June 20, 2011
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
- Erica let’s you know just how to eat at home with the Frenchies
- Heather Stimmler-Hall has more tips on dining etiquette in France
- Here are some more tips on French manners…
- And a few more general cultural tips from Lindsey (Lost in Cheeseland)
Written by Erica Berman
Erica 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