Food is one of the great passions of life in France, and the French enjoy the experience of sharing a meal together. For us, one of the many delights of spending time in France is enjoying the cuisine and the lifestyle of our three daily meals. And although we love shopping and preparing our own meals, we always enjoy eating out.
The cuisine in France continues to be very regionally oriented. Long ago, before transportation was easy, people cooked and ate what was readily available in their immediate area. Local cooking preferences and customs have been shaped by geographic, historic, and climactic differences. Some regions are landlocked and mountainous, while others run along the sea. Some regions along the Mediterranean enjoy sun most of the year, while eastern areas encounter snow and cold temperatures in the winter. Certain types of animals are more easily raised in some areas, and certain fruits and vegetables flourish in some climates and not in others. One big difference in cooking is the use of butter and cream in the north, olive oil in the south, and duck fat in the southwest.
French cooking uses lots of fresh, local produce, so food is also very seasonal. Menus often vary seasonally, incorporating recently-harvested ingredients. For example, earlier this week our Luberon Expeirence group had a wonderful dinner at L’Arôme, a very special restaurnat in our village of Bonnieux. The menu included this beautiful entrée featuring zucchini, a vegetable now in season. This wasn’t on the menu when we were here with our groups in May. (At that time they were featuring asparagus.)
The French have a great pride in their traditions, including their dining customs. You’ll learn a lot about French culture as you experience your meals in France.
Where to Eat in France
There are several kinds of eating establishments in France, and each offers a different kind of experience. These definitions may vary a bit when you’re comparing big cities like Paris to smaller towns and villages in the French countryside.
- Bar: A focus on alcoholic beverages, often with extended hours at night.
- Café: Open much of the day. Originally with a focus on coffee, most cafes serve simple meals. Cafes may offer breakfast.
- Brasserie. Similar to a café… serves drinks and hot food. Usually open late.
- Restaurant: Includes a wide variety of eating places specializing in multi-course lunches and dinners, for all budgets. There are chain restaurants, small family establishments, fine-dining establishments, and “gastronomic” restaurants. A restaurant might describe itself as a bistro or bistrot. Restaurants are usually open only for lunch and dinner at defined times.
- Pizzeria: An eating place specializing in pizzas, often served only in the evenings. The best pizzerias use wood-fired ovens. A limited menu of other food may be served.
- Crêperie: Specializes in galettes and crepes. A galette is made with buckwheat flour and includes savory fillings (e.g. meat, cheese, vegetables). A crepe is made with wheat flour and is usually includes sweet fillings (butter, jam, sugar, Nutella, ice cream). Other types of food may also be served.
- Salon de Thé: A tearoom that may serve light lunches and desserts in addition to various types of tea. Typically not open in the evening.
- Ferme-auberge: A working farm that serves simple, regional food produced locally. Much of what’s served is raised/grown/made on the farm. There are usually limited choices.
An eating place may describe itself on its signage using several of these terms (e.g. Café/Restaurant; Bar/Restaurant/Pizzeria). The best way to understand the focus and decide if this is the right place for you is to read the menus posted outside or online. The online reviews may also be helpful.
The French enjoy the interaction around the dinner table, and meals in France tend to be leisurely experiences. In warmer weather, lunches and dinners are normally served outside. If there is sun, many French people would prefer to eat or have coffee outside, even if they are wearing coats and staying warm with outdoor heaters.
A Day of Meals in France
At home, most French people have a pretty simple breakfast, often just a hot drink and a “tartine” (yesterday’s baguette, toasted, with jam), or cereal or perhaps yogurt with a piece of fruit.
Many B&B’s and less-expensive hotels offer a simple breakfast too: a basket of breads (sliced baguette or perhaps one croissant per person) with butter, jam and/or honey, juice, and a hot drink. A cafe may offer a petit déjeuner with a hot drink,, juice, and baguette with butter and jam for a very reasonable price.
Sometimes bars are open for morning coffee but don’t sell food. If they don’t offer a “petit dejeuner,” it’s perfectly permissible to buy your croissant at a nearby boulangerie and bring it with you to the bar.
Higher-level hotels offer a buffet with many more options. A breakfast buffet hotel will typically offer juices, breads and rolls, homemade baked goods, jams and honey, cereal, yogurt, fruit, cheese, meats, and hard-boiled eggs. This is the breakfast buffet our groups enjoy at Le Clos du Buis in Bonnieux.
Coffee and tea may be available for self service, or a breakfast server may ask you for your hot drink order. “Café” (coffee) is much stronger than American coffee. If you want weaker coffee, ask for “Café Americain” or “café allonge,” which gives you coffee in a bigger cup with more water. You could also order a “café au lait (coffee with hot milk) or “café crème” (with less milk). Other options are “thé” (tea) or “chocolat chaud” (hot chocolate).
Other than hard-boiled eggs, the French don’t eat cooked eggs at breakfast. They eat omelettes as a main course at lunch and scrambled eggs (sometimes with truffles) as a first course at lunch or dinner. They also usually don’t eat melon or strawberries at breakfast… melon may be served with ham as a first course or perhaps in a salad. Strawberries are served as dessert, either whole or incorporated into a more elaborate creation.
Lunch can be the big meal of the day with multiple courses or something lighter like a salad or omelette. Sandwiches are normally not served as a sit-down meal.
Restaurants and cafes are usually open for lunch between 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm, and a full lunch involving multiple courses can take two hours or more.
For a hot lunch, one good option (and good value) is the “plat du jour” or daily special. This is usually written on a chalkboard which may be on the wall or brought to your table.
Many restaurants offer a “menu” or “formule,” a pre-set meal at a certain price, often with a few choices for each courses. The menu (different from the printed menu, which is called a “carte” in French) may offer an option of entrée + plat (first course and main course) or plat + dessert (main course and dessert) for one price and entrée + plat + dessert at a slightly higher price. You usually can’t make substitutions on the set menu.
In any type of sit-down eating establishment with table service, be prepared for a more leisurely meal. Don’t sit down and expect immediate attention. The French enjoy a more relaxed meal and unless it’s an expensive place, you may find the entire dining area supported by just one or two very hard-working servers.
Hamburgers (pronounced without the “H” in French) are increasingly found on French menus and are quite popular. These burgers are often quite different than what you may be accustomed to in terms of the toppings and the bread… and can also be quite expensive on a restaurant menu.
For a quicker and less-expensive lunch, look for baguette sandwiches from walk-up counters or pre-prepared sandwiches at grocery stores. Boulangeries may sell cold pizza by the slice, small quiches, or sandwiches. You can also buy food for a picnic at the outdoor markets: bread, cheese, fruit, dried sausages and much more. At many markets you’ll find sellers with hot food for takeaway like paella, Asian dishes, or roast chickens and potatoes.
Although many French people eat a lighter meal for dinner at home (since lunch may be the big meal of the day), the evening meal is important for dining out. Dinner is usually the same type of menu as lunch, but this can depend on the restaurant.
Most small eating places have only one sitting for dinner. You can normally reserve for any time between 7:30pm and 9:30pm and a table will be held for you. The earliest arrivals will usually be foreigners or families with children. Many French diners will arrive at 8:30 or even 9.
Better restaurants almost always require advance reservations, sometimes months in advance for a Michelin-starred restaurant. We usually make a reservation for dinner, even if we just stop in a few hours earlier to confirm. This helps the restaurant plan ahead for their service. You may be turned away without a reservation, even if the place seems to have few diners. If you’re unable to keep a reservation you’ve made, always be sure to give as much notice as possible for a cancellation.
Unless you’re at a pizzeria or creperie, dinner is usually an extended meal of several courses, intended as the evening’s social activity. We think it’s an ideal way to spend the evening in France, especially when shared with friends. Some of our best memories here have been around the dinner table with friends!
Part 2 of this article provides more information on eating out in France: the courses of a French lunch or dinner; drinks at a French meal; and other tips for eating out. Bon Appétit!
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.