When I first moved to France and began visiting Paris on a near-monthly basis, I quickly learned (from observation and from the lessons my French hubby imparted on me) that I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to dining etiquette in France.
I did a lot of international travel for work and always made it a point to study a little bit about the culture I was visiting. France and the French people operate by an ancient set of codes – I’ve referred to this on many occasions, and if you are interested in them, you can read any book from authors Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow to learn more! But being a Francophile, I mainly wanted to do the right thing while dining in France, which is why I decided to write this little post with the things I have learned over the years in the hopes I can save you from awkward moments.
Food is an art, behaving in public as a science, and the combination of both can be a little intimidating. The French are not known for their customer service, and quite a few Americans have come home with ruffled feathers after a dining experience, which was a far cry from what they are used to.
Often, it comes down to cultural differences: in the U.S., the waiters are expected to be as present as possible to earn a good tip at the end of the meal. In France, they are here to facilitate your meal, guide you in your choices, and give you plenty of privacy to enjoy your food for as long as you want. No artificially cheerful teenagers breathing down your neck here and chitchatting about their next exam in the name of being “personable” here! Waiters are dignified professionals who make themselves as scarce as possible and won’t hesitate to put you back in your place if you step the line, knowingly or not.
Considering some of these dining tips will help you stay in their good graces. I have also thrown in some cultural nuances here, as well.
Dining times are later than in the U.S. Some restaurants may have a service at seven or 7:30, but most are at 8. If you want to eat earlier, you will need to go to a brasserie, which often offers non-stop service (service continu) from lunchtime until late into the night.
As it is often the case in Europe, men are supposed to walk in first to scout for potential dangers (such as a terrifying maître d’hôtel) and open the door for the helpless maidens.
Say hello! (This is rule #1 in France) In many places in Europe, stores and restaurants are not considered public space, but an extension of your hosts’ home – probably because, not that long ago, they actually were. Therefore, the same rules apply as if you were visiting someone’s house: make eye contact, greet the waiters or waitresses, and smile politely before you do anything else.
You may think that it is a cultural norm to show up late. After all, the French seem to have a pretty elastic notion of time. In fact, it is considered polite to show up 10 to 15 minutes late to a dinner party to give your host some time to add the finishing touches. However, there are no such things in restaurants, particularly the ones that are hard to get into. Be on time, or they will not hold your table for you. Call if you think you may be running late.
Unless you have a reservation or are eating in a fancier establishment where a reservation would be expected – in which case a waiter will likely jump out of nowhere to ask you if you have a reservation the second you step in – you can generally seat wherever you want. You can always ask a passing waiter “on peut s’asseoir?” (can we sit down?) if you are feeling unsure. Terraces are almost always on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Couples generally sit next to each other, and the waiter may pull a chair for the lady to sit. If you are part of a large group, the person who invites may indicate who is seating, alternating men and women if possible. It can lead to some awkward shuffling, so don’t jump to the nearest seat on more formal occasions.
If it is a 2-person table, then the woman should be the one looking out. Men only have eyes for their dazzling companion, and their attention is not to be distracted by anything else, after all!
French Restaurant Etiquette – The Meal
As a golden rule, never order soda with a meal. Instead, ask for a carafe d’eau (a jug of tap water) which are available everywhere. It is usually served at room temperature and free of charge. Mineral and sparkling water are available for a fee. The French expect you to choose your wine according to what you eat. Food and drink orders are taken at the same time unless you go for an aperitif, like a glass of champagne or a cocktail to sip on while you wait for your food.
The waiter will also bring you a basket of crusty bread free of charge. While it might be tempting to munch on it after a long day of walking around Paris, it is best to pace yourself. Break it with your hands on the top left corner of your plate – a small plate is sometimes out. Break it into tiny morsels to put in your mouth, and do not put bread on your plate.
While in the U.S., the client is king and is (often) free to make any change he or she feels like to the menu. However, in France, the chef knows best. Substituting one thing for another is often frowned upon. If you have dietary restrictions or allergies, it is best to call the restaurant ahead to see what they can do to accommodate you.
Talking about ordering, most restaurants offer a 3-course prix fixe menu (a.k.a. menu du jour or formule du jour) with one to three options each for a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. There is usually a possibility to order only the starter or dessert with the main course. It is what most locals go for and is often the best value both in terms of budget and taste.
Portions are smaller than what you may be used to, and “splitting” a plate is absolutely not done unless it’s cheese or charcuterie à partager (to share). The waiters will straight up refuse and give you a scolding if you ask!
Use your fork and knife no matter the food you pick, even fruits, French fries, and shrimp. Sandwiches are the exception, but some French people use their cutlery to eat those too. The exception is asparagus, which you can eat with your hands.
Although it is a public space, French restaurants are all about making dining an intimate experience. Many restaurants, especially in Paris, seem to try to shove as many tables in a tiny space as humanly possible, and you may feel that you are dining while sitting on your neighbors’ lap. However, you will quickly notice that the noise level is infinitely lower than what you would usually encounter in the U.S. Keep your voice low at all times. If you are too loud, you will be stared down by everybody in the room, and the waiter will not hesitate to remind you to tone your conversation down a notch!
As anyone who has dined with a French family can tell you, meals can be a very, very lengthy affair. The French usually have an hour break for lunch, and there are no limits as far as dinner is concerned.
Waiters will rarely check on you unless you make eye contact and give them a little wave. You may have seen guests calling to the waiting staff by shouting “Garçon!” and snapping their fingers in old movies. But let’s be straight: that would not go down well at all nowadays…
A lengthy service is a sign of quality. You are there to enjoy yourself, so be patient. If you have to be out by a specific time, tell your waiter right away (and apologize profusely). They may be able to tell you which dish you should avoid ordering if you want to be out in time to catch your train or your movie.
The traditional order for a French meal includes starter, main dish, salad, cheese, dessert, and coffee. Dessert and coffee will not be served together unless it is a café gourmand.
French waiters are trained not to clear the plates on the table until every single guest is done. You should not start your meal until everyone is served either. Place your fork and knife across the plate when you are done to indicate to the server you are finished.
The last thing your waiter will do is to rush you out the door by bringing the bill before you are even done with your main course: that would be considered rude. When you are ready to pay, ask your waiter for the bill since it is unlikely that they will bring it to the table themselves.
Taking your leftovers home is not customary. The food portions are, after all, significantly smaller than many American restaurants. However, since 2016, larger restaurants have to provide a to-go box to avoid food waste. Still, it is not the norm, and you may get a bit of a side-eye.
Tipping is always an awkward subject. Generally speaking, you are not required to tip in French restaurants. The service is included in the final bill – as are taxes – and waiters are paid a fair wage. However, feel free to round up to the nearest Euro amount for smaller bills, like coffee or drinks, or leave a Euro on the table. In a fancier restaurant, a tip of 10% to 15% of the final amount in cash for exceptional service is appreciated but not compulsory. Nobody will ever come after you to tell you that you forgot to leave a tip.
Now, after reading all of these French dining etiquette tips, if you still want to brave a restaurant, there is only one more thing to say…Bon Appétit !
How about you? What have your experiences in a French restaurant been like? Did you wish you were aware of some of these “little rules?” Do tell!
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