on how to blend in and
not to appear too much like a tourist
in a Paris restaurant . . .
(or at least how to be a good one)
in a Paris restaurant . . .
(or at least how to be a good one)
The following is based on a book chapter that we prepared way back in 2002-2003 with a Paris friend, Barbara Pasquet-James, and updated a few times since then. (The book was designed to list non-smoking restaurants in Paris; it was going to be a thin book. But then the national smoking ban went into effect in 2008, happily making such lists obsolete.) We and others have shown this section to French friends, and many have reported back to the effect that “all visitors to France should read this.” That may be a bit much, but here goes:
We are tourists when we visit Paris/ France, and we don't pretend otherwise. But, like most other tourists, we try to respect the local culture, and not stand out too much. At the risk of sounding a bit preachy, we’ve set out, like a good plateau of oysters or escargots, a dozen tips and observations collected from numerous sources and from personal experience — tips that may make Parisians more likely to appreciate you, and you them.
First — And especially for dinner in a restaurant or serious bistro: Make a reservation
Reservations are not necessary or even customary for cafés, or for many brasseries (except at peak hours), but may be necessary for many “serious” restaurants and bistros. Moreover, making a reservation exhibits respect, and ensures that you won't be disappointed if your chosen restaurant or bistro is overbooked. When you don’t reserve by phone (see accompanying box), you might do what we often do: walk around during the day to scope out a place where you’d like to dine. Enter, deliver a solid “bonjour monsieur” (or madame), take a look around, shake hands/ introduce yourselves, and then make a reservation for that evening or the next. As you leave, take the restaurant’s business card, and write the reservation date and time on it. When you later return to the restaurant, you will do so with the authority of someone who at least knows where he or she is going.
[Reserving by phone: If your French is poor, ask your hotel receptionist to reserve for you. More challenging and more fun, if your French is passable, telephone and make the reservation yourself. But don’t be too surprised when, after your carefully planned but bumbling phone request, questions are thrown back at you in a rapid-fire fashion that would confuse even a visiting French tourist from the countryside. Parisians speak quickly.]
Second — Saying “bonjour monsieur” or “bonjour madame” to all restaurant personnel you meet will ease your way considerably
This was mentioned before, and cannot be stressed enough. At first it may feel a bit odd, but it’s a deeply ingrained social custom, and if you don’t do it, you stand out, and worse, appear to be rude. Don’t hesitate to say “bonjour” 24 hours a day; it translates as “hello,” not “good day.” You can, if you wish, substitute “bonsoir” if it’s after 6:00 p.m. (Do not say “bonne nuit” unless you are in your nightgown and are immediately about to hit the sack.)
[Rudeness?: The commonly held belief of some tourists — that the French in general, or Parisians in particular, are rude — often stems from the failure to utter the simple greeting, “bonjour madam/ monsieur” or to observe other similar social customs (such as remembering to use the expressions, pardon, excusez-moi, and s’il vous plaît). These utterances are a reflex for the French, and if you fail to do the same you may quite unintentionally trigger a less than cordial response. So, “bonjour” and “s’il vous plaît” your hotel receptionist, bus driver, and ticket taker, as well as your waiter. And please make sure to include the word “monsieur” or “madame” after your bonjours and other similar expressions.]
On the whole, the French are formal and polite, but don’t confuse that sing-songy, ubiquitous little “bonjour” as a sign of genuine friendliness. It may be — but more often than not, it’s just part of the expected way of acknowledging the presence of another. So jump in and do the same; give your waiter a healthy “bonjour.” He’ll respond in kind, delivered with a courteous and professional air, and rarely with a smile. The absence of ready smiles must not be taken personally — most local customers don’t receive (or give) them either. The French (except, perhaps, those in the south) ration their smiles carefully. What you are more likely to get from your waiter is good-natured guff. He may test your mettle to see what you can take. Push back in a friendly and confident manner, and you will gain his respect, thus creating an experience that will be all the more enjoyable.
[A waiter is not “garçon”: If, during your meal, you want to attract the waiter’s attention, do so by subtle eye contact, or say “monsieur, s’il vous plaît” as he passes. Despite what you may have seen in old films, or heard from your great-uncle Bob, who was stationed in Paris and recounts many fine restaurant experiences from the 1950s-1960s (probably dives), never call a waiter “garçon” (boy). In France, many waiters are serious professionals. Some locals may get away with “garçon,” but not us, and not you.]
Third — Dress and speak so as not stand out; and don’t gawk (yes, that is a Breton spaniel at the table to your left)
Except if you are in a simple bar/cafe, folks attired in swooshy athletic shoes, baseball hats, gaudy tee-shirts, or shorts of any kind are not apt to warm a waiter’s or le patron’s heart, and they will (whether they notice or not) cause at least some local customers to roll their eyes. When in a nicer bistro or restaurant, you will almost always "blend in" if you happened to be wearing neutral tones, beiges, dark colors, or simple black. Women would do well to learn the French technique of tying a scarf just so, and leave gaudy jewelry in the hotel. You will know that you’ve succeeded in blending in when, on your way to dinner, a Parisian stops you on the street to ask you directions, or for the time — possibly the only two permissible questions to ask strangers in public places, by the way.
[Cameras, guidebooks and cell phones: Hide away your camera and large guidebooks, and avoid using a fanny-pack. (Side benefit: this decreases your chances of being pick pocketed on or near the Métro.) Your cell phone, discreetly placed to the side, on the table, is one accessory that will make you appear Parisian. For better or worse, cell phones are everywhere. But for some non-European travelers it may be an empty prop — many U.S. cell phones don’t work in Europe, although that is changing. (We often use an international phone with an inexpensive SIM card from Telestial, although lately we've just been using iPhones — but beware of huge roaming charges.)]
Even properly attired patrons may draw unsolicited attention to themselves if they use their normal speaking volume. Notice that the pleasant ambient murmur of local voices in a Paris restaurant is considerably lower in volume than in most American restaurants. The French easily achieve privacy and intimacy in crowded restaurants, many of which have very closely placed tables, by speaking softly. Speaking or laughing too loudly is viewed as an intrusion on other patrons’ dining pleasure — and even vulgar.
Although the sight of a dog at the table next to you may trigger an urge to gawk or point, take it in stride. Dogs are welcome in many restaurants and besides, the French love them: there are more canines in Paris than children. The pooch sitting quietly on the society matron’s lap, or snoozing at the foot of a laborer, or poking his nose out discreetly from the tablecloth of the family beside you, is just another family member that goes everywhere they do. The good news: you can assume that at least the dog won’t smoke! (Although one can never be too sure: a well-known brasserie in the 1rst arrondissement is named Au Chien qui Fume — “The Dog That Smokes.”) Speaking of smoking — the smoking ban that commenced January 2008 is widely successful and compliance is excellent; but the downside is that it's often smoky outside, at sidewalk and open air tables.
Fourth — Expect to stay a while
A typical restaurant lunch or dinner is three courses: an entrée (that’s a starter, not the main course), a plat principal (that's the main dish), and a dessert. One of the beautiful things about traditional French dining is that it is a leisurely ritual, a time for conversation and reflection, and not just a fueling stop. On top of that, realize that food and dining is a well-known French obsession. Mealtime is often the most important, and enjoyable, part of the day, and the French have no desire to truncate the experience. So count on approximately one and-a-half to two hours for lunch, and two-and-a half to three hours for dinner. (Café or brasserie dining is less structured — see accompanying box.)
[Cafés and brasseries: These less formal establishments are especially handy for off-hours dining. One is not expected to order the traditional three-course menu. A coffee or snack consumed standing at le zinc (a.k.a. le comptoir — the counter) of a café/bar will cost less than if you order the same at an interior table. The cost is highest if your table is in the café’s prime territoire, the terrace. It’s perfectly acceptable to nurse your coffee or beer for hours as you watch the world go by and read your folded Le Monde or International Herald Tribune — or, perhaps less elegantly, as you peruse either on your iPhone.]
Although the dining experience is destined to be leisurely and drawn out, the ordering process is not. The establishment’s carte, listing its offerings, is, by law, posted outside the front door. This provides time to preview the menu and take out your Marling Menu Master in order to translate unfamiliar terms. (Most recently we've downloaded Patricia Wells' excellent Glossary onto our iPhone, where we now have it available, without needing access to the internet, on our "favorites" on dropbox.com — all of this is free.) Parisians usually don’t take a long time to order after being seated — they’ve probably eaten there before, several times, and know exactly what they want — and your waiter may become frustrated if you have to keep asking for multiple translations of items or yet another “deux minutes, s’il vous plaît.” On the other hand, if you’re really having difficulty (either deciphering the carte, or simply deciding), you can buy time by ordering an apéritif, or some wine.
Fifth — Forge ahead and speak your faulty French, and be careful with your hands
More often than not, waiters appreciate the fact that you’re making an effort. Whatever you do, never begin by speaking English first. (The same applies at hotel reception desks and shops.) If necessary, follow your “bonjour” or “bonsoir madame/monsieur” with a hopeful look and slightly apologetic, “Parlez-vous anglais?” The answer probably will be “Yes”; if not, the waiter likely will try to fetch someone who does; and if that fails, well, you are in France after all — wing it.
Be careful with sign language. If you attempt to underscore your order of “deux” glasses of vin blanc by the typical American convention of making a “V” with your middle and index fingers, you may well get three glasses instead of two: the French count on their hands starting with the thumb, not with the index finger. So for the sign for “two,” hold up only your thumb and index finger. While on the subject of hands, we've been advised to keep them on the table at all times — and not allow them to slip onto your lap, or anyone else’s.
Sixth — Order wine and a bottled water, or a carafe of tap water
In 1825, Brillat-Savarin (in La physiologie du goût — The Physiology of Taste), said “Un bon repas favorise la conversation; un bon vin lui donne l’esprit”: A good meal encourages conversation; a good wine makes it spirited. In Paris today, this generally remains as true and guiding a principle as it was 175 years ago.
Normalement, the house rouge or blanc (both widely served by the glass, or in various-sized carafes) is just fine, and usually a bargain. Otherwise, order from the carte de vins (wine list). Except for swish upper range restaurants with extensive caves and sometimes sommeliers (that’s him in the black coat with tails), most restaurants offer a range of bottled wines at prices substantially lower than the often outrageous prices found on most American restaurant lists. Impress your waiter, and benefit your pocketbook, by staying away from the easy selections like Bordeaux (made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot) and white Bourgogne blanc (chardonnay) or rouge (pinot noir, which can be otherworldly, but is much more often expensive and disappointing). Instead, order the lesser-known and more characteristic regional wines. (See accompanying box.)
[Red wines: Try a Chinon or Bourgeuil (made from cabernet franc, in the Loire Valley); a côtes-du-Rhône (made from grenache, syrah, carignon, cinsaut, and mourvèdre, in the southern Rhône valley); a dark and cool Cahors (made from malbec, a.k.a Auxerrois, near the river Lot in the southwest); a Gaillac (made from rare indigenous varietals such as duras and brocol, and other more common varietals such as cabernet franc and merlot, in the southwest’s Tarn département); an appellation-designated Beaujolais (made from gamay, in southern Bourgogne (Burgundy), just above Lyon); or a pleasant and light pinot noir from the Sancerre region. White and rosé wines: Try a true dry riesling or pinot blanc from Alsace; a chasselas from the high alps of the Haute-Savoie near Lake Geneva; or a Sancerre (made from sauvignon blanc) or bone-dry muscadet (perfect with fresh shellfish), both from the Loire. A dry Bandol rosé from Provence is always a beautiful and reliable choice.]
Bottled waters — eau minérale — present a choice between eau avec gaz (a.k.a. gazeuse, carbonated water) and eau nature (or “sans gaz,” “non-gazeuse,” or plate i.e., “flat” or still water). In the first category, a good choice is the French brand Badoit — its green labeled offering has light bubbles that go well with food, it’s easy to pronounce (“bad-wah”), and ordering it makes you look like you know what you’re doing. Similar to Badoit, and perhaps a bit finer, is Chateldon, from the Auvergne region. (You may, however, be offered instead an Italian water, San Pelegrino, the gazeuse that’s showing up in many Paris restaurants.) For non-carbonated bottled water, order Vittel, Contrex, or Evian. It’s perfectly acceptable, and safe, alternatively or additionally, to order tap water (eau du robinet), which will come in a carafe (ask for “une carafe d’eau” or if you want it cold, “bien fraîche”). Ice water is rarely served, but if you need it, ask for eau glacée, or glaçons (ice cubes).
Asking for “une bière” gets you bottled beer; requesting “un demi-bière” is tap beer. Neither is traditionally served at dinner, except in brasseries. It is not customary to order a soft or cola drink with dinner, and we advise against it. Such sweet tastes generally do not go well with foods on offer. If a table companion nevertheless orders a Coke, observe your waiter’s expression . . . .
Seventh — Understand the difference between “le menu” and “la carte,” and be careful about splitting
La carte is the written listing of what the establishment serves. Le menu, by contrast, which may be called the formule, is a combo meal: first course (entrée), second course (plat principal) and sometimes dessert, offered as a package for a set price (le menu fixe), and often the best deal in the house (although the mode now in Paris is a choice between entrée and plat principal or a plat principal and dessert, for one price). In Paris, or a city, le menu may offer a couple choices for each course. But in the countryside, le menu might be a fixed deal with no choices for each course. So, if you are asked if you want “le menu,” and you answer “oui,” you have just ordered the two or three-course offering of the day! Unless you want to do that, make sure you get, and order from, the carte. (Substitutions are seldom allowed when ordering le menu, unless, of course, the menu offers options in the first place.)
In nicer places, more than one menu will be offered — there may be a tasting menu (menu de dégustation) or a gourmet menu (menu gastronomique), or both. These menus, designed to show off the chef’s specialties and creative powers, may be more pricey. When dining as a couple, it’s fun to order one regular menu and one of the specialty menus, so as to sample a broader range of the establishment’s offerings.
Finally, regarding splitting dishes: If you order from the carte, splitting a starter (entrée), cheese, or dessert is usually quite acceptable. Ask for "deux cuillères" — two spoons. Splitting a plat (main course) can be quite problematic, but an appropriate smile and a good attitude will take you far. You can usually split a plat (or even an entire single "menu") with no worry when sitting at the bar — if the place has one; that can come in handy if you’ve had a huge lunch earlier in the day.
[It also used to be difficult to split a bill: Until a few years ago, waiters often refused to make out “separate checks.” But in the past few years, splitting — by giving your waiter two or more credit cards to evenly divide the bill — has become more commonplace.]
Eighth — Sit back and let your taste buds be “amused” — and don’t expect salad with, or before, your main course
If you are in an upscale place that has (or has sights on) a Michelin star, you’ll likely be started with a complimentary gift from the kitchen, an amuse-bouche or an amuse-gueule — a bite-sized savory, a canapé, designed to whet the appetite or “amuse” your mouth and taste buds.
In lesser places (for us, most of the time), you’ll be quite content with the basket of freshly cut bread, often a baguette, but sometimes a specialty loaf or combination of breads. Beurre (butter) is not commonly served except on request. Often (and always, in a café or brasserie), a strong Dijon mustard will be on the table. If it isn’t, ask for it. A nice dab is meant to be spooned onto the side of the plate to be eaten with meats.
[Salads: If a salade verte (green salad) is desired, order it when you receive your plat principal, and it will be served after completion of that course. (A simple green salad is almost always available, even though not listed on the carte. Just ask for it. We've been refuseed only once in 13 years.) Other, more substantial salads that include meats, cheeses, and nuts, etc., will be listed on the carte, as entrées or as complete meals. Small green salads are served along with quiche, or fish, but only as an accompaniment, not a separate course, and never as a first course.]
Finally, look at the entire experience as an opportunity to be adventurous. The French have learned to make good use of many animal parts that, in other countries, are consumed unknowingly and only in sausages and other lesser forms of tubular foods. Sometimes it’s best not to use a menu translator, and just enjoy what you are offered, knowing that if it’s being served, you can rest assured that millions of Frenchmen have given it their blessing. Sorry Mr. Ed, but we’ve found that cheval (horse), served very rare, is both pleasant and sweet.
[“Doggy bags”: The French love their dogs, but they generally don’t ask to take home left-over portions of meals, either for their pooches or for themselves. If you ask to pack up part of your meal, you may get a raised eyebrow, and be told you are not in a take-away establishment. On the other hand, this is changing, and we've seen some French neighbors actually ask for a bag to take home. Another very cultured friend of ours carries ziplock bags in her purse, for extremely discrete use . . . .]
Ninth — Did someone say cheese?
Just when you think you’ve done well and have earned your dessert, you learn that, for the real heroes at your table, there’s an optional additional course: le fromage. Some regard this part of the meal as a reward. The cheese cart or plateau (tray) will be brought to your table. “Would you like some regional cheeses?” Although the cart may have twenty offerings, you are expected to select only three, possibly four. Depending on the establishment and your waiter, the portions that will be cut for you after you point out your choices may be enormous or they may be minuscule. Monitor and adjust your order accordingly. At this stage of the meal, we typically order only one serving, which we split between us.
If the cheese that you select is presented to you in a wedge, eat it by cutting along the side of the wedge — don’t chop off the “nose.” (This convention applies when you are sharing a single wedge with others; because the cheese is best at that center area, it's considered rude to hog that part.) More bread will be brought for the cheese course (and sometimes butter as well), but make sure that you have sufficient wine to drink with the cheese. If you’ve miscalculated and have run out of wine at this point, don’t be surprised if (as once happened to friends we were dining with) a nearby customer intervenes and tells you that you cannot possibly enjoy the cheese without wine. And he will be correct: wine, at this stage, is essential: it cuts the richness of the fromage and, aficionados point out, must be sipped while the cheese is in the mouth. So order another glass, and, as you enjoy your vacherin des bauges, bleu de termignon, or cantal, consider skipping the dessert.
[Fruit course: Sometimes a fresh fruit course (complete with cutlery for peeling, etc.) will be offered after, or in lieu of, the cheese course.]
Tenth — Dessert, and, finally . . . le café
If you’ve taken the cheese course, and now feel that you should pass on dessert, you will be excused. But if you’ve ordered a menu that provides a dessert with your meal, you might as well partake. Standards to look for are babas au rhum (small leavened dough cakes soaked in rum-flavored syrup), crème brulée, various crêpes, and profiteroles au chocolat (small custard-filled cream puffs with chocolate sauce). Keep an eye out for the house chocolate cake — a sinful dark concoction often served with a vanilla-y crème anglaise.
Not until (or in some cases after) the dessert course (or, after the cheese course, if you skip dessert) are you allowed to have coffee. If you ask for coffee before dessert, your waiter likely will hold the order until you have finished the main part of your meal. And even then, if you order the wrong style of coffee for the time of day, your waiter may not bring it at all: cappuccino and other any coffees with milk or cream (like café au lait) are reserved for breakfast or served only in the afternoon. Not only will asking for one after dinner blow your cover, but the creaminess of the coffee will mask and spoil everything that went before.
Whether labeled café, café espresso, or café express, these terms all mean one thing: strong espresso, served in a small saucered cup with a tiny spoon for stirring in sugar. If you want something like “American” coffee, ask for café allongé — and you will be brought a large cup of lighter coffee elongated with water. (The other, less traditional, and more patronizing term for this is “café américan.”) Black coffee is café nature. Coffee with cream is café crème. Decaffeinated coffee is a “déca,” or café sans caféine, and is widely available. In upscale places, chocolate truffles, mini-madeleines or other sweets may appear when the coffee is brought out, and are a complimentary, elegant touch.
[The noisette: If you’re dying for an after-dinner café crème fix no matter what, try a café noisette (simply “une noisette” to locals and those in the know). It’s an espresso served in a small cup with a dash of cream added. Sometimes the cream is served on the side. Those familiar with Spain will instantly recognize it as a café cortado.]
Eleventh — The digestif
After a three hour meal, you may find yourself a bit overly sated. When a waiter overheard us discussing this condition one evening, he advised us to have a digestif, one of France’s most noble inventions. These after-dinner liqueurs — Cognac, Armagnac (brandy), Calvados (made from apples from Normandy), Porto, or an eau-de-vie (various clear fruit spirits), among many others — are said to stimulate digestion. “Oh sure,” we thought, just what we need after a substantial dinner and numerous glasses of wine. But he was right. We don’t do it often but every once-in-a-while, a good digestif is just the ticket.
Twelfth — Pay, tip (or not), and depart in style
In some places, if you don’t ask for the bill (“l’addition, s’il vous plaît”), you may sit there for an hour before it finally arrives. It is considered rude to present the tab without being requested to do so. (In fact, the table will not even be cleared of your empty glasses; to do so would suggest that you should leave.)
When your accounting finally is presented, know that unlike in some countries, (including the United States), where waiters depend on tips, in France, the waiter’s payment for “service” is almost always incorporated into the grand total. (The bottom of the carte will state “service compris” — service included.) Does this mean you shouldn’t tip? Not necessarily. . . . (See accompanying box.)
[Tipping: We have been repeatedly told that most Parisians don’t leave a tip on top of the grand total. Others insist it’s customary — but only "pièces jaunes," small change. Some guidebooks authoritatively recommend leaving an additional five to ten percent. From our experience, this simply is not done. We leave just a euro or two if the service was especially good. (Doing so can be — but is not always — in your best interest if there’s a chance you’ll soon return soon.) Also, or alternatively, you might ask your waiter to convey to the Chef that you enjoyed the meal. (If you pay by credit card, always provide any small tip in cash — but just leave it, don’t hand it to your waiter).]
Finally, if you’ve enjoyed your dining experience, let the waiter and host know, and when you stand to depart, take the restaurant’s business card, shake hands, and say “au revoir” (followed, of course, by “monsieur” or “madame”). If you return within a few days, your follow-up visit may be even better.
If you happen to be staying in a hotel or apartment in the vicinity of the restaurant, you may, as we do, prefer to walk back “home.” The amble aids digestion as we discuss the evening, observe the city at night, and prepare for the next day — when it’s time to start over.
[The long walk home: After a long, late dinner, we find a kinship with the observation of A.J. Liebling, who wrote: “Pedestrianism was always my balance for voracity; they were countervailing joys. Walking, I consumed what I had eaten, built up an appetite for more, had noble thoughts, and spotted likely-looking restaurants.” (Between Meals — An Appetite for Paris (1959).)]