Ordering a meal in France can be an ordeal for non-French speakers, especially outside Paris. Menus are full of potential pitfalls, waiters can seem rude and there’s an unspoken set of dining ‘rules’ that can present many a challenge if you’re not a local.
But with a little menu know-how and a few simple etiquette tips, it’s easy to master the art of French dining and turn even the snottiest waiter into your best friend.
A waiter of the famous Le Train Bleu in Paris. Image: Amelie Dupont © Paris Tourist Office
1. The waiting game
Waiters in France, especially Paris, have a terrible reputation for being rude to tourists.
But good service in the land of baguettes is considered as much the responsibility of the customer as it is the waiter’s, so it helps to know where they’re coming from.
Even in small local cafes and bistros, French waiters are extremely proud of their work and for many it’s a life-long profession. They undergo significant training and often work at the same place for years or even decades, developing close relationships with their regulars.
But they don’t prescribe to the philosophy that the customer is always right. Instead, they are the kings of their domain and demand a high level of respect.
The best way to succeed is to be polite and friendly at all times, even if they are brusque in return. There’s usually no problem if you can’t speak French as most waiters have at least rudimentary English skills, but it helps if you can muster a basic “s’il vous plait”/please (sih-voo-play) and “merci”/thank you (mher-see).
It also helps to not be in a hurry when dining in France, as the national pace is s-l-o-w. They hate to rush anything, especially meals, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while for the waiter to come and take your order or for your food to arrive. Sit back, relax, enjoy a glass of wine (which, unlike food, should arrive quickly) and some people watching. It’s the French way.
A classic French cafe breakfast. Image: Amelie Dupont © Paris Tourist Office
2. Timing is everything
Timing of meals is crucial in France, especially when it comes to lunch, the main meal of the day.
Many restaurants are only open, or will only serve food, during set hours, usually midday until 2pm, although dinner is usually more flexible. Places with a sign saying “service continu” are open all day long.
Some restaurants are also, curiously enough, closed on weekends and/or on Mondays, and many places in Paris shut down in August, so it’s worth planning ahead.
A platter of seafood is the perfect luxurious French bistro lunch. Image: Amelie Dupont © Paris Tourist Office
3. Ordering drinks
If you ask for coffee in France (“un café”) you will get a shot of espresso, so you need to specify if you want it with milk (“un café au lait”). The French only order coffee with milk in the morning, so you might get strange looks if you ask for it in the afternoon or after a meal. But, again, smile politely and you should be fine.
Always specify you want a carafe of water in restaurants (“une carafe d’eau”) if you’re after tap water, otherwise the waiter will bring you an expensive bottle of mineral water.
In hot weather it’s acceptable to add ice to a glass of rose wine to cool it down, but not to white wine. Red wine, especially lighter varieties such as pinot noir, can often be served chilled on hot days.
Steak tartare is a French classic. Image: Alex Lalak
4. Ordering food
Many dishes on French menus are self explanatory, but meat can be a challenge. Don’t panic if you see “steak à cheval” on a menu. Although “cheval” does indeed mean horse in French, this is actually grilled beef topped with a fried egg.
“Steak tartare” is not steak with tartare sauce, but rather minced raw beef seasoned with condiments including finely chopped cornichons and capers, mustard, onion and Worcestershire sauce, all bound together with a raw egg yolk. It might not sound tempting but, when done well, it’s utterly delicious and can be ordered “aller retour”, or seared on one side.
“Filet mignon” is usually grilled pork rather than beef, and “escalope” is a very thin steak rather than scallops, which are known in France as “Coquille Saint Jacques”.
The French are also particular about how they serve grilled steak: “au bleu” is just seared, “saignant” is rare and “à point” is medium. They don’t like to cook steaks more than medium, but if you really need it well done then ask for “bien cuit”.
5. If you don’t eat meat…
Then dining in France can be tricky. In fact, all special dietary requirements are difficult to manage in France, especially if you are vegan or coeliac, but it’s not impossible, especially in Paris.
Just remember to ask your waiter lots of questions about the ingredients in the dish you are ordering because it’s not uncommon for cheese or fried bacon lardons to find their way in unexpectedly, even if they’re not listed on the menu.
Or a good approach is to target places specialising in vegan or vegetarian food such as the high-end L'Arpège (a three Michelin star restaurant focused on vegetables) and casual Wild and the Moon, which has various outposts across Paris.
Don't be afraid to politely ask questions if you need help deciphering menus or signs in a French cafe. Image: Amelie Dupont © Paris Tourist Office
6. On the side
A bowl of sliced baguette is served at every meal in France but it will never come with butter unless it is breakfast time. It will also not come with any bread/side plates, unless you’re in a very high-end restaurant.
Instead, do as the locals do, and tear off a little piece of the bread with your hands and eat it plain or dipped in sauce from your plate. The rest of your torn off bread can either go directly on the table or balanced on the edge of your plate.
Also don’t be surprised if the side salad listed on the menu turns out to be a single piece of lettuce as “salade” in French means lettuce as well as an actual salad. Unless the word “salade” is paired with another word such as “caesar” or “niçoise” then you should assume you’re just getting decorative greenery.
7. And finally…
Is it okay to ask for a doggy bag? Absolutely, even in quite fancy restaurants. You might get the occasional snobby waiter but generally the French are extremely anti-food waste and would be happy to package up your leftover meal for you to take home rather than throw it in the bin.