Dining in France

Are you getting ready for a trip to France, or are you in France and wanting to learn some basic dining etiquette and phrases before your first restaurant experience there? Use this Essential Guide to Dining in France to help make your restaurant experience go as smoothly as possible!

First off, it’s important to note that there’s many differences between dining etiquette in the United States versus that in France. This post will outline some of the most important ones to be aware of.

Furthermore, depending on where you are in France, the waiters may not speak English. Knowing some basic French phrases will be helpful to help you navigate your time there. The French also appreciate when you make the effort to speak French while your are in their home country.

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What to Know Before Dining in France

France is known for the quality of its food and restaurants! To have the best experience possible, you should know a few things before starting.

In order to find a good quality meal, avoid eating at restaurants in touristy areas. In addition, avoid restaurants that have huge menus. This is because they likely freeze a large part of their food and it won’t be fresh.

Also, don’t be afraid to go to restaurants that only have their menus in French. Doing so will likely provide you with a better quality meals and a more authentic dining experience while in France. If you need it, have a dictionary app or translator app ready to go on your phone so you can distinguish between the different offerings.

It’s also important to note that the French eat at a later hour than Americans do. Dinner time in France typically starts at 8pm. Prepare yourself to eat at a later time, and have a snack to hold you over if you need it.

Entrance

Greet the Host

When first entering a restaurant, it’s important to first greet the host. Not addressing the host is considered very improper and rude in France. This is the same principal as when walking into a shop or boutique: one must always say hello. Simply say “Bonjour” (good day) or “Bonsoir” (good evening) while smiling and making eye contact.

Make Reservations in Advance

Before you go, make sure that you have made reservations! In a busy city like in Paris, reservations will book up very far in advance. It’s important to schedule your meal ahead of time or you may not be able to get in anywhere. It is not custom to walk into a restaurant and be able to obtain a table.

After you have greeted the host, if you do not have a reservation, then say the number of people in your party: “(2) personnes, s’il vous plaît” (two people, please). The host will likely then ask if you have a reservation or not. After saying no, they will tell you if they have any openings that night or not.

If you do have a reservation, then say: “On a une réservation au nom de (Smith)” (We have a reservation under the name of (Smith).

Be on Time

It is also very important that you make it to your reservation on time. The French work very hard to fill up every last spot available that they can accommodate during dinner service. They will not wait for you or hold your table at a restaurant.

Depending on how nice the restaurant is, they may even charge you a hefty fee for missing your reservation. If you know that you cannot make it to your reservation, then you should call ahead and cancel.

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Getting Seated

Once you greet the hostess and they direct you to your table, you will sit down at your table during which time they will bring you la carte (the menu).

It Will be Crowded

Your table may be very close to your neighbors without much room to move. As stated above, restaurants try to accommodate as many customers as possible during their dinner service. This means filling up every possible square inch in the restaurant with a table. You will likely be sitting very close to strangers at a table located only several inches from you. This is true especially in Paris, but it is considered normal.

Keep your Voice Low

When you are conversing with your dinner partner, it’s very important to keep your voice low. Americans are known for being a very expressive and boisterous people. This is not true in other parts of the world. The French are much more subdued. If you are too loud, they will ask you to lower your voice.

However, in my experience, this was not hard to do since the restaurants can get so crowded that it’s natural to not want your neighbor to hear all the details of your conversation!

The Menu

Drinks

The French do not order soda with dinner and will typically order water or wine.

You can order several different types of water. Tap water is free and available everywhere. It is room temperature and not filled with ice. Mineral water is bottled water, and it can be ordered still or sparkling. You will have to pay for both still and sparkling mineral water.

L’aperitif is when you enjoy a drink with some light snacks before dinner. If you would like a drink with your main dish, then order that drink at the same time that you order your meal.

À la Carte vs Prix Fixe

Most restaurants will offer a three course prix fixe (fixed price) menu. This provides a good value and will make it easy as a tourist to enjoy a quality meal if you are at a loss of how or what to order or don’t understand much of the menu. When ordering prix fixe, you will likely get to choose between a few options for the starter, main dish, and dessert.

If you are not interested in a fixed price menu, then ordering à la carte will allow you to choose any combination of food and drinks that you’d like. When ordering à la carte, you can choose from items on the following menus:

  • du jour (dish or soup of the day)
  • la boisson (drink)
  • l’entrée (starter)
  • la salade (salad)
  • le plat principal (main dish)
  • les spécialités (specialties)
  • le fromage (cheese)
  • le dessert (dessert)
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How to Order in French

Je Voudrais…

To order, start by saying…

  • “Je voudrais…” (I would like)
  • “Je vais prende…” (I will have)
  • “Je prends…” (I’m having)

Then, say the name of the drink or dish that you would like.

Do not say “Je veux…” (I want). This is a ruder way of ordering, as in the United States.

Water

“une carafe d’eau” (a jug of tap water)
“une bouteille d’eau” (a bottle of mineral water)
“plate” (still)
“gazeuse” (sparkling)

Please & Thank You

Don’t forget to say s’il vous plaît (please) and merci (thank you) everywhere you can!

Don’t Ask for Accommodations to your Order

Asking for accommodations to your order is considered rude when dining in France. There, the customer is not always right like they are in the United States.

In Emily in Paris, Emily sends her steak back to the chef (Gabriel) because she thinks that it is too rare and she would like it adjusted. The chef assures Emily that the steak is cooked properly and refuses to change it for her. In France, the chef is a skilled artist and being able to eat at a restaurant and enjoy a chef’s meal is seen as a privilege.

If you have dietary restrictions or allergies, it would be best to call the restaurant ahead of time to see if they can accommodate you. However, don’t just expect that they will be able to do this.

Don’t Split a Plate

It’s also a big faux pas to split a meal in France! This is just not done and you may even receive a straight up “non” if you ask. Because the portions are smaller in France, you should be able to finish your own meal without difficulty.

An exception to this is a charcuterie board. This is too large for one person to eat alone and is meant to be shared.

Eating

Fork and Knife for Everything

The French use their fork and knife to each pretty much everything, including things that we as Americans would use our hands for. It would be best to try to use your cutlery as much as possible while there.

If you really want to fit in, eat with your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand, and never put them down. As Americans, we like to cut with our fork in the left and knife in the right, set the knife down, then switch the fork to our right hand (if it is dominant). This is a dead giveaway!

Wait Until Everyone Has Their Food

Wait until everyone has their food at the table to begin eating. This rule also applies in the US, so it shouldn’t be hard to adopt!

The Waiter Won’t Check on You

In France, meals are not rushed. Both your meal and company are meant to be enjoyed. To accommodate this, waiters will not check on you. They consider it rude to check on you the way an American server would. They do not want to bother you or disrupt your meal.

If you need the waiter, simply give them a little wave or put a finger up to call them over. This is the same technique one would use to call them over to ask for the bill.

Clearing Plates

Because the waiter does not want to bother you, they will not clear plates until everyone has finished their meal. Rest your fork and knife across your plate to indicate that you’re finished.

At this time, you can tell them “c’était délicieux” (it was delicious!).

Leftovers

Although some restaurants may provide this service, it is not custom to take home your leftovers in France. They see this as an odd thing to do.

The way the French see it is that because portions are the appropriate size to enjoy in one sitting, one should be able to enjoy their whole meal in the restaurant without taking it home.

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The Bill

As above, the waiter wants you to enjoy your restaurant experience and will not ask you if you are ready for the bill. You could be waiting a very long time waiting for the bill if you don’t know this.

When you are ready to pay, wave the waiter over and ask for the bill by saying “l’addition s’il vous plaît” (the bill, please).

They will bring over a card reader to pay.

Tipping

When dining in France, Tipping is not required since the waiters are paid a livable wage. Tipping is always appreciated especially if your restaurant provides an exceptional service. However, it is not frowned upon if you decide not to tip.

I hope that this Essential Guide to Dining helps you navigate your next dinner experience in France! Bon appétit!

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