After over 17 years of Frenchie living, I am largely used to the etiquette of dining chez les Francais – along with all of their implicitly understood rules and regulations.
A brunch with Parisian friends for which the first guest arrived 30 minutes after the announced time, and an 8 pm French dinner party invitation with food finally served at 10 pm, prompted the following list of tips for enjoying error-free dining in the land of berêts, baguettes and smelly cheese.
Les Faux Pas qu’il ne Faut pas faire (errors to avoid), a few pointers for socializing Chez les Francais with hopes of avoiding unnecessary uncomfortable moments.
Rule 1: Never, never, never arrive early. Not even one minute. This is highly unacceptable (and unheard of) behavior in France. Walk around the block a few times, have a café, do some lèche-vitrine (window shop), but do not ring that bell even one minute in advance.
Rule 2: Never arrive right on time either, except for a formal meal, or in a restaurant. Even for a sit- down meal, your host will expect you 5-10 minutes late. For a party, a casual brunch or cocktail, you will be expected 20-45 minutes past the specified time. Arriving on the dot might find your host not only not ready, but also not particularly overjoyed by your presence.
Rule 3: Always bring a little something for the host, be it a bottle of wine, a homemade goodie or a bouquet of flowers. Remember, showing up empty-handed is seriously frowned upon in France. Note: Do not bring gifts of soap or bouquets of mums. Soap makes your hostess feel like you are implying she doesn’t wash, and mums are brought to cemeteries to cover gravestones.
Rule 4: In France, à table (at the table), one does not speak of politics, money, or religion. One does not ask a French person their salary, their religious beliefs or who they voted for. This is the ultimate insult to a Frenchie!
Rule 5: You don’t have to help with dishes. In the U.S. it’s the norm, even rude, not to help your host clean up the mess. In France the logic is that you are the guest and you are there to relax. When you invite your friends over they will expect you to extend the same courtesy and will not offer to help you with any of the clean-up either. The first few times this happened in my apartment I was annoyed at the lack of help. Now, I appreciate being able to relax when dining out and letting my guests relax when they dine chez moi.
Rule 6: Eat what is on your plate. The French have low (up from no) tolerance for finicky eaters. It is very rude to decline what your host has prepared, and even ruder not to finish what is on your plate. NOTE: If you are a vegetarian or have a true food allergy don’t be shy. Your host just might be sympathetic.
Rule 7: Remain open-minded. Try everything. From blood sausage, steak tartare, pan-fried fois gras, rabbit w/prunes, baked pigeon and deer stew to escargot, raw sea urchins, fried oysters, frogs legs, tripe and andouillette, I have been there and tried that. These dishes are not found in my normal eating repertoire, and there may not be a second time for many of them, but I think my hosts appreciated the effort that went into my sampling of their fare. Not only will the French be impressed by your ability to reach out of your American comfort zone, you may just discover a new favorite.