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French Restaurant Etiquette: Dining in France Like a Local

TheCarol

Dining in a restaurant in France is pretty much the same as in the US, or is it? Looks can be deceiving. In fact, eating out in France is quite different from the typical North American restaurant experience.

I often relive with humor a French family vacation filled with my family showing up for dinner at 7 pm famished (an ungodly late hour for a family used to eating at 5 pm) to find restaurants not yet open or the employees dining before their shift. I also remember often being the last to leave even though we were the first to arrive as we could not figure out how to get the check and pay (despite putting on coats, stacking plates and brandishing credit cards).

Bonnaf

In France, as opposed to the US, you can’t just show up to a restaurant at any hour of the day or night expecting to be served. Meals occur at particular times; outside those given hours, you will be loathe to find anything except unappealing brasseries, shriveled sandwiches, and fast food. To spare you the hassle of some of my early experiences, here are a few tips on French restaurant etiquette:

Hours – French restaurants mostly follow the following schedule:

  • Breakfast is not often eaten out in France (a quick coffee and croissant at the local café will do)
  • Brunch is becoming more popular in Paris. Normal brunch hours are 11am-3pm.
  • Lunch is 12-2pm with most Frenchies showing up at 1 (some restaurants serve till 3).
  • Dinner is 8-10 pm. Some restaurants open at 7:30 and some serve until 11 pm or later.
BurgTender

Ordering – In France, diners don’t always order their entire meal at once. Instead, the waiter will often go around taking appetizer orders first, then go around again for the main course. Only after all food orders have been taken will drinks be ordered. Note: Aperitif orders will be taken upon arrival.

Coffee – Coffee is never ever served with dessert — it is always served after dessert, at the very end of the meal. You can try to get coffee and dessert at once. Good luck. Note: New trend Café gourmand –  a coffee and a few small pastries. This just might be the ideal solution!

Cafe Gourmand – Erica Berman

Liquid levels -– The French only fill the glass half way. A full glass is simply bad manners.

Refills – To the French it does not make sense to put more liquid in a glass that is not almost empty. If you are not yet finished with what you are drinking, why add more?

Erica Berman

Silverware and Glasses – These are placed in a similar yet subtly different order to the way we place them in North America. The glasses in France go on the left, whereas in the US it is the right. In the US knives face out and in France they face in. In France, if you find a small spoon and small knife  placed above your plate, it means you are all set for cheese and dessert!

Tipping – In France, tipping is a tricky thing. It is not required, but it is greatly appreciated. If you are happy with the service, a token amount of 1€ to 5% of the meal price, depending on the quality of the restaurant, might be in order.

Erica Berman

Napkins – Some French will immediately put their napkin on their lap, and some will not. After all these years, I still have not quite figured it out. I have come to understand that is has nothing to do with class or education, and (unlike the U.S.) you will not be poorly looked upon for not placing a napkin on your knees immediately.

Changes to the menu – What you see is what you get.  The French will not change your dish by adding things in, taking things out or asking for things that are not on the menu.  This could be the single most important difference between North American and French dining etiquette. The French chef has prepared this dish for you with love and put a lot of thought into the end product. The flavors all make sense together. You cannot make any changes without truly vexing the chef, the server and subsequently all of the Frenchies with whom you are dining. In the US the client is king, but in France the chef commands. It’s a hard point to grasp, and despite what the French will argue, I can see both sides of this dilemma.

Erica Berman

Doggy Bags – When I arrived in France many a year ago, Doggy Bags were taboo. Things have not changed much since. Doggy bag is a word to whisper among friends and ask for only if you are prepared to face scorn and rejection (NOTE: Ethnic restaurants seem to be much more open to the concept).

I am still not quite certain what it this is all about and I admit that I just do not understand. Throwing away perfectly yummy food upsets me greatly. (If the restaurant doesn’t have anything to wrap the food for you, you could try to ask for aluminum foil. Even better, bring Tupperware) Insist, and don’t be shy or embarrassed even when your waiter, and your friends, look at you like you are slightly nuts for wanting to enjoy that amazing blanquette de veau – tomorrow!

Hands on the table – For the French it is important to see your hands at all times. Otherwise, who knows what you might be doing with them?

Erica Berman

Ca va? Ca c’est bien passé? – If your waiter asks if all is OK they usually don’t really care. From what I can tell asking is a formality for which you are to reply “oui ca va,” but if things are not OK it’s not usually worth mentioning as the waiter probably will not do anything to rectify the problem.

Little Brown Pen

Leaving and paying – This is not as easy as it might seem. As the concept of tipping is not a necessity, there is less pressure for quick table turnover. In France you may enjoy your meal as long as you wish — your waiter will not want to hurry you out. When you are ready for the check, don’t be shy. Ask. If you are not successful, stand, go to the front of the restaurant and if you are really desperate, make as if you are leaving. Strangely, the check will appear!

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Written by Erica Berman for the Hip Paris Blog. For our amazing rentals in Paris, Provence & Tuscany check out our website Haven in Paris.

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Written by Erica Berman

Erica BermanErica Berman grew up in Lexington,Mass. After graduating from Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Journalism and an intensive summer at Middlebury College (Vermont), Erica came to Paris with hopes of submerging herself in French culture and perfecting her French -- and she never left. Erica is the founder and owner of Haven in Paris and the blog HiP Paris. She now splits her time between Paris (Montmartre), Maine (Damariscotta), Massachusetts (Lexington) and Italy (Genova). In her all-too-rare free time, Erica likes to travel off the beaten track, explore Paris, read, take photos, cook, ski, hike and enjoy long Sunday brunches with her friends.

Website: Erica Berman

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Posted in Parisian Living | 33 Comments »

33 Responses to “French Restaurant Etiquette: Dining in France Like a Local”

  • Dan says:

    I am travelling to France in the upcoming summer and this etiquette would help me a lot, although I don’t think I will have time to think about it.

  • cinthia says:

    pues en realidad me sirvio de mucho la informacion ya que pude saber como sirven en los restaurantes.

  • Kiki says:

    Erica, I only just found this post but probably wasn’t subscribed at that time anyway.
    I do agree with some of your points and disagree with others.
    Disagree: The order of ordering; In over three years of eating out in France we have never ever been asked for only one course at the time, it was always the starter and main course together – but never the dessert EXCEPT when it says on the menu that they need extra time to prepare it.
    ‘Ca c’est bien passé?’ – Usually, the waiters DO care about your reply. I even give a feedback when I am not asked – and have been known to speak to the cooks about a particularly pleasant and wonderful experience. Cooks are people too, with pride, feelings, having a good or maybe a bad day – and like any home cook deserve a word of praise.
    Today I went to a modest but buzzing resto in my town. When paying I said that today’s menu gets a toque from me for ‘quality for money’… the owner was very pleased and cracked her first smile of the day (at 1.30h!)!
    Doggie bags: Most definitely not a good thing to ask in France, and again I have a BUT… Last week I had such a yummy and huge dessert (a millefeuille of gargantuesque size and millions of lovely calories), so I asked the waiter what we could do about the half I couldn’t possibly eat after a already wonderful menu! He asked me with a grin if I had brought my ‘tupper ware’ – I thought he just didn’t know about the term ‘doggie bag’… He did however and after a bit of a banter he came back and had my millefeuille wrapped up like a perfect large Christmas cracker…. It’s all about talking, smiling, asking and then thanking.
    Paying: It’s funny the question has never occurred to me, although it’s true that I’ve never ever waited for a bill anywhere but in France. When we are well and truly ready to leave and can’t get the waiter to do the sums, we just go to the bar and announce our willingness to pay. Works a treat, no fuss, no bother and you can leave your small extra tip there too.
    DO give it in cash; or else it goes in the ‘pool’ and might never be distributed to the person who gave you a good service.
    For an espresso I give 20c, for a meal alone €1 and when we’re ‘dining’ we give a bit more – but never overdo it. It’s – after all – YOUR appreciation of the waiter’s service.

  • Hi Carol. Awww I am going to miss you. I won’t be in Damariscotta until October. I am jealous you will be there for the fabulous summer weather. I am excited to be there for fall though. I guess you can’t have it all. -Erica

  • parisbreakfast says:

    Love all this vital info!
    When are you in Damarascotta?
    Wanna get a doggie bag?
    I’ll be in Owl’s Head/Rockland the 3rd week in July.
    merci
    Carolg

  • Suzanne says:

    Thanks for the tips on eating out ettiquette in France!

  • I love the logic behind refills. Makes sense! :)

  • [...] Dine in France like a local [...]

  • Sweet Freak says:

    Like everything else in France, eating out is an art. This is a brilliant ‘cheat sheet’ to help us poor American schelps!

  • Venus says:

    I’ve spent a few summers in France and yet I’d never realized that the French never fill up a glass all the way! How intriguing that that’s considered to be bad mannered.

    Thanks so much for your helpful tips! I’ll keep them in mind the next time I’m back!

  • About the tipping, it’s the French that are starting to leave money.

    There is something else I forgot to mention, albeit rare, but at some restaurants at the bottom of your bill, it will say “Tips not included” in English and pre-printed no less. We went to a restaurant in the 3eme, pretty well known. My partner and I speak French albeit with accents, but our friends did not and clearly you could tell they were Americans. So, we got that bill with “tips not included”, needless to say we were pissed off and left “zero” although I had originally planned on leaving something since the service was exceptional. As I was walking to the restroom, I peeked at some of the bills the French patrons got, guess what, they had no such statement. Fact is Service by law is always included in the bill. So, it’s semantics.

  • Yes, it was great to meet you and the PBM event was fabulous… Hope to see you soon….

    biz…
    randy

  • It is true with kids France is challenging. There are a number of places in Paris that are open, but it is still limited. And you are right, it is always steak/frites. Aie!

  • Hello! Umm I don’t know that people usually get sick from doggy bags unless they do not put them in the fridge. But thanks so much for your insight on this. I appreciate hearing it.

  • The other day I ordered chicken that came out uncooked (after 45 minutes) when I sent it back I got the famous eye roll. Service is not always high priority here. And this was a pretty decent restaurant. Ugh! Thanks Lindsey. – Erica

  • Thanks for the tip Tanya. So simple and effective. – Erica

  • Hi Sandy, The French much really love the foreigners who leave big tips. So at least you were helping our reputation with them!

  • Hi Allyn, It is great not to be hurried out as in other countries. You can enjoy a leisurely meal! – Erica

  • Hi Randy, nice to meet you on Sunday and thanks for your reply to my post. You are right I have noticed that some restaurants are doing 2 seatings. A new dining experience in Paris!! And yes, for the napkin you are right on. They just crumple it on the table. As to tipping are the Frenchies leaving more tips or just the foreigners?

  • Good article. There’s a couple of things I’ve noticed that’s happening in Paris, “staggered” dining (turning tables) is slowly being introduced. We’ve actually been asked would you like the 7 pm seating or 10 pm seating? Secondly, tipping is actually becoming more and more common especially among the young. When we first moved here I never saw tips being left at “average” neighborhood restaurants. Today, I see them leaving 5-10€. In the US it is polite to fold your napkin before leaving, here, it’s OK to gather it (not folded) and neatly place it to the right of your plates. Silverware is placed from 10 am to 4 pm side-by-side on a plate with the tines of the fork facing down to let the wait-person know you’re finished. And, lastly, as for doggie bags, it depends where. It happens more often than not in the 3eme.

  • Allyn says:

    Great tips! Thanks. I love that you can stay as long as you’d like in French restaurants :)

  • sandyb says:

    I’ve rented an apartment in the Marais for a month and loving it… although I’ve been leaving rather large tips (for Paris) all over the place – between 15 and 20% !!! Only recently learned from my landlord that this is nor customary nor expected. Mon dieu!

  • Here is what I am doing with my under-the-table hands: I am slipping my leftovers into a ziplock bag and then into my purse:

    http://class-factotum.blogspot.com/2010/11/paris-15-le-prochaine-fois.html

  • Yvonne says:

    Hi,

    On the question of doggy bags, a French friend once gave me a fairly stern lecture when I suggested we could take a doggy bag if we couldn’t finish the meal and the explanation given was as follows: what you’re paying for and enjoying in the restaurant is not simply the meal but also the service, the atmosphere, le decor and the other customers around you so to ask to take some of the meal home is an insult because the food won’t be the same when you’re eating it on your own in your home without these other dining ‘ingredients’.

    I understand her perspective in light of the French’s love of the dining experience but I also wouldn’t want to waste something I can’t finish – although I’m more likely to only ask for a doggy bag in a more informal cafe setting as i think it’s rude in a restaurant.

    Yvonne
    Scotland

  • Tanya says:

    To speed up the departure process here’s one tip I learned from my husband: when ordering you last course ask for the bill at the same time. This seems to work.

    Great post! I have friends who will be visiting Paris for the first time and these tips will be just what they need.

  • Thank you for the fantasy.

  • Meg says:

    This is funny. A few parts I wouldn’t call “normal”, but still fun. I agree with Karine- I’ve never ordered in rounds, I actually found it difficult to have to choose everything at the beginning! But hey, different experiences everywhere. Clever outlook, and the hours thing is so true- there’s nothing like arriving and having the French tell you you can’t order something in particular.

    I always love to embarrass my French boyfriend by asking for the leftovers of my food to go – even if that means wrapping it in foil. REPRESENT.

    Great photos as well, thanks for the share!

  • Lindsey says:

    So true about the -”ca s’est bien passé?”! I was out to dinner with friends recently and one of my friends ordered a salad that was drenched in dressing and not exactly as described on the menu. When the waiter asked how everything was, she told him the truth and he simply rolled his eyes and said “ben, c’est comme ca”. I’d say your rule is wise unless it’s a really really nice place and there’s something really wrong with the order/service.

  • CrazyWaiter says:

    We are more reluctant to give food in doggy bags for hygiene reasons. There’s a question of irresponsibility when you get sick of the food after taking out

    In a lot of restaurants you get the bill with the coffee or after you said that you don’t want coffee.

  • cocopuff1212 says:

    Yep, this late-night thing is probably the biggest reason why we don’t eat out much in France. When you have kids, dinner at 8pm is simply too late.

    Oh, and their children’s menu! Steak hache and fries. Everywhere. Nothing else. I don’t get that, either, since this is a country of such fine foods.

    I do, however, appreciate how we are never, ever rushed to finish our meal and leave the table.

  • Hi, I really like your blog that I have discovered not so long ago. I am a parisian but I have now been living in Africa for 6 years and Paris is now synonym of vacations for me.
    I would just like to offer a little perspective on your post. It is mostly true but…:
    ordering & coffe – I have never ordered in rounds. Of course aperitif orders are taken on arrival. they you order starters, main course and liquids (pretty logic as you only know what to drink once you have chosen food – especially true to find correct combination of food and wine). After main course you oorder dessert. It is very rare to order dessert from the begining. I have only seen that in fancy restaurants where a preparation time is needed for some desserts. You can order coffee with your dessert… just ask, it usually works.

    Tipping – many years ago (I remmember I was still a kid), tip was not included. But the law was changed and a service charge was now included in the bill. so re-tipping is not excepted (of course most waiters expect it though).

    Changes – it the recipe allows it, changes are done without too much annoyance by the chef…

    Doggy bags: portings in French restaurants are usually smallers than in restaurants in the US so there was never any questioning about the use of doggy bags. I tend to finish more often my plate in France than in the US.

    Ca va? Ca c’est bien passé? I have not really noticed that the US waiters were more concerned than the French ones on the question….

    Leaving and paying- Japanese restaurant are usually pretty happy to present you the bill when you still have food in your mouth but in a more traditional French restaurant when you ask for the bill it usually comes fairly fast… concerning your change, I think it usually comes a lot slower… i wonder why ;)

    best,
    Karine

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