Dining in Paris (artistfriendship)

Sometimes, I’m still intimidated by Paris. If the city were a person, it would probably be your elegant-but-somewhat-terrifying grandmother. She’ll help you become more refined, but might also scare the heck out of you in the process.

This is especially true at mealtime, and when dining out in Paris, you’ll notice there’s an unspoken code that helps to keep order. If you haven’t quite cracked it yet, don’t be dismayed. Here are a few rules to get you started

Café seating and le tip (Dan Strange, Leo Reynolds)

Where to sit. At many cafes and brasseries, seating is a bit of a free-for-all, but there’s no need to feel like a deer in the headlights. Just walk in and greet the host (or whomever seems to be running things). This person should give you an indication of whether you should wait to be seated or whether you can “install yourself” (installez-vous) anywhere.

Dress for success. Super fancy three-star restaurants aside, most eateries in Paris are “casual.” Nonetheless, the French still manage to make casual look cool, neat and discreet. Therefore, ditch the athletic gear, sweatpants, and baseball hats. And when in doubt, layer.

L’addition s’il vous plaît! (Alex S.)

Talk softly. There’s an unspoken agreement among French diners that if everyone chats quietly, no one will need to shout. (When they want to shout, they head to New York). When in Paris, respect the sound equilibrium and do your best to keep your conversation level low.

Respect the timetable. French kitchens run on a tight schedule. While some restaurants stay open throughout the day and night (look for a “service continu” sign), many others have explicit opening hours. Lunch is generally served from 12-2:30pm and dinner from 8-10pm. Plan to walk in during these times or, better yet, reserve in advance. Once you’re there, you can generally linger as long as you like.

Bringing the kids. If you’re worried about unanticipated mid-restaurant tantrums, don’t worry—the French have children too. Cafes and brasseries tend to be casual and kid-friendly, and many of them serve continually throughout the day, so you can walk in anytime without a reservation.

“Hey, I’m Jacques and I’ll be your server tonight” (palm_zbjacques)

Managing your server. Service in Paris ranges drastically from friendly and attentive to negligent and hostile. But in general, waiters are busy and they don’t waste time—yours or theirs—with small talk or unsolicited attention (there’s certainly no “Hey, I’m Jacques and I’ll be your server tonight…”). If you feel you’re being ignored, just wave your server over, or head to the bar to ask for what you need.

Tipping. It’s a perpetually confounding issue for foreigners, but keep in mind that waiters in France don’t “rely” on tips the way they do in other places. Gratuity is included in your bill, but if you’ve had particularly good service, you can leave a small tip (round up or leave a few extra Euros) to show your appreciation.

But most importantly, don’t get so caught up in the rules that you forget to enjoy Paris in all its gastronomic glory. We’ve all made a faux pas or two (or ten)—and managed to eat well just the same. So go forth and be bold!

Braving the cold to have a drink en terrasse (Raiadiff)

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Written by Tory Hoen for the HiP Paris blog. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.

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Tory Hoen

Tory Henwood Hoen has been published by New York Magazine, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Fortune, and others. She was Creative Director of Brand at M.M.LaFleur, where she founded the brand’s digital magazine, The M Dash. Her debut novel, The Arc, is available in bookshops near you and online.


  1. I was in France last Spring, I am of Spanish origin, the french where very unique, with the gentleness with which I was treated; In restaurants, shooping centers and activities, were very respectful. I adore them and dream of going to live in France some day. Bonne Journee, Anna

  2. Great Tip about the Talking Softly. That should be in Bold and Numero Uno on your list.
    Before I sit down in a lovely restaurant I make sure not to sit down next to my fellow Americans (sorry, but experience has proven its point). To hear about how grandma and gramps in the U.S. are looking after your plants while you’re in Paris, while I’m enjoying my amazing dinner is not what I’m paying for. Speak softly, or someone might hit you with a big stick. I would never do such a thing. A death stare yes, nothing more. LOL!

  3. Thank you so much for the tips! My husband and I are thinking of going to Paris this year, but we’ve never been there before. So this will help a lot. Now, if we could just read the french menu, things would be great. 🙂

  4. I think all these tips are great. The funny experience we have had is that when we tried to pour our own wine from the bottle at the table, the server ran over, basically shook her fingers at my husband and said, “no, my job.” It happened a couple of times.

    I am wondering if this is a typical experience?


  5. I could add: switch off your mobile phone. I had lunch with a (french) friend last week at lovely Saint Germain bistro, Les Editeurs. He put his i-phone on the table as he was expecting a call confirming a buisiness meeting that afternoon. The waiter came up and gently but firmly explained that he should swich it off and put it away – and didn’t leave until he did.

  6. I find that dinning in Paris is pretty laid back still, even in restaurants étoilés I find the atmosphere much, much, more relaxed than in most big North American cities.

    What’s most important it’s to enjoy oneself 🙂

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