While working as a waitress in Nice, we once had a huge lunch rush, resulting in a longer wait time for main courses than normal. (The Snug only has one chef in a teeny-tiny kitchen!) One of the tables was a group of young French professionals, who were a bit frustrated at the wait—they had to get back to work. Remembering my days of limited lunch hours, I rushed into the kitchen to see if there was any way to get their food out first. Luckily there was—I got their meals out quickly, and as I cleared their plates, I expected them to demand the check immediately (you know, to get back to work on time). Instead, they ordered a round of espressos and a dessert.
To me, it illustrated a fundamental difference between the French and Americans. To the French, dining is an experience. It’s a time to socialize with family and friends, but also to fully enjoy the sensory aspects of a meal. The aroma of a good wine, the slurp of a fresh oyster, the silky smoothness of chocolate mousse. It’s not about cramming down some nutrients so that you can get back to work.
French gastronomy was recently named a UNESCO-protected cultural experience that emphasizes “togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature.” It starts with an apertif and ends with a digestif and generally has four courses in between: an entrée, a main dish of meat or fish with vegetables, a cheese plate and a dessert.
While I prefer dining in France to going out to eat in America, it’s certainly an experience that takes some getting used to. While it’s certainly best to eat at the home of a French person, visitors will most likely experience French gastronomy through its restaurants–and here are some tips to make the most of it:
• Make reservations. If you’re dead-set on trying a restaurant, make reservations. Some restaurants only have two sittings a night; others will stop serving after a certain time if they’re full.
• Order wine. It’s usually cheaper than water—and much better. You can order by the glass, a small or large carafe, or the bottle.
• Want a glass of water too? Order un carafe d’eau (ka-raf d-oh)—a pitcher of tap water. While tap water is free, a glorious glass of ice water won’t stay continuously full as it will in the States. Remember that freezers are small in France and the French think that very cold water is bad for you—ice is limited.
• Bread is another utensil, not food. It should be placed on the table, not on your plate. It won’t show up with butter or olive oil: it’s not a course in itself. Instead, bread is usually used as a tool: to wipe up extra sauce or perhaps nudge that last piece of meat onto your fork.
• Don’t be rushed. Servers aren’t trying to turn tables. Take the time to sip your wine, enjoy your meal, laugh with friends.
• Don’t be offended. A server isn’t going to show up to your table with a brilliantly-white smile, introduce herself and rattle off the specials without missing a beat. French servers are a lovely balance of straightforward and discreet—but not necessarily overly friendly. Don’t take it personally—but do be polite and practice your French. It will go a long way.
• Ask for the check. Since they’re not turning tables, they won’t “nudge” you along by giving you the check. Don’t be afraid to ask for l’addition (la di-sohn)—the server usually won’t bring it until you ask.
• Don’t be obligated to tip—but don’t be afraid to either. True, tipping is technically included in the bill. However, as a former server in France, I can tell you that tips are absolutely appreciated—particularly in places without a professional waitstaff, like student bars or expat pubs. For average (15%-worthy) service, tipping isn’t necessary. But if a server went above and beyond, they’ll certainly appreciate the gratitude.
What’s your favorite (or least favorite) part about dining in France?