sweetly speckled with sugar crystals. Because crepes are common for breakfast or dessert, a mug of warm, spiced cider is a popular accompaniment. Hungrier than that? Opt for a galette, an unsweetened form of crêpe made with buckwheat flour and filled with savory ingredients such as cheese, asparagus, ham, spinach, eggs, and mushrooms.
Mind The Times
During the afternoons, when museums and shops are closed, cafés are open. If you insist on standing in line at the Musée du Louvre during the hours of 11:30 am and 2:00 pm, bring a snack with you until doors re-open for dinner at 8:00 pm. Just don’t get caught eating in the street – food on-the-go is a French no-no!
Dinner is the event of the evening in France. The table is yours for the night and courses will arrive slowly without rush or demand so expect a long, leisurely dining experience. Posted in every French restaurant is a table d’hôte with an appetizer, main dish, and choice of either dessert or cheese tray. Do not expect to see your server on a frequent basis or find the bill resting underneath your plate when you return from the bathroom. The experience of dining is what the French revere as a night out and should be enjoyed.
Learn The Lingo
If in need of your waiter, abstain from the use of garçon– an offensive term. You will be wearing your bread and smelling of moldy cheese. Use sir, monsieur, or madame, while raising your hand to get the attention of your server. When you are ready to pay, ask politely for “l’addition, s’il vous plait” as handing over the bill before the customer asks is considered impolite. Lastly, “merci pour le diner“; you will leave quite the impression!
To Tip Or Not
Waiting tables is a profession for many French. Tipping, although not as commonly practiced in France as in the United States, remains a gesture of appreciation toward your waiter. A 15% service compris will be added to your bill, but does not necessarily go to the waiters. By law, the restaurant owner can pocket the extra cash so have cash (or coins) on hand. Attentive server? Tip an euro or two. Forgot the face of your waiter as well as that second drink you ordered? Smile upon leaving. An extra tip ranging between five and ten percent is given if the customer is satisfied with the service.
Mind Your Manners
Keep those elbows off the table, though hands are an exception to the rule. When eating bread, tear off bite-sized pieces with your hands, not your teeth and avoid believing the entire bread basket is yours to eat. Use your utensils to cut small portions and avoid using your fingers even when eating pommes frites. Recognize that condiments (namely mayonnaise, cheese, and brown gravy) do not occupy half the plate as they commonly do in the US. Doggie bags are not an option so eat well, eat slowly, and turn off your phone.
Avoid the wide eyed what-is-that? look when gazing at a dish of frogs or baked pigeon. This is an opportunity to broaden your tastes and attempt an appetizer of savory blood sausage, steak tartare, or pan-fried foie gras. Order a savory dish of rabbit with prunes or deer stew for an entrée and experiment with additions of escargot, and raw sea urchins. Desserts are just as important as the entrée so lavish your taste buds on creamy éclairs or a selection of cheese samples accompanied by a sweet white Sauternes wine.
Save A Buck
If you want to save a euro for, say, drinks with the French stranger you met on the bridge, inquire upon their menu a la carte. You can choose to pay per individual item instead of succumbing to the 10-25 euros for a fixed menu. If not splurging on a fine white or red wine, ask for un carafe d’eau unless you wish to pay top dollar for a bottle of water. Need a quick meal instead? Stop by a brasserie, a casual French restaurant designed with a relaxed setting and option of single dishes for purchase.
Follow The Crowd
Looking for the crème de la crème of patisseries? Find the longest line. Local patisseries or boulangeries selling the finest of bread, cheese, and crêpes are worthy upon their waiting list. So whether you’re standing in line at the Musée du Louvre or boulangerie, make it worth your wait…and follow the crowd!
French Dining Glossary
pain au chocolat – chocolate filled pastry
faux pas – false step, or misstep
le petit déjeuner – breakfast, literally ‘little lunch’
boulangerie – bakery
l’addition – the check
merci pour le diner – thank you for the meal
pommes frites – french fries
carafe d’eau – pitcher of tap water
garçon – boy, young male waiter
table d’hôte – fixed price menu
menu a la carte – according to the menu
Photo credit: Daquella manera, graphiclunarkid/flickr