Eating in Restaurants and Cafes

 

Menus in France are always displayed outside the restaurant, so you can decide in advance if the price, style and food available are what you want. There is no added tax on top of the food costs and no obligation to tip.

French menus may differ from what you are used to. A Menu or Formule is a set meal with several courses and a small amount of choice. You might find a €16 menu, a €20 menu and a €50 menu at the same restaurant. You can only order food from one menu, otherwise go “à  la carte”. Some places offer “plat du jour” which is the dish of the day, and you can just order that. It will be good.

There are variations on formules in cafes. You may be able to order an entrée and main, or a main and dessert at one price, three courses at a higher price and some more if you want the cheese as well.

 “La Carte” is what English or Americans call a menu, each dish ordered separately. Fine if you want just one or two dishes but “le menu” is always cheaper for the same dishes.  This may get a bit confusing because you may be presented with a folder with three menus and a carte, like this rather expensive version: www.restaurant-cotemer.fr . Click on the various buttons to see what different menus look like. Ou means “or”

 

The Menu Dégustation is becoming more common, especially at the higher end of dining. This menu is chosen by the chef to show off his/her expertise. There are usually multiple small courses and no choice, and everyone at the table is expected to order this way. They are also usually the most expensive menus.

A normal meal will be divided into three or four courses, an entrée, a plat, cheese and dessert. An entrée is a first course, not a main course. Sometimes there may also be free little appetisers "amuse bouche" and afterwards little sweets “mignardises” to have with coffee.

The cheese course may range from a small disc of cheese, to a chef chosen selection, to that glory of French cheeses, the cheese tray or trolley. In this case you are expected to choose three, maybe four cheeses to taste. They are usually cut by the waiter but sometimes the cheese tray may be left for you to cut your own “à volonté”. Cheese is most often eaten with a knife and fork, perhaps a little bread.

The concept of à volonté (help yourself) may be found in other courses as well. A tureen  of soup may be left, or a terrine may come in its large dish with a crock of cornichons on the side. You cut what you want, spoon yourself some cornichons and in a while the waiter will take them to another patron. Or a huge bowl of chocolate mousse may be left for you to help yourself. It doesn’t mean it is all for you.

Wine can be ordered as vin du table, or house wine, by the pichet, including a very small pichet of 125ml. All restaurants will also have bottled wine. You can always order a jug of water free of charge “un carafe d’eau s’il vous plait” anywhere in France.

Fine dining is quite often cheaper at lunch rather than dinner, though there may be a special limited menu from which to order. The difference in price can be considerable, such as €90 for lunch vs €250+ for dinner, per person, without wine. It can provide people with a less expensive opportunity to try food from the very best of chefs. On the other hand, a brasserie meal may be very inexpensive for a formule of two courses. The choice is up to you.

While some people think that a restaurant which offers menus in multiple languages may be aimed at the tourists, that does not necessarily mean they will provide poor food. Very top restaurants may offer menus in multiple languages for the convenience of their guests. However, you would do well to steer away from any restaurant where someone implores you to come in, or where none of the patrons seem to be speaking French.

Restaurant Etiquette

 

Be aware that restaurants often close mid afternoon to prepare for the evening meal. Even though people may be there and moving around, the place may not be open for service. Ask!

If planning to eat it is usual to wait to be seated. Don’t just sit at a table.

If you only want a drink or a snack, do not sit at tables set for a meal. You will often find tables on one side will be set and on another will be bare. It is usually better to ask if they will serve just a drink in a restaurant, or indeed, something like a dessert and coffee. Some will welcome you, others not.

Do NOT sit at a café’s tables, even on a terrace or square, with food from elsewhere.

Greet each person who approaches you.

Attract the waiter’s eye if required, by making eye contact and maybe by quietly saying “s’il vous plait”. The caricatures of patrons snapping fingers and calling “garçon” come from far off days. It is rude.

Ask for interpretation of the menu if you need it. Someone will be able to assist. But it is a good idea to have some rudimentary knowledge of menu French. Busy people will not want to spend 20 minutes translating the menu for you in detail. There are good food apps available these days that will help.

In less formal places you can share a course, maybe an entrée or dessert. However, do not order one set menu and then share that between two. That would be regarded as very rude. It is however, quite common, even in fancy restaurants, for people to exchange a taste of their dishes as in “OMG you have to taste this.” Just do it discreetly.

The French like their red meat quite rare. This includes beef, lamb, venison and duck breast. You will be asked how you want beef cooked, maybe not the others. Be aware that the French “à point” would be the equivalent to medium rare. Duck and lamb are cooked rosy pink and the chef won’t be happy if you want it well done as the meat goes tough and grey. However, they will not be bleeding juices.

In most cases you will not be able to ask for dishes to be modified, eg, a different sauce on the meat or different accompaniments as the chef has designed the dish to harmonise. The exception would be for food allergies or similar.

It is not usual to ask for a “doggy bag” for leftovers.

The French regard a meal as important and take time to savour the occasion. On conclusion of their time and conversation they ask for the bill “l'addition s'il vous plaît” . It is not brought to you until you ask. Hand in hand with this attitude, the table is usually yours for the evening. In most cases there is no expectation that you need to leave so they can serve someone else.

Tipping is not essential and most French would just round up to the next Euro or so. It is more common in expensive restaurants but still not essential, and certainly not 20%.