What You Need to Know about Dining Out in Paris
By Tom Reeves
The other day my wife and I arrived at Le Pré Verre, one of our favorite Parisian restaurants, at 7:20 p.m. and found the door locked. This was normal – many restaurants don’t unlock their doors before opening time.
As we didn’t have a reservation, we decided to wait near the door so that when the restaurant opened we could be the first inside to request a table.
As we waited, a group of six travelers from the United States arrived – we learned later that they were grandmothers and grandchildren on a Road Scholar “Intergenerational Adventure.” One grandchild stepped up to the restaurant door and gave it a gentle tug.
It didn’t open. The next grandchild stepped up to the door and gave it a stronger tug. It didn’t open. The third grandchild, the biggest of them all, stepped up to the door and prepared to give it the old heave-ho.
That’s when I decided that it was time to intervene, so I yelled out “The restaurant is closed!”
“What? The restaurant is closed?” a grandmother exclaimed.
“Yes,” I replied. “It opens in ten minutes.”
Her jaw dropped. “Ten minutes! We can’t wait ten minutes!”
And they didn’t. They walked away, dejected. It was too bad, too, because the restaurant serves delicious food at reasonable prices.
A Lesson to Be Learned
There is a lesson to be learned from their sad experience and it is this: dining customs, including restaurant opening times, are forcibly different in any foreign country, and it would be advantageous for travelers to make an effort to learn what the customs are before traveling there.
Here are some tips to help you prepare for an enjoyable dining experience in the City of Light.
How a Meal Progresses
• Most French restaurants open at 7:30 p.m. or later for the evening meal.
We always arrive when a restaurant first opens. The majority of customers begin arriving at 8:30 p.m. or later.
• The waiter usually asks if you want a before-dinner drink (un apéritif).
It is a good idea to determine whether you want a before-dinner drink before you enter the restaurant so that the question doesn’t take you by surprise. If you are dining on a tight budget, don’t order one.
• After you order (or decline) your apéritif, you’ll order your meal. Contrary to terminology used in the United States, the first course of a French meal is called the entrée. In the United States, the “entrée” is the main course. In France, the main course is called a plat.
• Wine is a complement to the food.
Wine is chosen as a complement to whatever dishes are ordered. This means that the courses are selected first, and the
wine second. If you don’t know which wines will best accompany the food that you have ordered, ask the waiter for a suggestion. He or she will not necessarily recommend the most expensive one on the menu.
• Waiters will generally serve pricy mineral water, unless you specifically request tap water.
If you want mineral water, specify still (plat) or sparkling (gazeuse). If you want free tap water, specify that you want a carafe of water (une carafe d’eau).
• Water is not served with ice.
Bottled water and carafes of water are usually kept in a refrigerator, so that they arrive at the table chilled. This is not always the case however, and sometimes water is served at room temperature.
• The French don’t serve butter with their bread.
Butter may be served with bread in high-priced restaurants, but rarely in mid- or lower-priced restaurants.
• Sliced bread is served in a basket.
The waiter will bring a basket of sliced bread to the table after you place your order.
• Your individual slice of bread belongs on the tablecloth, on the left-hand side of your plate.
Bread dishes are rarely supplied in mid- and lower-priced restaurants.
• Dessert is usually ordered after the main course is finished.
The waiter will return with the dessert menu after clearing the table of the dishes of the main course. An exception to this rule is when the dessert requires special preparation, such as a soufflé. In that case, the waiter will ask you to order the dessert at the time that you select the other courses.
• Coffee is taken after dessert.
The French do not drink coffee with their meal. Their preferred beverages are wine or water. After the meal, the waiter will ask if you want coffee. It will always be an espresso, served in a tiny cup.
• French chefs take special care to present food artfully.
In mid-priced restaurants and higher, the food will be presented in an artful manner on the plate.
• French waiters won’t fawn over you, asking every few minutes if everything is O.K.
They leave you alone to enjoy your meal. Take your time to relish the meal, the wine, and conversation with your dining companions.
• The waiter will not whisk your empty plate away while your dining companions are still eating their meal.
Whisking your plate away means that the restaurant manager wants to “turn the table” as quickly as possible, getting rid of you so that another paying customer can take your place. The French don’t do this.
End of the Meal
• Payment for the meal is made at the table, rarely at the cash desk.
After you have examined the bill (l’addition), signal to the waiter. He or she will come to the table to collect your cash or process your credit card payment with a portable payment terminal.
• Service is included in the bill, but the tip is not.
The price of a meal includes tax and service. If you want to tip the waiter, 5% of the bill is a fair amount. This cannot be included on the credit card, but is left in cash in the little dish or folder in which the waiter presented the bill.• In general, French restaurants don’t pack your unfinished meal for you to take home to eat later.
In the United States, meal portions are immense compared to the quantity of food served in most French restaurants. In France, most customers finish their meal without leaving food on the plate.
With a good grasp of these dining customs, a traveler to France will be well prepared for a delightful dining experience.
Bon voyage and bon appétit!
Confirmed Francophile Tom Reeves is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the author of two books: Paris Insights – An Anthology and Dining Out in Paris – What You Need to Know before You Get to the City of Light.
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