Dining out is one of the great pleasures of traveling in France. But Americans are often befuddled or irritated by what they consider to be bad service or rude treatment.
With a better understanding of French culture and more realistic expectations, these problems can usually be avoided. So be sure to do a little trip planning in advance. It will help you feel more relaxed and more confident when you dine in French restaurants – which also aids in digestion.
Before you arrive at the restaurant.
Americans love to eat and run. If we’re not having lunch in the car, we’re eating dinner on the couch in front of the TV. To Americans, dinner and a movie is a single thought.
To the French, dinner is what you do in the evening. It lasts for hours, and it’s not something you hurry through in order to get to something else. So don’t go out to dinner if you don’t have enough time for dinner.
Arriving at a restaurant at 7:30PM when you have to be somewhere at 9:00PM or even 9:30PM, is just asking for trouble. Don’t think that you can just tell the waiter in your fractured French that you’re in a hurry. It won’t make any difference, and you’ll end up very unhappy.
You’ll receive better treatment if you make reservations in advance. If you’re intimidated by speaking French over the phone, have your concierge make the reservations for you. Or stop by if they’re open for lunch and do it in person.
Unless you want to be the only ones in the restaurant, or surrounded by other Americans, make your dinner reservations for 8:30 or later.
Do dress appropriately. Yes, after wandering the streets of Paris all day, your feet will be tired. But suck it up and wear real shoes to dinner. And change out of your jeans. The better dressed you are, the better you’ll be treated.
And learn at least a few phrases in French.
At the restaurant.
When you come in, wait politely for someone to come to you. Say “bonsoir,” and address that person as “madame,” “monsieur,” or “mademoiselle.” If you have a reservation, tell them your name. And thank them for showing you to your table. Be as polite as you know how to be. And turn off your cell phone.
If you like water with your meal, order a carafe of tap water (un carafe d’eau). It’s free and perfectly acceptable. If you prefer bottled water, order it. But don’t do it to impress anyone. It’ wont.
Don’t order a soft drink unless you enjoy abuse. And don’t order coffee with your meal. Coffee is taken after dinner, and that means after, not with, dessert. House wine (vin de maison) is usually pretty good. If you want something better, ask your waiter to recommend something. As a rule, it’s not necessary to spend a lot to get very good wine. So don’t choose your wine from the right side of the menu.
Do NOT use your hand sanitizer at the table. And try not to leave the table during the meal. It’s considered rude. If the people at the next table can hear your conversation, you’re talking too loudly. And don’t ask to split dishes, or even worse, take something home. The chef has served you his creation at its absolute best. He doesn’t want you eating it tomorrow cold from a carton.
Do expect to be ignored. This is a sign of respect. Think of it this way – the servants at Buckingham Palace don’t stare at the Queen while she eats. They pretend to be invisible. Your server will do this too. If you need to get his attention, try to do so discretely. And whatever you do, don’t say “garcon.”
To the French, rushing you through your meal would be the height of rudeness. The longer it takes them to clear your first course, the more time they’re giving you to enjoy it.
This is where Americans start to get antsy. Once dessert has come and gone, we’re done. But not the French. They order coffee and a Brandy and settle in for the night.
Once you’re ready for the check — chances are very good that you will not receive it without asking for it — tell your waiter “l’addition, s’il vous plait.” If he’s across the room, make the international “I’m writing in mid-air gesture.”
In France, tax and tip are automatically included in the bill. But it’s customary to leave a 10 to 15% tip in cash. Euros, not dollars. Thank your waiter and anyone else you encountered, and bid them “Bonne nuit.”
Hopefully, these trip planning tips will help you understand the French point of view and feel more comfortable dining in France.