In our last blog post (Part 1), we discussed the different types of eating establishments in France and what you can expect at the three daily meals. In Part 2, we’ll look more closely at lunch and dinner and offer tips to help you most enjoy eating our in France.
Drinks with Your Meal
At most eating places, you’ll be asked if you want an apéritif, a before-dinner drink. The French normally don’t order wine before dinner, but enjoy certain kinds of drinks such as champagne, Crémant d’Alsace, pastis, or a kir royale. We often enjoy an apéritif with a special dinner. This drink is usually served with a salty snack… perhaps a little dish of olives or nuts.
Wine is an important part of the meal in France and is seen as an accompaniment to the food. Wine is rarely drunk without food. We recommend ordering a local wine when you’re in one of the wine producing areas. There is often a local house wine that can be ordered by the quarter, half, or full liter and is quite inexpensive. And of course you can order wine by the bottle, sometimes more expensive than the actual meal.
You can also order a beer (biere) with your meal. Many of the beers available in France are from Alsace; we like a Kronenbourg 1664.
You may also want water with your meal. Tap water in France is definitely drinkable. If we order wine with our meal, we typically also ask for a carafe d’eau (a pitcher of tap water). If we’re not drinking wine or beer, we order bottled water, since we just feel we should pay for a beverage. We like sparkling water as a primary beverage. You can also ask for bottled water sans gaz (without gas). Popular bottled waters include Badoit and San Pellegrino, often ordered by name.
You can order a soft drink with lunch but these are typically not served with dinner. Soft drinks are more expensive than house wine, and there aren’t unlimited refills. If there’s ice, you’ll just get one or two cubes. Iced tea is sometimes available in grocery stores and cafes, but it’s the Lipton variety, often peach-flavored and pre-sweetened. (We suggest skipping iced tea in France.)
Bread with your Meal
You’ll likely be served bread with your meal, sometimes a basket of slice baguette or more interesting roll, depending on the type of establishment.
Butter is never served with bread at lunch or dinner… only at breakfast. Bread is normally used to mop up a sauce or to eat with the cheese, not something you munch on before your first course arrives. Don’t fill up on the bread like you might at home, because the best is coming!
And although olive oil is very prevalent in the south of France, it’s not provided for bread dipping like you see in American restaurants.
The French Meal
You can choose a simple eating establishment and just have one dish for lunch or dinner, perhaps with a dessert that might be as simple as a dish of ice cream. But part of the pleasure of dining in France is enjoying a meal organized into several different courses. When we’re guests for a meal in a friend’s home, this same structure typically applies.
You do not have to order all the courses unless they are included in a “menu” of defined options you select. If you’re dining with others, we’ve found that it’s usually easiest if everyone orders the same number of courses, though this is not required. The French don’t typically “share” dishes.
Offerings and menus may change on a regular basis, since many restaurants work only with fresh ingredients and feature whatever is in season. Many small establishments offer a more limited menu, and you may have only a few choices for each course.
These were the options for the excellent and very economical 24 euro three-course lunch at the Cafe de la Poste in Goult on a recent Sunday afternoon in May… two choices for each course. It was also possible to order à la carte, as a few at our table did.
French Meal Courses
Amuse bouche: In more upscale restaurants, at the beginning of your meal you’re often served a very small hors d’oeuvres or soup, offered complimentary by the chef. The photo below was the amuse bouche served at our lunch a few years ago at L’Atelier du Peintre, a gastronomic restaurant in Colmar (Alsace), France. This beautifully-presented plate of three different items was shared by two people.
Entrée (first course): Although Americans use the French word “entrée” to describe the main course, in France this is the first course: the “entry” to the meal. An entrée may be a soup, salad or plate of charcuterie (cold sliced pork), or can be a more substantial and creative dish, often beautifully-presented like my entrée (below) at L’Arôme restaurant in Bonnieux during a recent Luberon Experience week, featuring a cured filet of trout. In some areas foie gras is often served as an entrée.
Plat principal (main course): The main course usually involves meat, poultry or fish with some type of starch (potato, pasta or rice) and/or vegetable. Side dishes are selected by the chef, not listed as options that you choose. Even if it is not shown on the menu, you can ask for a vegetarian main course, though it is good to alert the restaurant to any special dietary needs when you make the reservation.
This was a delicious plat principal at the restaurant of Hostellerie Schwendi, the hotel for our Alsace Experience week. The Schwendi offers several different “menus,” at different prices. The sesame-crusted rack of lamb was from their 55 euro menu, one of four courses. (It’s also possible to order à la carte.)
Fromage (cheese course): In a full meal, the cheese course precedes dessert. Depending on the restaurant, you may be served a pre-set plate of a few cheeses. A cheese tray may be left for the table to cut their own selections. Or the server may bring a cheese tray or cart for you to indicate your selections and he or she will serve you. You should select just a few cheeses… probably no more than four. The cheese may be eaten with a knife and fork or on bread; the French normally don’t eat cheese with their fingers in a restaurant.
If the cheese is round, cut it in wedges like a pie. If the cheese is served in a wedge (like a slice of Brie), don’t cut the end off… cut your piece so that the point is preserved.
This is a beautifully presented cheese tray at Domaine Faverot, where our Luberon Experience group enjoys a private meal. Everything on the tray is a goat cheese (fromage de chevre) from the local region. But it’s important to cut the round cheese in a small wedge… don’t just slice off an end!
Dessert (dessert): In finer restaurants, desserts in France are quite elaborate and beautifully presented. In simpler cafes, you will likely have a choice of traditional desserts: crème brulee, mousse au chocolat, some type of fruit tart, ile flottante, and so on. Ice creams and sorbets are also often choices and are very good. If you like whipped cream, ask for chantilly. Cheese may be an option as your dessert course.
This was one of the dessert options for a special dinner for our Périgord Experience groups this past summer, at Manoir d’Hautegente outside the village of Coly: a pavlova featuring meringue, homemade strawberry ice cream, and fresh strawberries and other fruits. Delicious!
Café (coffee): Coffee is offered after the meal, never with dessert. You can ask for deca, (decaf) or thé (tea). After-dinner coffee is normally a small cup of strong espresso, and you can add sugar if you like. The French do not drink coffee with milk or cream after dinner. (You can ask for this, but it’s not typical.)
Bite sized desserts or chocolates (called “mignardises”) are often served with the coffee. This is what our Alsace Experience group was offered with coffee at L’Ami Fritz, a gastronomic restaurant in the village of Ottrott… a second dessert after our main dessert!
Other Tips for Eating Out
Choosing an Eating Place
Menus are posted outside the restaurant, along with prices. Daily specials are often noted on a chalkboard. Many restaurants also now have websites, Facebook pages, and online booking. We like to look for eating places with lots of local people; these often offer authentic cuisine and good value. You can also look for recommendations on Trip Advisor, ask friends for their suggestions, or look for ideas on travel or foodie websites.
If you’re on a small group tour, you can be sure that your organizers have done a thorough job of testing and choosing eating places! (It’s one of the favorite parts of the job for us as we develop new trips.)
Restaurants and cafes usually close one or two days a week so that the staff can have time off. The closing day is posted outside the restaurant and on websites; guidebooks also usually note the closing day. In tourist areas some restaurants may be closed in the off-season or closed for a month or more of annual vacation.
We always recommend making reservations for dinner, and reservations are also necessary at special restaurants for lunch. You can often make dinner reservations that morning or the day before unless it is an especially popular place or during “high” season. (You may need to make reservations months in advance for Michelin-starred restaurant.) A reservation assures that you will get a table and is a gesture of respect to the restaurant owners so they can plan ahead. If you do not have a reservation– even if there appear to be many empty tables– they sometimes will not be able to take you.
French restaurants don’t typically try to “turn” tables. Your table is typically “yours” for the duration of the meal
How to Order
Most French restaurants don’t have the number of servers you’re probably accustomed to at home, and the pace of a meal is much more leisurely anyway. The waiter or waitress will come to you when they are ready to take your order; don’t try to signal them when you are ready. It’s sometimes helpful to close your menu as a signal that you’re ready.
Try to be efficient when you place your order and ask any questions. Unless you’re fluent in French, we recommend not trying to make lots of special requests.
The French eat their meat quite rare. If you prefer it less rare, ask for medium (medium or à point) or well done (bien cuit). In our experience, medium is more like “medium rare” in the USA. And you may get a raised eyebrow if you ask for bien cuit; the French think this ruins the meat.
Timing of the Meal
Your courses may be slower to arrive than you’re accustomed to. This isn’t a reflection of poor service! Meals in France have a more leisurely pace, and in addition to fewer servers, usually there are fewer people in the kitchen too. Courses for everyone at the table usually arrive at the same time, but not always.
In some eating places, you’ll be asked to order dessert at the start of the meal, but normally the server will take your dessert order after the main course.
Servers normally don’t clear dishes until everyone at the table is finished with a course. Place your utensils across the plate to signal you are finished. If you don’t eat everything, be prepared that your server may be concerned that there was a problem with your meal.
In January 2016 a law was implemented in France that all larger dining establishments must now provide a “doggy bag” if customers ask to take leftovers away with them. This isn’t a cultural tradition in France, but the new law is intended to help reduce food waste. So if you do have enough of your meal left to take away with you, you can now ask for “un doggy bag.”
Paying and Tipping
The server won’t bring your bill automatically, and you’ll have to signal that you’re ready to pay. To ask for your check, say “l’addition, s’il vous plaît.” Despite what you’ve seen in old movies, you should never summon the server by calling out Garçon. This would be extremely rude! Proper etiquette is to call a waiter Monsieur, (sir), a very young waitress Mademoiselle, and any waitress above their early 20’s Madame.
If you pay by credit card, the server will bring the credit card machine to the table. In some small places you may be directed to pay your bill at the cash register. Or if the server is very busy, you can go to the bar/cash register to pay.
Tips are left on the table in cash/coins, not added to your credit card. Restaurant personnel are paid a full wage with benefits, so tipping is handled quite differently than you may be used to. In high-end restaurant, if the service was excellent, you might leave 5%. Otherwise, leave a few coins to express your appreciation. Because we often visit the same eating places many times, we often leave one euro a person, but you can certainly leave less.
Other Etiquette tips
The French tend to be very polite. Always remember to say s’il vous plaît (please) and merci beaucoup (thank you very much) to your server.
And if you’re dining with a group, it’s important to be sensitive to other diners, especially at evening meals, when eating indoors in a small space, or at a more upscale establishment. The French tend to be quieter and more discreet in restaurants and may take offense at lots of loud talk, laughing, and photo-taking.
Eating out is one of the great pleasures of spending time in France. Whether you dine in a simple cafe or in a gastronomic restaurant, you can enjoy a delicious, well-presented meal and an important aspect of the French culture. Take your time and savor the experience!
Kathy and Charley Wood lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their top 50 tours in the world in 2012.
Kathy and Charley host Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. They also offer two longer tours: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 30 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They've hosted 120 Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.